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Miracle Cat is Inside!
January 2012

by Gary Michael Smith

Remember Elton and his "protector" Geronimo? Well, G-Mo had his hands full trying to keep out of the backyard the raccoons, opossums, stray dogs, and coyotes - all of which were squeezing through the bars of our wrought iron fence to get to the food we'd leave out for Elton. And they were having some success. Thankfully, that's all they were eating since Elton always seemed to get out of their way and hide while they were around. But the chance always remained, so we started thinking seriously about bringing him inside.

This is not an easy decision, not knowing how Hambone and Emory would deal with him. In the past, with Fuffy and Pinch, Hambone was traumatized enough to hide 6 feet up on top of the refrigerator for hours. And it took Emory 2 years to stop clawing at the door, calm down, and enjoy the creature comforts and safety of being an inside-only cat. We knew that Elton probably would be just fine since he has always had good rapport with other outside cats; we just didnt want to seriously upset a fragile balance inside our home.

What really swayed us is how Elton always took a step forward onto the threshold whenever we came in the house. He'd pause, as if waiting for permission, but then back away when wed say "No." Plus, we always worried about him when it was sweltering hot and biting cold and raining. Sometimes he'd just stand on the uncovered deck, in the rain, and stare at us through the french doors as we sat comfortably in the living room. Then one night I was watching him through the doors as he watched me, wishing. After a time, he bowed his little head, turned around, and walked away to retreat to his cardboard and dirt bed under the master bath. (Most homes in New Orleans are elevated at least a few feet.) Brenda said she could hear him clawing at some cardboard, arranging it for the night, and I thought that was just too sad.

He's a great cat, and loves people as well as other neighborhood cats and dogs that don't threaten him. In the winter he likes sitting in my lap outside by the fire when I strike up the chimenea. And in the summer he'd even hang out on the deck with me as I read the morning paper. He truly likes company and after a couple years of coaxing can't seem to get enough affection. If you try to get up and otherwise walk away he'll literally grab your sleeve or pant leg to keep you near. All this taken into consideration, I felt it was time to give him his chance at the good life.

First things first, though. We needed to check his health status. It's rare for an outside cat to be clean of any viruses, and he's been outside for, well, probably all his life. I've taken him to a veterinarian before to discover and treat his rodent virus (eosinophilic granuloma complex) condition. Unfortunately, by the time we had it treated the ulcers had already invaded his tongue, upper lip, and upper palate in his mouth. After some research I learned that this condition, while little is known of the cause, is treatable with steroid injections and is not contagious. This is good news since Hambone is FIV positive and we have to ensure he's not exposed to anything.

Another trip to the vet was more distressing than previous visits, though. This time the vet - a different one than who wed been seeing - said he looked terrible with eye and mouth drainage and that his upper palate was pretty much gone. She opened his mouth, something I'd never tried to do, and showed me that the tissue had been eaten away by the virus with only a slender sliver of bony structure in the center. This, she told me, explains his constant sneezing; food and water are getting into his nasal cavity when he eats and drinks, and could eventually even enter his lungs. She recommended putting him down as his quality of life probably is compromised.

She said to think about it, and gave him some antibiotics and a steroid shot. On my direction she also tested him and discovered he is, indeed, FIV positive but not to worry about it, since we have another one infected so they cant give it to each other. She noticed what seemed to be a skin condition on his ears but I explained that another couple of vets had already visually diagnosed it as a slow-growing skin cancer. I'm told that it's so slow growing that Elton would pass on of old age before that killed him.

We thought about this new vet's recommendation, and just couldn't do it. He doesn't seem distressed, other than the sneezing after eating and tilting of his head, trying to dislodge food when he eats canned. But he also loves dry food even though he has to swallow it whole since his teeth have fallen out long ago because of the condition, and those that haven't weve had pulled since they bled often while he was living outside. So I took him home from the vet and brought him straight to the shower for a bath. Now remember, he was feral when he first showed up in the backyard and I had no idea how he was going to receive bathing. But he'd let me hold him and even clean his ears with an anti-mite ointment while he was outside, so I figured I'd give it a try. I had to; he was filthy.

The bath went amazingly well, probably due to the fact that it was cold outside but warm inside, and I used warm water, which he seemed to really like. I used a flea shampoo since the vet warned me that he had a fairly large colony living on his belly. But she said to wait a day until he's totally dry before applying the Advantage Plus that I use on the other boys because it won't be absorbed if the skin is wet. So he had a bath, was towel dried (loud noises frighten him so a blow dryer was out of the question), and was ready for inside living.

Next Step

I've researched eosinophilic granuloma complex and looked for solutions to the destroyed palate problem and found a few articles with promise. It appears that if surgery is not an option, which my nurse wife says isn't because of his age, there actually has been some success with "conical prosthetic devices" - plastic plates that snap into place after being sized for him. I've been in touch with my local veterinary school and research center, and they're taking his case under consideration. Here are a few scientific articles on repair of oronasal fistulae.

While waiting for the medical consult I've decided to continue with his cortisone injections (Depo-medrol) given at 2-week intervals for three courses. To date I've brought him to the one vet a couple times a year for a couple shots; I could always tell when it was time because his eyes would drip a viscous drainage and his drooling increased. Almost immediately this $90 shot combo would clear everything up. But looking more into the condition I think the three-course treatment is best.

But back to the oronasal fistulae. The other day I was at a coffeehouse when the woman next to me was approached by a man who started asking about her cat. Seems he was a veterinarian and was getting a casual update. I asked about upper palates growing back, and he felt that the palate actually can "granulerize" tissue, which would be new growth and serve the purpose of somewhat closing up the hole. I've been checking Elton's mouth lately and the openings actually do seem smaller than first observed in the vet's office.

Meanwhile, Elton loves, LOVES, being an indoor cat. In fact, whenever we come and go he shows absolutely no interest in outside; he'll even run the other way if he happens to be near the door when it's opened. He has a couple furry cat pads of his own to lay on, and he shares four insulated sheepskin circles with Hambone and Emory. He spends his days lounging and eating and has gained quite a bit of weight since he no longer has to fight for food. He has his routine just like the rest of the household for dining, lounging, and doing his business. Luckily, he's taken to the cat box immediately and seems to be a quick study.

He gets along fine with the other two boys, although Hambone is still mostly curious but eventually I'm sure will want to play with him. Emory, on the other hand, is a human's cat; he really never has shown any interest in other cats and has only tolerated Hambone these 6 years since Hurricane Katrina, when he became an inside cat. Yes, G-Mo was worried sick, wandering around the backyard, wondering what happened to Elton until looking in the french doors recently and seeing him in the living room. He seemed truly shocked, and Elton's attitude seemed to be simply, "Hey, it's a rough life out there and you have your own home to go to. Take care, buddy!" And he jumped back on the sofa for another afternoon snooze.

Elton inside snoozing
Elton happily snoozing inside

Gary Michael Smith is a writer and photographer in New Orleans. He can be reached through GaryMichaelSmith.com.