Death by Pet Food: Herbie’s Story (updated)

I adopted Herbie on the July 4th weekend of 2000, at the age of 8 weeks. He was part of a litter that had been rescued in Sequim by a client of mine. He had an identical twin brother that she kept and called “Sonny”. Sonny is an indoor/outdoor farm cat now, living in Sequim, and so far has managed to elude the coyotes and cougars.

During most of his 10-year life, Herbie was as magnificent a specimen of pure feline beauty as ever existed. He had a beautiful long coat that never matted and that he always kept scrupulously clean. At age 9, his teeth and ears were clean and his eyes were clear. He was quick, alert and had lots of energy. He had never had a symptom in his life, even those which are thought to be “normal” like hairballs, fleas and ear mites. He was never vaccinated, treated with any flea repellant or shampoo, ear mite medication, heartworm or other “preventative” remedies. He never vomited or shed, didn’t vocalize excessively and didn’t urinate outside the litter box (unless he went outdoors). He was in superb health and was a joy to touch, hold and be around. He was easy to train and responded well to food, catnip or vocal rewards.

In May of 2009, we moved to a new neighborhood. In late November, I took a 10-day vacation and hired the next door neighbor’s young son to feed and take care of Herbie. Soon after I got back, I began noticing subtle changes in Herbie.

The first sign was hairballs and occasional vomiting, which occurred in December. Then in January and February I noticed that he was gaining weight, where he had always been svelte before. There were also dark scaly scabs under his chin, known as “cat acne”, and a constant dark discharge from his left eye.

Just after that, he gradually got very finicky about what he would eat. He started letting his food sit for awhile instead of eating right away like he’d always done before.  I had fed him almost exclusively cut-up raw Cornish game hens his whole life, which he had always loved. Now he seemed to be holding out for something better or different. When I fed him raw quail or grass fed beef, he ate them readily.

However, in March, he stopped eating almost completely for a week or two, and lost half of his body weight. He weighed only 10 pounds when I took him to my holistic vet for blood tests, which came back indicating liver disease. During the vet’s exam I was shocked to see huge tartar deposits on Herbie’s formerly pearly white teeth. It seems amazing to me now that I didn’t clue in to what would later become obvious – that, during his jaunts around the neighborhood, Herbie had somehow found regular access to commercial cat kibble.

At one point when he was refusing almost all food I called several vets to find out about forced or tube feeding and was told not only was it very expensive ($500), but is usually reserved for cats who won’t eat at all. When the vet asked me if my cat was eating, I said yes, to which he replied that Herbie definitely did not need tube feeding. But Herbie was not eating enough to sustain his weight so I was still very worried.

In late March I noticed he was very interested in some dog kibble I had in the kitchen (I don’t feed it to my dog, I use it to make treats for the kibble-fed dogs that I train and board). I thought it was strange but I didn’t let him have any until another raw feeder suggested offering kibble to him. I promptly bought some, took it home and couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw Herbie gobbling it after refusing everything raw. I briefly entertained the thought that he ate it like he’d had it before, and like an addict in withdrawal, but I didn’t think much more about it. Another missed clue.

I was relieved that Herbie was eating but concerned that kibble would make him sicker, so I resolved to transition him back to a raw, natural diet. Slowly he started eating canned fish and meat, then canned cat food, then commercial raw cat food and then finally began eating his normal meals of whole raw quail, buffalo and Cornish game hens. It took a couple weeks to get him completely switched back to his usual fare. During this period he was spending most of his time under the bed, which was extremely unlike him.

In April of 2010, Herbie’s abdomen became severely distended so I took him in for another vet visit. The vet palpated the abdomen but was not able to accurately identify the source of the distension. He speculated that it was either due to the liver being enlarged or a large tumor. He later called me and rescinded the latter possibility, recognizing, I suspect, that Herbie as a lifelong raw-fed cat would not be good candidate for cancer. In order to determine the cause of the abdominal swelling, the vet recommended further tests.

I decided to pass on the tests. There seemed to be no good reason for spending so much money to find out which of Herbie’s organ(s) were afflicted. I wanted to take the etiological approach to his problems, removing their cause rather than just covering up the effects. A specific diagnosis would likely not help with this. My research over the last 15 years into the real causes of disease have led me to the realization that treatment very often only makes disease worse. So it was extremely difficult in this situation trying to determine which types of veterinary intervention could potentially be helpful. I did succumb to some herbal remedies, against my better judgment, thinking that these less harmful toxins might stimulate the liver, if that’s where the crux of the problem was.  True to my expectations, however, whenever I gave them to Herbie he seemed to take a turn for the worse or vomit them back up. Looking back, the only thing that would have helped at that time is if I’d somehow stumbled on the real causes of Herbie’s problems.  If by some stretch a vet would’ve suggested I keep him confined, the problem would inadvertently have been solved. But there’s no reason to think that Herbie’s neighborhood roaming would have even come up.

Another strange behavior I noted during Herbie’s refeeding (after the anorexic phase) was his vocal insistence on being fed every time I was in the kitchen. Herbie had never been vocal when he was hungry before. I have no way of knowing for sure but I speculate that the person who had been feeding him had rewarded his vocalizations with food.

During April and May, Herbie seemed to be feeling better. He didn’t hide under the bed anymore, preferring to lie right in the middle of any area I happened to be in at the time. He still had not gained any weight, however, and his fur was terribly matted on his belly. The stomach distension never got better and seemed to be worse right after meals, so I tried feeding less often, and smaller amounts. I suspect now, of course, that when he didn’t get enough food to satisfy him at home, he went to the neighbor’s to eat, which only exacerbated his condition.

Herbie began to urinate indiscriminately on the evening of Tuesday, June 8. Twenty years ago I had this happen to a kibble-fed cat and I got him to the vet fast enough for them to unblock the urinary obstruction and save his life. I was aware that this kind of problem doesn’t happen to raw fed cats, so it never occurred to me that Herbie’s urinary tract might be blocked. Instead I mistakenly assumed that the same thing that was causing his abdominal distension was irritating his bladder. It has been difficult to realize that my failure to recognize this life-threatening symptom may have cost my precious cat his life.

As this got worse over the next 16-hour period, I did finally decide to keep him confined indoors so I could monitor him. When I left for work on the morning of June 10th, I was hesitant to completely isolate him so instead of closing both doors to the laundry room I only closed one and put a pet gate up on the other one, which I thought he was too weak to get over.

Unfortunately, Herbie climbed over the gate, which gave him access to a pet door that led outdoors. It was unseasonably cold and rainy and I was away from home for 5 hours. When I returned, Herbie was not in the laundry room so I searched the front yard and bushes across the street. I finally came in the house and found him sitting on the back step, wanting to be let in. I noted his rear end was soaked with urine. I brought him in, gave him a feeding of cantaloupe (which he loved) and left again to run some errands.

I returned a short time later and within a few hours Herbie was making a fast descent, with symptoms such as extreme weakness, desire to hide, periodic twitching and, later, mild convulsing. I had been trying for a couple days to feed him very little in order to give his body a chance to resolve the fluid retention. So I knew he was hungry but I was alarmed to see him eating kitty litter (made of paper pellets) at about 7:30 in the evening. About 2 hours later the symptoms worsened to obvious distress so I decided to take him to Aerowood Animal Hospital for emergency treatment.

The vet on duty (Dr. Paik) basically gave me two options – x-rays, ultrasound and blood tests to determine a diagnosis, for which he quoted about $450, or euthanasia. Herbie seemed near death so I was very concerned that I would end up paying a huge bill that would not help him and in fact would only prolong his pain. For an hour I agonized over the decision and discussed my options with a friend before deciding that I would insist that the vet simply administer subcutaneous fluids and monitor Herbie for a few hours, to see if there was improvement. I was surprised when the vet readily agreed to this course of action. By that point, however, Herbie’s state was extremely precarious and he was obviously in great distress and pain, and I did not have sufficient emotional fortitude to allow it to continue. So I decided to immediately end his suffering with euthanasia.

During his initial examination of Herbie, the emergency vet had offered that, in his estimation, there was a “75% chance” that Herbie’s abdominal distension was caused by a “large cancerous mass”. This assumption weighed heavily on my decision to euthanize, even though I knew that Herbie was not a realistic candidate for cancer. For a few days after his death, I punished myself mercilessly for having been unduly influenced to euthanize by the vet’s speculative and pessimistic remarks. However, subsequent information gleaned during necropsy showed that euthanasia was not premature (and also showed the bloating was caused by abdominal fluids, not a tumor), as he was on the verge of death from a ruptured bladder and would only have suffered more if I’d delayed.

It wasn’t until after Herbie’s death that I began putting all the pieces of the puzzle together. The most glaring bit of evidence is the escalating severity of symptoms, which is exactly what kibble-fed cats experience when they are transitioned to a raw diet, only in reverse. The Internet is full of testimonials from people whose cats experience a cessation of symptoms like hairballs, excessive shedding, indiscriminate urination, cat acne, overweight, dull coats, dirty ears, fleas, etc., when they begin eating an appropriate raw food diet. Herbie probably began partaking of commercial kibble in late summer 2009, 3-5 months after we moved in to the new house. This would explain the first signs of illness that showed up in December. When the symptoms first became severe, I suspected an isolated poisoning event. However, this could not account for the unmistakable gradual decline that had begun months before, and which represented a striking departure from Herbie’s previously symptom-free 9-year life.

The pathologist who performed the necropsy had told me that the bladder obstruction that caused Herbie’s death was made of a sticky, gummy substance. It was my fervent (but perhaps naïve) hope that the post mortem examination would include an analysis of this, which might reveal evidence that would definitively connect his death to some specific ingredients in commercial foods. I was disappointed when the pathologist informed me that this kind of analysis apparently isn’t possible after the animal is already dead and can only be determined through urinalysis while the cat is still living.

I think it’s important to comment on the process that I had to go through in order to get my cat’s remains necropsied. It was difficult to find a pathologist that would do the work and she later told me that it would be the last post mortem she would ever do for a pet owner, because of the amount of work involved and possible liability. She kept me waiting for an agonizing 3 months for the results, and when I got them they did not give me the information I had been wanting.  I knew, for example, that the substance that plugged my cat’s bladder did not come from inside his body. There is only one place it can come from, and that is from something that my cat ingested. Not being willing to explore how food contributes directly to disease means that medical professionals often miss vital clues that could allow us to avoid disease in the future, and this situation was no exception.  When I tried to implicate commercial food consumption as a cause of my cat’s death in my discussions with the pathologist, she told me of a situation she had once with a very sick dog of hers that did not get well despite months of careful home feeding.  When I asked if she’d thought of feeding raw food, she said “no”.  I don’t consider the $300 that I spent on the necropsy a waste of money because I did find out what the primary cause of my cat’s death was, but overall it as a very frustrating and emotionally draining experience.

As of this writing it’s been almost a year since Herbie’s death and I still mourn his loss. I did everything I could to keep him healthy and out of harm’s way, except confining him indoors. Although I did keep him indoors for the first 2 years of his life, my desire for him to be completely healthy wouldn’t allow me to deprive him of sunshine and fresh air. I always knew that allowing him to roam was fraught with danger, but I feared things like cars and coyotes. I never imagined my cat would be killed by the common carelessness of another cat owner. I’ve since adopted a new kitten and although I’m keeping him indoors for now, I have put up flyers asking my neighbors to please feed their animals indoors.

UPDATE: December 2014

I’m amazed that it’s been over 4 years now since Herbie’s untimely death.  I still miss him and to this day reproach myself for not being clued in to what was happening to him.  This has become particularly poignant at this point in time because my ‘new’ cat “Sylvester”recently came down with some of the same symptoms Herbie had in the last months of his life.  The difference this time, of course, is that I knew what the cause was and I had some control over whether it continued.

Since he was about 6 months old, I have allowed Sylvester the freedom to roam the neighborhood.  I trained him well to come when I call him and I always bring him in at dusk.  He seems to not wander too far away and spends most of his days sleeping under the shrubbery or on the front porch.  He has only stayed out after dark twice, and both times came home in the middle of the night.  He has been healthy for the most part, although I have noted his coat is not always as shiny and soft as Herbie’s was and he has had an occasional hairball.  Additionally, one time after I fed him he immediately vomited and in addition to the raw meal he’d just eaten, there was a great deal of colored, triangular shaped kibble in his vomit.

In late Fall 2014, Sylvester started showing more severe symptoms: weight gain, a brownish eye discharge (interestingly from the same eye as Herbie), sneezing, nasal discharge, lethargy and lowered appetite.  Sylvester began hiding behind the couch, spending all day and night doing nothing but sleeping.  At that point, I decided to keep him confined indoors and to of course feed him only the best species appropriate foods I could get (quail, beef, lean turkey).  As a testament to the fact that the feeding of commercial pet foods were the cause of his symptoms, everyday that he was inside I saw signs of slight improvement.  Gradually he started eating more, the eye discharge got better and he sneezed less frequently.  He occasionally fasted himself but never went more than a full day without food.  Following a fasting day, he always seemed better.

It was very difficult keeping him in because I know how much he enjoys being outside.  I have spoken many times to the neighbor whom I suspect is feeding him, or at least putting food out.  This particular neighbor has 3 cats of her own and one stray that pretty much lives in her backyard.  She complains that raccoons come to her back yard and frighten her cats, and has even had raccoons removed from her yard by exterminators.  I don’t have concrete proof that she’s the guilty party but cats and other animals don’t hang around a place that persistently unless there is a food source.  I live just two doors down and I’ve never even seen a raccoon in my yard.  In addition, when I told her about the vomiting episode, she showed me the food she feeds her cats and it was identical to what Sylvester had vomited.

I’m happy to report that as of mid-February 2015, Sylvester had fully recovered his health.  I had to keep him indoors for a full three months.  It has been quite surprising to see how long it took for the residues of the garbage he has been fed to get out of his system.  I have to suspect he’s been eating it for a very long time, perhaps since I started allowing him to roam.  During his sickness he exhibited many of the same symptoms Herbie had had before he died.  This, combined with the fact that keeping him away from the kibble-feeding neighbor resulted in his getting well, offers further evidence that I could have had the same outcome with Herbie if I’d only realized what was causing the problem.

Before I allowed Sylvester access to the outdoors again, I finally sat down with my neighbor and had a very stern talk with her.  I told her I was not going to listen to her protests of innocence any longer, because she had denied feeding my cat even while he was vomiting the very same food she feeds her cats.  In case anybody reading this thinks I might be falsely accusing her, there is nobody else in the neighborhood who has outdoor cats (I’ve polled them all) and whenever I want to find my cat, he can be found sitting in that particular neighbor’s back yard.  In my chat with her, I told her about my website and I gave her a printed copy of the above article about Herbie.  I don’t think she’d ever realized the part she played in his death.  I told her since I teach others how to keep their animals well by properly feeding them that it was extremely important to me that I know my cat is only eating what I feed him.  It ended up being quite a tense discussion and we may be enemies now, I’m not sure.  I tried for 4 years to be friendly and diplomatic but that didn’t work.  I do think my strategy bore fruit this time because my cat has been allowed to roam for almost 2 weeks now and he has not been to her house as far as I’ve seen.  In addition, when he comes in to eat 3 times a day, he is hungry and readily eats his raw food.  In addition, there has been no return of symptoms of any kind.

SYLVESTER

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