Courtesy of: Dr. Gwen

Veterinarians practice veterinary medicine.  I always thought that it was an odd thing to say.  A hockey player practices slap shots or a student of music might practice the piano, but this type of practice allows for mistakes.  After all, how can one learn without making mistakes?  In veterinary medicine, however, mistakes can result in harm and must be avoided at all costs.

I discovered in my first year in the practice of veterinary medicine, I could make mistakes too.  My own kitty, Uri, was the victim of one of my mistakes.

I started working as a vet in Ottawa in a busy animal hospital that also provided emergency care after hours and on weekends.  We had many interesting cases walk through the doors and I learned a lot in the four years that I was there.  I considered myself a fairly seasoned vet when I left vet school because I had worked as a student in veterinary hospital since I was twelve.  I thought I knew a lot.

That was my first mistake.  I quickly learned that there were many gaps in my education that I needed to fill.  Also, the skill of talking to pet care givers was an art form that had to be developed on my own.  I definitely learned that some vets make lousy pet owners!

One day, while trying to catch a little sleep after a long weekend shift, I woke to the sound that all cat owners come to dread … the windup retching to a big vomit.  The cough/gag woke me out of a deep sleep. I rolled over and groaned, wondering what sort of mess I was going to find when I surfaced to the world after my slumber.  “Hair balls” I grunted to myself and I made a mental note to give Uri some hairball medicine.

I treated Uri for hairballs for three days but the horrible retching cough persisted.  Uri still ate food and he still did his standard purr that made me fall in love with him, so I wasn’t worried.  On the third day, I laid down on the floor with him to pat him and play and I noticed that his tongue was a shade of pastel blue.  “That’s definitely not good!” I had to admit. “I think I better take him to work with me.”

In those days I didn’t have a car and I was too cheap to get a taxi, so I bundled him up in my backpack and bicycled to work.  In hindsight, I should have made the journey as low stress as possible because when a cat with breathing problems is stressed, death can result.  Surprisingly, he tolerated the trip and amazingly, he survived.  After chest x-rays and blood work we had a diagnosis…asthma, feline asthma.

Asthma is a condition seen in cats of all ages.  It is reoccurring and involves constriction of the airways along with excess mucus production and inflammation.  This makes it difficult to take a deep breath without considerable effort.  This results in exercise intolerance, coughing, and wheezes which may or may not be obvious.  There are many degrees of asthma that can range from a low grade hairball-like cough to severe asthma that can cause death.

Feline asthma can mimic a number of other diseases so doing some tests to identify it is necessary.  Treatment in the early stages can be quite successful and the key to long term control is prevention by improving air quality in the cat’s environment.  This includes avoiding cigarette smoke, spray on pesticides, using dustless cat litter, and  using air filters.

Diagnosing Uri made me feel like a bad pet owner and horrible vet.  I had been treating him for hairballs while he was suffocating from asthma.  In typical Uri style he didn’t hold it against me.  He happily took his medicine and got better within hours.  In a few days he was back to normal.  He forgave me.  Thank you Uri for the unconditional love and being such a good teacher.