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Lifestyle // The Wild Side
Dr. John Kaya

A Heartworm Alert To Cat Owners

The Wild Side column is dedicated to sharing real-life stories about owners and their pets. For the most part these stories are lighthearted and fun, with a smattering of helpful information tucked within. Once in a while, however, a story comes along that has a somber overtone.

This story is about Fumiko and her beloved cat Chisai, and their story must be told.

It was a brisk morning in December, and I arrived at the office early to check on a hospital patient. Walking through our parking lot, I noticed a car parked with someone sitting inside. As I peered in I noticed Fumiko clutching a towel in her lap. I could tell she was distraught, and asked if she would like to come in to the office. Once inside, I noticed a limp tail peeking through the towel folds and ushered Fumiko into an exam room.

Fumiko complied and gently laid the towel with its contents onto the exam table. With tears in her eyes, she tried to tell me what happened.

“Dr. Kaya, I woke up this morning and found Chisai lying under the dining room table.” Her voice cracked as tears came rolling down her face. “I called out to my little girl but she did not move. She just laid there.” At this point Fumiko began sobbing.

“It’s OK,” I told her, “let me take a look.”

As I opened the towel, I saw Fumiko’s cat lying peacefully as if asleep. Reaching down, I held Chisai’s cold body and felt for a pulse. Fumiko looked at me as I slowly shook my head.

“Look at my baby … Chisai…” cried Fumiko. She then leaned over and cradled Chisai in her arms.

After a few minutes we talked about the events prior to this morning. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Chisai was a happy, healthy 4-year-old indoor cat. I asked Fumiko if I could perform a necropsy to determine the reason for Chisai’s mysterious death. Culturally, Fumiko had a difficult time making a decision, but in the end consented to the postmortem exam.

Carefully looking through Chisai’s organs, I eventually found the reason for her death. A single heartworm was wrapped around one of her heart valves, which led to heart failure. Although sudden and unexpected, Chisai died quickly and with very little suffering.

Heartworm disease is more commonly thought of as a disease afflicting dogs. The worms are transmitted by mosquitos and can live up to eight years.

These worms take up residence in the heart and can grow up to 12 inches in length. Single-worm infections are tolerated by dogs, but can be deadly in cats. In a cat, their presence can lead to lung and kidney damage as well as sudden death, as in Chisai’s case. Like dogs, cats should be given a monthly heartworm preventive.

I called Fumiko and shared my findings with her. Although saddened by her loss, she appreciated knowing why Chisai died.

“Maybe Chisai’s story can save the lives of other cats,” whispered Fumiko. “I’m sure it will.”

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