When Your Cat has Cancer – Phoebe’s Story Part 1

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I had wanted this to be a fun blog but inevitably some experiences need to be shared so other people can get the help and support they need. Feel free to comment if you have any advice for any pet owners out there.

My very special thanks in this blog goes to Beech House Veterinary Surgery, Radcliffe, Manchester http://www.beechhousevetsradcliffe.co.uk/ and the Small Animal Teaching Hospital, University of Liverpool, Neston https://www.liv.ac.uk/sath/

Cancer rears its ugly head every day but for some reason it never occurred to me that my pets could fall victim.  After all Phoebe never smoked, drunk or had a stressful job.  We took all the precautions of vaccinations and worming and did the very best for our pets, as you do and STILL…..

Phoebe’s cancer wasn’t very obvious to spot.  All cats are sick from time to time and cleaning up vomit is just part and parcel of cat and dog care.  My concerns came when she was throwing up a little too often, so after a vet visit we tried putting her on a sensitive diet which didn’t seem to make any difference.  There didn’t seem to be a pattern to her vomiting – she may be sick free for a day and then throw up twice the next, generally not long after eating.  She lost some weight too, but it wasn’t a major concern as she was a little on the heavy side.  It was when she brought up some pink froth one morning with some red flecks in it, that we took her in for further investigation.

Bart and Phoebe age 1. Phoebe is on the left.
Bart and Phoebe age 1. Phoebe is on the left.

That was January 2013.  Phoebe had some blood tests to eliminate the causes of her vomiting which came back negative, and then a pancreatitis test.  That also came back negative.  Each time, we were relieved at the result but it didn’t solve the vomiting mystery.

Meanwhile we had a major task of getting various medications down Phoebe to try to control the vomiting.  Her brother, Bart is wonderful with tablets but Phoebe knew all the tricks in the book after many failed worming attempts.  My heart sank when I was given some huge white Antepsin tablets (half a tablet 3 times a day) along with some Zantac syrup.  I ended up crushing them and mixing them with something sticky so I could smear it into her mouth.  This was the beginning of a long term medication programme, so after experimenting with a few cat friendly substances, I overcame Phoebe’s tablet aversions.  I couldn’t say the same for the Zantac syrup though.  Zantac is minty, which isn’t popular with cats, and application with a syringe just made it worse, with me missing my target half the time.  Phoebe would froth at the mouth after being given Zantac and run off like a rabid wildcat! (If you think you’ve heard of Zantac before, its often used to treat heartburn and stomach ulcers).

So, the tests didn’t come up with anything.  We booked her in for an ultrasound scan for the 22nd January.  This was the start of the big vet fees as it would involve a general anaesthetic to keep her still so clear images can be taken.  It was during this scan when the vets found a mass in her stomach.  Even so, the mass needed to be investigated.  We were offered an endoscopy (tube down the throat.  At the time this could only be offered at another surgery) or abdominal surgery.  It was one of those decisions where we had to go away and think about it.

Cost is always a difficult deciding factor when it comes to making decisions about our pets’ welfare.  I have now learnt the hard way and advise everyone with cats, dogs, etc to insure your pet because you never know if they may need long term treatment or major surgery.  My cats are indoor cats so I always considered them to be low risk from accidents and theft, but cancer is cruel and doesn’t discriminate.  And I guess kidney disease and urinary tract disease can crop up any time too, amongst other feline problems.  As my cats weren’t insured I would have to foot Phoebe’s bill myself.  Needless to say, I got Bart insured shortly after.

Steve and I decided after some soul searching, to send Phoebe in for abdominal surgery.  At the time Phoebe, had just turned 8, not particulatly old for a cat, and was strong and healthy, so I figured she could cope with the operation – and hopefully get cured!  The benefit of having the surgery was that if anything needed removing, it could be done at the same time, and if not, biopsies could be taken.  With all surgery, there is always a risk and therefore not a decision to be taken lightly.  I may not have taken that risk if Phoebe was elderly, for example.  But there was a good chance of her coming through and getting the answers to her illness so we took it.

So 24 January 2013, we dropped Phoebe off again in the morning.  By 2pm she had had the op and was coming round.  There appeared to be what looked like an ulcer and biopsies were taken for tests.  Even at this point we weren’t too alarmed, but as she had to stay overnight, we missed her and so did Bart.

The next day it was snowing.  We went to collect Phoebe in the evening.  Phoebe was glad to be back home after surgery.  She had a big plaster on her shaved belly and we were given a surgical collar for her to wear in case she picked at her wound.  She was advised to be kept where she couldn’t leap around, so we restricted her to our bedroom and moved her food and water there, and the litter tray in the ensuite.  I think she enjoyed having her private quarters and was a fabulous patient.  She loved having her food brought upstairs to her, and as she had been through a lot already, she was treated to poached chicken breast!

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The next few days was a waiting game as we waited for the tests to come back from the biopsies.  We had a cocktail of medications to give Phoebe in the meantime; Buprecare syringe 2x daily, half Antiseptin tablet 3x daily, Zantac 0.4mls 2x daily and quarter of a metrinidazole tablet daily.  The latter was particularly hated by Phoebe, along with the Zantac.  The kitchen worktop had a pestle and mortar permanently residing on the top, with various syringes alongside.  That pestle and mortar was a godsend for crushing tablets and I recommend getting one of these if you have a pet on long term medication.

3 days after her op, we took her in for a checkup with Shaun, who owns Beech House surgery.  Off came her belly plaster to reveal a very neat stitching job down the centre of her belly (the stitches were internal).  Phoebe never really bothered with her wound, so luckily I never used the surgical collar.  I was glad about that, as she doesn’t even wear a normal collar.

Apart from the meds she was having, Phoebe continued with a normal life.  She was allowed out of her recovery quarters and ate well and milked the fact that no-one was going to tell her off for anything!

Demonstrating her favourite 'ball' position.
Demonstrating her favourite ‘ball’ position.

Unf ortunately, Rachel, the vet who performed the op, phoned us on the 1st February and told us it was cancer.

Steve took the phone call.  We were numb and scared for our little cat, whom we shared 8 years with and had hoped for more.

Phoebe had a checkup that day at the vet.  Rachel had rung ahead of the appointment so we could discuss options (and probably to give us time to compose ourselves).  Not that I was very composed in that treatment room.  Phoebe had a lymphoma on her abdominal wall and the prognosis was poor.  Steve held it together but I knew it was breaking him as Phoebe was his secret favourite.

Rachel offered us some options, but the one that stood out for me was a referral to Liverpool University Small Animal Teaching Hospital.  They had an Oncology  Department specifically for cancer patients.  She warned us that it would cost, and we weren’t insured.  The initial consultation would probably cost over £1000, but at that point I didn’t care.  I would have taken any option to save my little cat and I didn’t want to waste any more time.

I would like to point out that we don’t have amazingly well paid jobs!  My decision to pay for Phoebe’s treatment (of which there’s no guarantee of a happy outcome) was fuelled by my commitment to do my very best for her as she is my responsibility – the unwritten promise we make (or should make) whenever we take on a new pet.  We would have to cut costs in other areas of our lives, but I felt quite matter of fact about this.  I’m sure plenty of pet owners would agree with my decision if faced with this same misfortune, and luckily Steve and I both work full time.  I feel for anyone faced with the same situation who would not be able to afford treatment.  So once again, I strongly recommend having your pet insured, and if you never have to make a claim, then you can call yourself lucky!

Rachel did not waste any time in referring Phoebe.  On Monday 4th February she confirmed she was making contact with the Small Animal Teaching Hospital (SATH) in Liverpool.  Later on we got a call from the hospital itself offering us an appointment for the next morning at 9am!  I was amazed and thankful for the quick response.  Our instructions was to starve Phoebe from 8pm as she would need an anaesthetic for another ultrasound scan amongst other examinations.  We were hopeful and anxious for the next stage of her diagnosis and treatment and really weren’t sure what to expect.  Phoebe on the other hand, didn’t know what the fuss was about and just enjoyed the extra attention she was receiving…

We fed Phoebe wherever she wanted!
We fed Phoebe wherever she wanted!

During this traumatic time for us, its a comfort to know that Phoebe wasn’t suffering and didn’t understand the concept of cancer.  All the emotional stress was on us, and if anyone is having a rough time, I cannot express enough how invaluable support from your friends/colleagues can be.  The subject of ill and deceased pets can be met with unsympathetic comments from people who don’t understand, so it’s common not to say anything and bottle up feelings.  This is particularly true in the workplace and there have been the odd time I’ve had to lie to get the time off to take animals to the vet, and would still advise anyone to do the same!  However, at the time of Phoebe’s illness I was particularly blessed with some great colleagues who got me through this and made me smile when I was down.  If you can surround yourself with people who can lift and support you, it can really help to ease the worry.

This blog is being split into different parts as its a story spanning 3 years!  Please visit again for the next part which involves chemotherapy, more ultrasound scans – and a lot of trips to the Wirral.

All grown up! My 8 month old pullets and cockerels

Ther garden gang of 2015
Ther garden gang of 2015

Its November and I am the proud owner of 5 new chickens since early April, 3 of which I hatched myself.  The term ‘pullet’ is a hen under a year old and ‘cockerel’ is a rooster or cock, under a year old.

I have to admit that having cockerels have really opened my eyes.  They have fabulous personalities and look amazing.  If you’re not too bothered about having eggs and are prepared to manage their crowing, you can learn another dimension to chicken keeping by having a boy in the flock!  But before you go rushing off to buy one, don’t forget I have acquired these cockerels by luck of the draw – in an ideal world, all the chicks I hatched would be hens, but hey ho! I am still learning myself; at the moment, things are sweet and I put this down to the fact all the boys were raised together from young.  This year’s chicks have integrated well with my adult hens (although the boys did get a pasting from Mabel!).  I am conscious of the fact that I have 3 boys to 6 girls – the text books recommend 1 boy to 10 girls.  This could be a problem in spring once the hens come back to lay and the boys get hormonal, but I’ll cross that bridge and keep you posted.  For now all seems well.

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Bunty

Bunty is a Pekin hen who is just a ball of feathers, including her feet.  She has not started laying yet unlike her sibling sister but she is very docile which is also typical of her breed.  Pekins are often chosen for children’s pets and their feathered feet means they are less likely to scratch and trash your garden!

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Siegfried

This handsome chap is Siegfried, a barred Wyandotte cockerel.  His crow isn’t as tuneful as the other 2 boys – he sounds like an angry pirate at times!  Wyandottes come in a variety of colours – the barred pattern on Siegfried look like fine stripes when close up.

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Well, you would never believe they’re the same birds!  Here’s Bunty on the left and Siegfried on the right!

Molly
Molly

Molly the Aracauna is probably my favourite hen.  I know you shouldn’t have favourites, but a hen who flies up and perches on my shoulder is going to win me over!  And she lays blue eggs!  In previous posts, Molly is the first chick I hatched and needed a helping hand getting out of the shell.

Oscar
Oscar

Oscar has a lovely temperament, which again Silkies are known for.  You can see his dark comb and wattles which is a Silkie feature.   He hasn’t quite got the hang of chatting up the other hens yet, they just seem to run away from him!

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Tarquin

Tarquin is probably my favourite boy although he is quite the alpha male.  He has tried to assert his authority over me (the cheek!) but I responded by picking him up and carrying him around the garden in front of the others, so he knows his place now!  I always remember someone’s response on a forum to an enquiry about an aggressive cockerel – “Give him a pastry overcoat!”  Luckily for Tarquin I don’t eat meat.

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That’s Tarquin at the back, Oscar in the middle and Molly at the bottom.  All 5 youngsters are quite tame and unlike my other hens, they will allow you to touch them and they are easy to catch.  It really makes a difference when you hatch your own and rear them yourself.  Being able to catch them easily also makes it less embarrassing for me when running my chicken keeping courses (there is a section where you hold a chicken correctly).  In the past there has been an element of Benny Hill when I try to corner a hen but these youngsters are going to come in handy!

If you are interested in keeping chickens my courses will be starting up again early spring.  Just click on this link if you want to book a place https://www.omlet.co.uk/courses/host/68687