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Pets: Hope for feline heart problems

Q: Penny, our beloved tabby, recently died in my arms. We loved him for 9 years, and he appeared to be perfectly healthy when he suddenly collapsed. I rushed Penny to the emergency clinic, but nothing could be done. I was devastated. Our veterinarian never warned us of the danger of heart problems in cats. Skylar, Penny’s buddy, has taken his death very hard. Do you have advice to help Skylar?

Also, can you talk more about heart health in cats?

– M.H., Cyberspace

A: Sadly, I understand exactly what you’re going through. I had a cat named Ricky who suddenly collapsed due to feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or HCM, in 2002. HCM is the most common cause of sudden death in cats, and is the most common heart disease in cats. We knew Ricky had HCM after our veterinarian heard a heart murmur, and an ultrasound was performed by a veterinary cardiologist. (Note: Not all cats with murmurs or other heart irregularities have HCM.)

Some cats with HCM suffer terribly, throwing thromboembolisms (with strokelike affects), and though most of these cats have a chance at recovery with prompt veterinary care, such medical emergencies can recur and get expensive and difficult for all involved. Other HCM cats (like your Penny or my Ricky) die suddenly. Others do well, then suffer from heart failure before succumbing. Some lucky cats with HCM live out a normal life and die at a ripe old age of an unrelated illness.

Ricky was quite the famous cat, known for his piano-playing talents and other skills, such as jumping through hoops or over dogs on a “down/stay.” If YouTube had been around at the time, Ricky would have been an Internet star. He was a television star, though, appearing on many shows, including some on Animal Planet and the National Geographic Channel.

After Ricky’s death, I initiated the Ricky Fund with the nonprofit Winn Feline Foundation (which funds can health studies) so more could be learned about HCM. So far, the fund has raised more than $100,000 and supported several studies, including some that made it possible to determine whether a genetic defect may occur in Ragdoll or Maine Coon cats (using a simple cheek swab). Learn more at

As for your other cat, Dr. Andy Roark, a veterinarian in Simpsonville, S.C., notes that time is a great healer.

“Play relieves stress, likely for the other cat, as well as you,” he said. “As you’re witnessing, some cats do need to grieve. Maybe, when you’re ready, you’ll get another cat. Meanwhile, enjoy Skylar, and Skylar will enjoy your companionship. And play is a great stress outlet for your cat, and also for you.”


Q: I know you’ve been very involved in the fight against puppy mills. Now, I’ve read that the local veterinary (medical) association is opposed to the idea of preventing pet stores from selling dogs or cats because they feel it will drive more pet owners to buy online. I’ve heard you talk puppy mills on the radio, but not specifically about this matter. Can you clarify?

– G.R., Chicago

A: The sad reality is that puppy mills have increasingly been doing business online, anyway. The hope is that preventing pet store sales of dogs, cats (and, in some places, rabbits) in Chicago, San Diego, Los Angeles and other cities will at least cut off some sales outlets, and as a result impact puppy mill sales. Animals bred at puppy mills typically suffer a litany of medical and behavior issues. Fewer animals suffering has to be good.

Laws to ban pet store sales of dogs, cats and rabbits are sweeping the country. So far, despite the best efforts of puppy mill representatives and pet store conglomerates, these laws continue to pass. Meanwhile, the federal government has started placing restrictions on online sales of live animals, though they don’t go nearly far enough.

You do what you can. If anyone can take action to deter puppy mills, why wouldn’t they? Also, each time legislation limiting pet store sales passes, there’s a flurry of public education about where to purchase pets, which is a very good thing.

Regarding veterinary association opposition to laws banning pet stores from selling cats, dogs and rabbits, most veterinarians and veterinary technicians I know support the bans and want to see puppy mills go away. Check out the newly launched Facebook page, Veterinary Professionals Against Puppy Mills:

Anyone can join the page.