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Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:

My daughter and I are writing to beg for help with a female kitty that we adopted. Here’s our story: It started when we rescued her brother, Smokie, when he was almost 5 months old. Their mother has since passed from feline leukemia and all five kittens were born with feline leukemia. We were aware that the kittens probably wouldn’t have long lives, but we wanted to give them a nice home and love. Our little Smokie received wonderful hospice care until his last day on September 22, 2007.

We acquired Ashie, Smokie’s sister, from one of the original adopters about three months ago. We have been told since the beginning when we took all of the kittens to a vet that none of them could or would survive long after being spayed or neutered, so we chose not to have Ashie spayed. We’ve been told that a ‘special spay’ could be done to lessen the risk and trauma to our already sick kitty, for $479, without any guarantee that she’ll survive the surgery. I can’t afford my own meds without insurance, let alone afford and subject sweet (when she’s not in heat) Ashie to that kind of risk!

So, here’s the point: Ashie is now a year and a half old. She’s not spayed, and she’s driving us mad with each heat cycle. Every three weeks like clockwork she goes into heat, and each one is getting more intense, not only for us but for her. It’s horrible to watch the pain she is experiencing without her ‘needs’ being fulfilled, and we’re on Day 4 of zero sleep because of her guttural howling (and even barking — literally — for the male dog next door). We’ve given her OTC ‘Calm Down’ in a liquid formula in her water and/or her treats, but the effects only last 15-20 minutes. HELP! There must be something we can do! Your assistance would be so greatly appreciated.

~Georgie

Siouxsie: Before we answer your question, Georgie, we want to thank you and your daughter so much for being willing to provide a home for Ashie and Smokie. It’s a very courageous and loving thing you’re doing, providing love and caring to cats that you know are sick. We also believe that every cat deserves a “forever home” and we send our blessings to you and all our readers who are willing to provide such a home for a chronically ill or disabled cat.

Thomas: Before we get into our answer, let’s explain what feline leukemia is. Feline leukemia (FeLV)  is caused by a retrovirus, a virus that has an enzyme that allows it to insert itself into cells and cause the cells to make copies of it. The virus is transmitted by infected saliva, primarily from fighting and by sharing food and water bowls. However, kittens can also be born with FeLV if their mother was infected.

Dahlia: There are three subgroups of the feline leukemia virus. Cats can be infected by one or more of these subgroups. Subgroup A, the one that compromises the immune system, is the most common. Subgroup B, when combined with subgroup A, causes most of the FeLV-associated cancers. Subgroup C, the least common, is responsible for severe anemias and bone marrow damage.

Siouxsie: Some kittens born to FeLV-positive mothers will test positive for the virus at birth but later on will test negative. However, some FeLV-positive kittens never stop carrying the virus. It sounds like this is the case with Ashie and Smokie.

Thomas: Although it can be risky, the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, in its brochure on Feline Leukemia, does recommend that FeLV-positive cats be spayed or neutered.

Dahlia: Probably the level of risk of Ashie’s surgery depends on which subgroup or subgroups of FeLV are present in Ashie’s body.

Siouxsie: We’d recommend that you talk to your vet and ask him or her for more details about Ashie’s condition. Also be sure to ask what risks he or she considers the greatest.

Thomas: If the risk of spaying Ashie outweighs the benefits, and there’s no other spaying option than a special surgery, there are a couple of things you can do to minimize the agony of her heat cycles.

Dahlia: The first of these is one that tends to make many humans uncomfortable, but it is something that cat breeders commonly do if their queens (breeding females) go into heat at inconvenient times such as when a stud is not available.

Siouxsie: Because cats ovulate when they’re stimulated by the male cat’s penetration, you can temporarily “turn off” Ashie’s heat by artificially stimulating her vagina.

Thomas: You do this by sticking a Q-tip, um . . . in the, um . . .

Dahlia: Oh, Thomas! Don’t be such a geek! To stimulate the cat, you need yourself; a Q-tip or smooth, blunt-ended plastic rod; and an assistant. Your assistant should hold Ashie by the scruff of the neck while you raise her tail and insert the Q-tip or rod about half an inch (13 mm) into her vagina and rotate it gently.

Siouxsie: Coincidentally, the cotton swab part of a Q-tip is half an inch long, so that’s a good measure of how far to insert it. Don’t just ram it in there as far as you can, because you might hurt her. Cats are small, after all!

Thomas: If you do this, um, thing, properly, Ashie should exhibit all the signs of a successful mating: crying out, rolling over, and licking her genitals. If she doesn’t, you may not have done it right.

Dahlia: Artificial stimulation of the vagina will induce a false pregnancy by causing the ovaries to manufacture progesterone. Ashie will go out of heat about four days after this procedure and won’t go into heat again for about 40 days afterwards. There is a risk of injury if you do it wrong and have to keep on trying, so you should have your vet help you and/or show you how to do the job properly.

Siouxsie: Another option is birth control pills. There are some drugs such as megestrol acetate (sold under the brand name Ovaban) that, while not approved for use in cats, can be used “off label” if needed. Research is also underway for a contraceptive injection for cats. If you can’t deal with the idea of artificially stimulating your cat’s vagina, ask your vet about birth control medication.

Thomas: If you do decide, after talking to your vet, that having Ashie spayed might be worth it, there is assistance available. Care Credit is a program that offers low-interest revolving credit for major medical, dental or veterinary expenses. If you have a reasonably good credit score, you can probably qualify. Make sure that the hospital where you’d have her spayed will accept Care Credit before going through the application process.

Dahlia: Financial assistance programs are available, too. The income guidelines for eligibility vary from program to program, and many are geared toward people on fixed incomes such as Social Security disability or other social welfare programs. However, some will give assistance to people whose pets have extraordinary needs and/or those who have rescued animals.

Siouxsie: In Memory of Magic lists some resources that can provide such financial assistance for pet owners. The Cat Care Resources page here at Paws and Effect has a couple more options available. (Please note that the Feline Veterinary Emergency Assistance program is currently out of funds, except for those geared toward helping cats with vaccine-associated sarcoma; however, their Other Resources page lists other organizations that could help.)

Thomas: Good luck, Georgie! Please let us know how things turn out for Ashie.

Note: The information in this article about feline leukemia and artificial stimulation/birth control in unspayed cats is from the Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook, Third Edition, by Debra Eldredge, DVM; Delbert Carlson, DVM; Liisa Carlson, DVM; and James Giffin, MD. 

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