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Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:

I took my cat to the vet on Monday for simple shots — rabies and leukemia — and he had a couple of sores on his back and legs that I wanted to have checked. The problem is the vet gave him both vaccines at the same time, and he died in less than 15 minutes. He collapsed when he got back to an operating room and they gave him oxygen and tried to keep him alive, but it didn’t work. What could have caused this to happen? He had the shots the year before and did fine, and I was just trying to take care of my best friend. Now he is gone and my heart is just shattered. He was between 8 and 9 years old, and was showing signs of age, but certainly not enough for this to happen. Could you give me an idea of what might have happened here? I talked to the vet who worked on him and another vet and they aren’t really sure what happened. They said it was unusual, and there could be any number of reasons. Please help. I know it won’t bring him back, but it would give me peace of mind. I blame myself for taking him. If we hadn’t gone to the vet, he might still be alive.

~ Brian

A cat's face with a rainbow reflected on it

Rainbow Cat. Photo by Hibbard via Morguefile

Siouxsie: First of all, Brian, we’re tremendously sorry for your loss. It’s heartbreaking to lose a beloved friend suddenly and with no warning, and it’s really hard not to blame yourself or the vet.

Thomas: When Kissy died suddenly last fall, after she had surgery to amputate a chronically painful leg that reparative surgery probably wouldn’t have helped, Mama was in deep shock and grief for a long time. It’s terrible when you do something that you believe will make your cat’s life better and healthier and the cat dies instead.

Bella: We looked up information on sudden death in cats, and while we didn’t find any sudden deaths related to vaccines, the folks at VetInfo say that the most common causes of sudden death they see in their practice are heartworms and cardiomyopathy.

Siouxsie: Cats can get heartworms, and while they don’t grow as well in cats and generally don’t live as long or cause as many problems, they can cause fatalities. The VetInfo folks did a post-mortem exam on a cat that died suddenly and found four heartworms in the pulmonary arteries.

Thomas: Cardiomyopathy is a silent cat killer, too. There are three forms of the disease, which affect the muscles of the heart in different ways.

Bella: As the VetInfo article says, “Cardiomyopathy is probably the leading cause of anesthetic deaths in cats and most of the time the affected cats have no signs that are detected prior to the anesthetic crisis.”

Siouxsie: Oh, Mama, it’s  okay; you don’t have to cry. If Kissy did have cardiomyopathy, there’s no way either you or the vet could have known; after all, she didn’t have a heart murmur or anything … here, let me get on your *urf* lap and help you write for us. Jeez, this lap hopping isn’t quite as easy as it used to be.

Thomas: Ultimately, what it comes down to, Brian, is that without a post-mortem exam, neither you nor your vet will ever know for sure what caused your beloved cat’s death. But what we can tell you is that considering he was fine after his vaccinations last year and every year before that, there’s probably a 99.99999999% chance that the vaccinations are not what killed him.

Bella: Mama says she hopes you’ll be able to take comfort in the fact that you were doing the right thing by taking him in for a checkup and vaccinations. That’s what responsible cat caretakers do. You acted out of love — and common sense! — when you took your cat to the vet, and nobody can say otherwise.

Siouxsie: There’s no way you or your vet could have known, or even suspected, that this would happen. The odds of sudden death from any veterinary procedure in a cat that had no previous symptoms of illness range in the millions to one.

Thomas: We hope that when you’re ready to bring a new cat companion into your life, you won’t let your recent tragedy keep you from being sure that cat gets regular veterinary care and vaccinations appropriate for his or her lifestyle.

Bella: Purrs and head-bonks to you, Brian, and our profound sympathies as well.