Indoor Cats Are Dying from Diabetes, Hyperthyroidism, and Various Toxins in the Home
"While cats would naturally exercise outside, many cats are now housebound, perhaps because they live in a flat or because their owners feel that it is too dangerous to let them out, so they have little to do all day but eat, sleep, and gain weight."
-- Danielle A. Gunn-Moore, University of Edinburgh
The moneybags media and the blogosphere had quite a field day back in January when a grossly overweight moggy named Hercules accidentally got stuck in a doggie door while scavenging for food at Jadwiga Drozdek's residence in the Portland, Oregon suburb on Gresham. The twenty-pound cat had taken to the streets while his owner, Geoff Ernest, was away in a Seattle hospital getting a lung transplant. (See photo above of Hercules with Tiffany Noreuil of the Oregon Humane Society.)
He has since been reunited with his owner and although he has been diagnosed with the Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV), he is otherwise in pretty good health. For tens of thousands of other cats, however, obesity is no laughing matter.
It is common knowledge that being overweight and sedentary can lead to the onset of Type 2 diabetes in humans. Now, research made public a fortnight ago in Scotland has concluded that the same factors, coupled with being male and sterilized, is leading to an epidemic of the disease in cats.
Also, cats treated with corticosteroids and megestrol acetate have an increased risk of developing Feline Diabetes Mellitus (DM). Corticosteroids are used to treat, inter alia, shock, Addison's Disease, skin allergies, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, kidney disease, cancer, and eye problems. Megestrol acetate, on the other hand, is used to postpone estrus in both cats and dogs and to treat feline skin disorders. Prior studies have also linked old age and dental disease to DM.
The study, published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, was conducted by Danielle A. Gunn-Moore, Theresa M. McCann, Kerry E. Simpson, and Darren J. Shaw of the University of Edinburgh's Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Medicine with assistance from Jennifer A. Butt of Mill Surgery in Perthshire. Last year, Gunn-Moore authored a study on feline dementia which found that a protein called Beta-Amyliode is present in the brains of both Alzheimer's patients and elderly cats. (See Cat Defender post of December 12, 2006 entitled "Breakthrough in Feline Dementia Research May Actually End Up Killing More Cats Than It Saves.")
The current study looked at more than fourteen-thousand cats that were insured by Pet Protect and found that sixty-one of them suffered from DM. That works out to one in every two-hundred-thirty cats in the United Kingdom and of these between eighty-five and ninety-five per cent were diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.
By comparison, studies conducted within the past decade have found even higher incidences of the disease elsewhere. For instance, in Australia one out of every one-hundred-seventy-nine cats was found to be diabetic whereas in North America the ratio was an alarming one out of every eighty-one cats!
The data on the risk factors involved in DM were obtained by convenience-sampling questionnaires mailed to cat owners. Owners were asked to supply information regarding, inter alia, breed, sex, age, birth weight, and adult weight. Information was also solicited regarding sterilization, activity levels, diet, vaccinations, and medications.
The researchers' methodology suffers from two rather obvious flaws. First of all, the study dealt with only insured cats as opposed to having been a randomized sample of all domestic cats living in the United Kingdom. Secondly, some respondents could have provided less than accurate responses to the questionnaires.
Despite these shortcomings, the research demonstrates conclusively that DM is now a major threat to the well-being of cats in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. As far as specific breeds are concerned, the disease was found to be three times more prevalent in Burmese cats than in any other pedigree with one out of every fifty-seven of these cats afflicted. (See photo above of a chocolate-colored English Burmese cat.)
Other studies have concluded that a staggering ten per cent of New Zealand's Burmese cats are born with DM. Gunn-Moore and her colleagues suspect that the breed's proclivity to put on fat around the abdomen could be the cause of the problem.
Just as is the case with individuals, the disease is most often fatal in cats unless they are given daily insulin injections and are put on a special diet. Excessive urination, thirst, lethargy, and neuropathy are classic signs of DM in cats.
Quite often cat owners are either unwilling to foot the bill for the insulin or do not want to go to the additional trouble of caring for a diabetic cat and this prompts them to abandon their beloved companions at shelters where they are most often killed. Dogs are also susceptible to the disease and it is estimated that forty per cent of those living in the United Kingdom are overweight and of these twenty-five per cent are obese.
Gunn-Moore blames lifestyle changes for the increase in feline DM. "They (cats) are tending to eat too much, gain weight, and take less exercise," she told The Daily Telegraph on August 8th. (See "Britain's Fat Cats Face Obesity Crisis.") "Unfortunately, just like people, cats will overeat if they are offered too much tasty food, particularly if they are bored and have little else to do."
Gunn-Moore and her colleagues do not broach the subject, but all commercial cat food is not only pure garbage but leads to a host of health problems as well. (See Animal Protection Institute's online publication, "What's Really in Pet Food.")
People take it for granted, but commercial pet food has only been on the market since the 1950s. Before then, cats ate table scraps and whatever mice and other small animals that they were able to catch.
Consequently, some feline nutritionists believe that cats should be fed a diet that best mimics what they would eat in the wild. This means either raw or only slightly cooked meat with a few vegetables, fruits, and grains mixed in as well. It is also a good idea to sprinkle in probiotics. (See Michelle Bernard's 2003 tome entitled "Raising Cats Naturally: How to Care for Your Cat the Way Nature Intended.")
Cooping up cats inside is as bad if not indeed worse for them as feeding them commercial cat food. Cats Protection in fact feels so strongly about this matter that it will allow only individuals with yards to adopt its cats.
"While cats would naturally exercise outside, many cats are now housebound, perhaps because they live in a flat or because their owners feels that it is too dangerous to let them out, so they have little to do all day but eat, sleep, and gain weight," Gunn-Moore said. That is obviously a huge problem without any easy solution.
Because of increased vehicular activity, most urban areas and even some country roads are too dangerous for cats. Moreover, there are many motorists who make a sport out of deliberately running down cats and other small animals. They will usually swerve to avoid deer but that is only out of a desire to avoid damaging their precious cars.
Tant pis, many cats are no longer even safe in their own yards because of the machinations of cat-hating wildlife officials who have reintroduced fishers and coyotes into urban and suburban settings to prey upon felines and dogs. (See Cat Defender post of July 19, 2007 entitled "Up to Their Old Tricks, Wildlife Officials Reintroduce Fishers to the Northeast to Prey Upon Cats and to Provide Income for Fur Traffickers.") Anti-roaming initiatives and leash laws are also impinging upon the freedom of cats.
The Pet Show's Warren Eckstein and others repeatedly argue that indoor environments can be made just as stimulating for cats as the wild and woolly outdoors but this is not true unless a cat owner has an especially large house or lives in a converted barn like Lilian Jackson Braun's fictional Jim Qwilleran. Needless to say, flats are hardly ideal abodes for even humans, let alone cats.
Even cat owners with large houses need to go to a lot of trouble constructing window perches, scratching posts, mazes, and miscellaneous exercise areas for their felines. They also need to be willing to devote time to playing with their cats. Some cats can be trained to walk on a leash but cat trolleys do not provide them with any exercise at all.
To her eternal credit, Gunn-Moore is one of the few specialists in feline medicine with enough integrity to call attention to the detrimental side effects of sterilization. For years, sterilization proponents have vociferously argued that it is a win-win situation for cats. They have cited lower incidences of prostate and cervical cancer, less roaming, crying, and spraying, longer life expectancies, and more docile cats as just a few of the justifications in support of en masse spaying and neutering.
They have deliberately downplayed the fact that sterilized cats, particularly males, have a tendency to put on weight which in turn leads to DM and other maladies. Moreover, sterilizations are not only traumatic, but sometimes deadly as well. Some cats die on the operating table because too much anesthesia was used while others die when their sutures break because they were not provided with proper postoperative care.
Some crude feline contraceptives are already available and more sophisticated ones are nearing development. If "the pill" is anything to go by, this is not necessarily a good thing.
For more than fifty years, physicians have been prescribing oral contraceptives for women that have led to, inter alia, a loss of libido and depression. In order to counteract these debilitating side effects, they have compounded the problem by putting their patients on antidepressants. Similar harmful side effects are sure to follow the introduction of feline contraceptives.
Neither drugs which disrupt normal hormonal activities nor sterilizations are natural and as such they have a tendency to create about as many problems as they solve. As Ovid once said, "Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret."
Traditionally, cats have gotten the lion's share of their physical activity through either hunting or roaming in the pursuit of sex. By attempting to convert cats into eunuchs and couch potatoes, advocates of imprisoning them indoors, such as the diabolical American Bird Conservancy and the phony-baloney National Audubon Society, as well as die-hard sterilization fanatics, such as Alley Cat Allies and all shelters, are doing irreparable harm to the species.
In addition to being harmful to their health, imprisoning cats indoors is cruel and unfair. Just like man, they are entitled to their liberty and that includes the right to hunt as well as to socialize with their fellow felines. They need the mental stimulation that accompanies being able to explore their environment.
They are equally entitled to experience the heat of the summer sun and the squishiness of snow underneath their paws. They are entitled to climb trees, roll in the green grass, and to experience the wonders of nature.
For her part, Gunn-Moore is rather reserved in her recommendations. "To reduce your cat's risk of developing this (DM) often fatal disease you need to keep them (sic) active, and not allow them to gain too much weight."
Her advise is, quite obviously, easier said than done. It is undeniable that mass sterilizations and indoor lifestyles are here to stay for the greater part of the feline world. No one should be duped into believing, however, that they do not pose serious health risks that must be counteracted.
For cats already afflicted with the disease, Lincoln Cat Care in Lincolnshire, one-hundred-ninety-two kilometers north of London, has jumped into the breach by inaugurating a novel program whereby it places diabetic cats in homes with diabetic humans. The rationale behind the scheme is that diabetics are not only ideally suited to look after diabetic felines but that they are also understanding enough to be willing to do so.
Twenty-nine-year-old Louise Ellerington of Saxilby is currently fostering a four-year-old diabetic cat named Mog. (See photos above.) "She's very easy to look after. She's a lovely cat who either likes to sit on the window sill or have a cuddle," she told the Lincolnshire Echo on August 6th. (See "Cats Home Aims to Match Ill Felines with Diabetic Owners.")
Although syringes cost $4.34 a week and a month's supply of insulin runs around $96, caring for a diabetic cat is not all that difficult. "You can tell when their sugar levels are not normal because they become lethargic or start to drink copious amounts of water," Ellerington explained.
"I have to feed her and give her insulin once every morning and evening to keep her sugar levels stable," she added. "But apart from that it's pretty much like looking after a normal cat."
The ink was hardly dry on Gunn-Moore's DM research when the journal Environmental Science and Technology on August 15th exposed another health hazard afflicting indoor cats. Specifically, it blames the steep increase in feline hyperthyroidism (FH) on the presence of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in the home.
The popular flame retardants are used in, among other things, electronics, padding for carpeting, furniture, and mattresses. Long the scourge of older cats, FH has increased proportionately since the introduction of PBDEs in the 1970s.
Nonetheless, up until now the cause of the disease had remained a mystery. "Feline hyperthyroidism was never reported" thirty-five years ago, but "now it is very common," co-author Linda Birnbaum wrote.
The study was conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and involved the taking of blood samples from twenty-three indoor cats. Of these, eleven were found to have hyperthyroidism. Even more startling, the cats had PBDE levels twenty to one-hundred times higher than humans. (See photo above of O.P., one of the cats to test positive for FH.)
"We definitely found evidence that cats are being exposed to these compounds based on the level of compounds in their blood," the EPA's Janice Dye told Reuters on August 16th. (See "Household Chemicals May be Causing Cat Disease.") "Cats are in this perfect position to be near the products these chemicals were put in to reduce flammability. They're in our homes. They're sleeping on our mattresses and furniture."
Hyperthyroidism is characterized by, inter alia, increased appetite, unexplained loss of weight and muscle mass, irritability, vomiting and diarrhea, excessive thirst, and lethargy. It has been shown in lab animals to retard brain development, impair learning ability and memory, and to cause behavioral problems. In cats, it can be treated with drugs such as methimazole, surgery, and radioiodine (R131).
Since PBDEs are so prevalent in homes, cats ingest a disproportionate amount of them while grooming themselves. They have also been found in canned cat food that contains fish.
PBDEs are not only a problem for cats. Research conducted in both Norway and California has found elevated levels of the chemicals in the bloodstreams of toddlers as well. Most of them were banned in Europe and discontinued in the United States in 2004 but since they are so prevalent in the home they will continue to pollute indoor environments for a long time to come.
Although the authors decline the opportunity to make the obvious connections, this research has wide-ranging implications because cats are exposed to far more harmful chemicals in the home than PBDEs. First and foremost, there is cigarette smoke which accumulates in their fur to the extent that some cats reek of the deadly carcinogen. Marijuana, aerosols, and other toxins emitted into the air also settle in their fur and are ingested during grooming.
Deadly asbestos remains a serious health problem for both humans and cats. In particular, asbestos from W.R. Grace's vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana is estimated to still be in thirty-five million homes and buildings around the country. (See Living on Earth, August 17, 2007, "Libby, Montana.") In Libby, a town of only twenty-seven-hundred residents, more than two-hundred people have died from lung cancer and another twelve-hundred have been sickened by the disease.
To ensure the health and well-being of their beloved companions, owners of indoor cats should first of all replace all items that contain either asbestos or PBDEs. They should also refrain from polluting the air with cigarette smoke, aerosols, and other deadly toxins.
Apartments and houses should be ventilated on daily basis and kept immaculate. Since carpeting and heavy drapes collect so much dust and other particulates, they should be replaced by wooden floors and venetian blinds.
Perhaps just as importantly, owners should give their cats' fur a good brushing once or twice a day. Frequent baths or at least an occasional rubdown with a damp towel are another good idea. These activities also have the added benefit of helping to reduce the buildup of hairballs.
Photos: KPTV, Portland (Hercules and Tiffany Noreuil), Vik Olliver of Wikipedia (Burmese cat), Lincolnshire Echo (Louise Ellerington with Mog and Mog by himself), and Janice Dye of the EPA (O.P.).