Here’s a trivia question: What’s the number one cause of death in (indoor only) cats from around 2 years of age to 8 or 10 years of age? No one really knows, because there is no CDC for pets, but likely it’s a kind of heart disease called feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). For sure, we do know that HCM is the number one cause of sudden death in cats. And we know HCM is common, and there is no known treatment.
I had a cat who changed my life. His name was Ricky. He succumbed to HCM in 2002. Back in the day, Ricky was a sort of TV star, appearing on shows, including National Geographic Explorer, CNBC, Pets: Part of the Family, PBS, a Canadian TV show called The Pet Project, and many other national programs, including about every local TV station in Chicago as well as appearances on WGN Radio.
That’s because Ricky played the piano. Yes, you read that right—a children’s piano. And he loved to appear in public. He could also jump through hoops; jump over dogs on a down stay, one by one by one; jump over children the same way; offer a “high four;” sit when asked to; and come when called.
Today, YouTube videos are filled with cats doing tricks, and Samantha Martin is touring the country with Acrocats. But back then, a cat going out into the world and doing “tricks” was considered an oddity.
Perhaps as a result of us working together, Ricky and I had an extraordinary bond. He slept with my arm around him every night, greeted me at the door, and frequently spoke to me. He also seemed to read my mind.
During one routine veterinary visit, the veterinarian heard a murmur, and the visit turned out not to be routine after all. A veterinary cardiologist confirmed on an echocardiogram that Ricky had an enlarged thickened heart muscle, a condition known as HCM.
Cats with HCM often do live out normal lifespans, even asymptomatic, and ultimately die of kidney disease or cancer.
However, some cats with HCM may develop an aortic thromboembolism, or “saddle thrombus.” This is a serious condition in cats in which a thrombus (blood clot) affects the blood flow to the hind legs of the cat. It’s painful for the cat, but can be treated as an emergency. Cats do regain movement of their legs again. The problem is that typically once this occurs, it will occur repeatedly. Not only does this cause the cat great pain, but repeated emergency visits get costly. Sometimes the events worsen with each occurrence.
Some cats with HCM go into heart failure, a condition that requires supportive care and medications. Cats can live with heart failure for a time, but ultimately their quality of life diminishes.
Other cats with HCM can suddenly die. And that is what happened to Ricky. For several weeks, his health seemed to be waning, but then one day he just dropped. And that was it.
I screamed the entire way to the veterinarian, but nothing could be done.
I know from reading the email and, at that time ‘snail mail,’ that Ricky had touched thousands, changing their image of what cats’ potential could be. But to me, he was simply my best buddy. No dog will likely ever fill the place in my heart that Ricky occupied.
I thought, This has to stop; we need to do something about HCM. So, I launched the Ricky Fund with the nonprofit funder of cat health studies, the Winn Feline Foundation. We’ve raised more than $100,00, but there’s no cure or treatment in sight. Some drugs that have seemed promising haven’t panned out, but we needed to do the studies to find out.
As a result of the Ricky Fund, there is good news: A genetic test (inexpensive simple cheek swab) for Ragdolls and Maine Coons (with more breeds potentially to follow) can discern if a gene defect likely to cause HCM exists. Breeders have lowered the genetic incidents of HCM in these breeds.
While any advance is good, far too many cats continue to die. We need to stop this. Please help by supporting the Ricky Fund—especially if you’ve had a cat or know someone who’s had a cat with HCM. Even a small donation can make a big difference.