How Spot Became Cleo
In early September 2010, I saw an email about a mom cat with 10 kittens needing fostering. The challenge was tempting, so I volunteered. Mom cat was probably not feral but had not been spayed. Mom and her 10 kittens, just about five to seven days old, came to stay with me for a few months.
Six of those kittens stayed until they were old enough to spay and neuter; I gave the kittens names: Haka for the all-black kitten, Callie for the larger calico, Tiger for the orange tabby, Tiny and Twin for the two smallest brown tabbies and Spot for a black kitten with a white spot on its chest.
Spot and Twin were the last two in the house, waiting for their new owner to return from a bit of travelling. Unexpectedly she let me know she could not take these two kittens. I decided to keep them instead. Their official names became Cleo and Indy.
Fast-forward to 2020. I took Cleo and Indy, now 10 years old, to their veterinarian. I asked the veterinarian to examine Cleo closely due to a recent change in her gait. She had recently started to develop a gait abnormality informally known as a “dropped hock” gait and formally called “cat plantigrade stance.”
As a veterinarian I knew that when a cat walks with this peculiar gait where the rear paws are close to or make direct contact with the ground from the toes to the hocks, there’s an abnormality. It’s often seen in cats suffering from diabetes and kidney disease, but it can also be a sign of other diseases and disorders. Since she was a little overweight and advanced in age, I figured she was developing the early signs of diabetes.
To my surprise, her blood samples came back completely normal – no diabetes or other issues. Yet her gait and behavior were abnormal. She was not able to walk without wobbling, so she was not jumping onto the couch or other places that she liked, and she was walking next to the wall all the time.
As all veterinarians are trained in basic neurology, and since I deal extensively with neurologic issues in my work, I had a strong suspicion that Cleo’s symptoms were caused by a neurological disorder. I knew that I needed to take her to a specialized veterinarian for a complete neurologic exam. I got a referral to a neurology clinic in Rockville, Maryland, not too far from home.
A Word on Veterinary Neurology and Human Health
Veterinary neurology is a specialty that we study after becoming veterinarians, but every veterinarian has a core understanding of neurology in dogs, cats, horses, cows, small ruminants, pigs and the other animals we see in practice. The nervous system is essentially the same in all vertebrates, and we see the same kinds of problems in our pets as we do in ourselves. Dogs can get bad backs, which we formally call “intervertebral disk disease,” and they need the same kinds of surgery that people do. Pets can get a traumatic brain injury, epilepsy or brain infections from the same bacteria, viruses or protozoa that infect humans.
Since the central nervous system is very important for a healthy life, a mistake in treating it can have serious consequences. Veterinary neurologists use the MRI to image the brain before surgery just as they do in humans. The entire surgery – from pre-surgical assessment to anesthesia to post-operative care – is done in similar ways for humans and many different animal species. By studying the mental processes in animals, we can understand the human brain and we can bring those improvements back to our animal companions as better treatments, better medications and better surgeries. That’s one of the many reasons why animal research is so important.
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, I wasn’t allowed to enter the clinic with Cleo. After conducting the initial exam, the veterinary neurologist called me; he told me that he noted the wobbly gait and dropped hocks as well. We briefly discussed the possible causes, and I approved his request to do an MRI on Cleo. Specialized clinics have the capability of doing advanced imaging for our pets, like MRI and CT scans, and use them in the same way as physicians do for their human patients.
To my surprise – and even to the veterinary neurologist’s surprise – Cleo had a mass inside her skull, pressing down on her brain and causing it to bulge slightly through the foramen. This diagnosis explained all of Cleo’s clinical signs in one fell swoop. (RELATED: What I Learned From Kaylee Bear’s Battle With Lupus)
This was a very scary moment. The veterinary neurologist and I discussed the options, which I knew all too well from my veterinary work. Cleo could either undergo chemotherapy to minimize the swelling of the brain without treating the tumor, leading to certain death in weeks or months, or she could have surgery to remove the mass in her brain with the risks of death during or immediately after surgery. Brain surgery is always risky, even with highly trained professionals performing the procedure.
I opted for the surgery to remove the tumor in Cleo’s brain. Just as in humans, we started her on steroids and anti-seizure medication until the day of the surgery. Cleo was now on restricted movement in addition to her daily regimen of drugs. The veterinary neurologist brought in a colleague from another clinic, a neurosurgeon, and Cleo was the only neurosurgical case booked for that day.
A Happy Cat
The surgery went well. As it turns out, Cleo had a benign tumor called a meningioma. She was awake and moving around within an hour after the surgery ended. She stayed at the veterinary clinic for close observation for the next two days.
When she came home, she still had restrictions on movement – no jumping! – and had to be kept away from the other cats to avoid stress. She was still on steroid treatment to prevent brain issues. She was still a little wobbly, but her gait had already improved, and it continued to improve rapidly.
By the second post-op visit, Cleo’s gait and behavior were very nearly normal again. We slowly tapered her steroids down to nothing, her hair grew back and, finally, she is healthy again. She’s spending more time with the rest of the family including the other cats. She still loves catnip and playing with a purple crinkly fuzzy toy, as well as lying in patches of sunlight. She still likes to make sure her people are paying attention to her, and her attitude remains “Hey, there’s cat food here – might as well eat it!”
Ginger Tansey, DVM, is a veterinarian who specializes in laboratory animal medicine, providing veterinary care and support in ophthalmologic and neurological research. Prior to this, Dr. Tansey spent time as a general practitioner in small animal practices in Connecticut and North Carolina, as well as in a laboratory animal medicine residency program at Louisiana State University College of Veterinary Medicine. Dr. Tansey enjoys being at home with her cats, reading with her wife and watching the grandkids grow. She and Cleo would like to thank not only the veterinary neurologists but also the veterinary technicians who cared for Cleo at their clinic. They also thank the animals that helped develop the medications and surgeries that saved Cleo’s life.