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Published October 07, 2011, 12:00 AM

Pet Care: Cat illness difficult diagnosis

Dear Dr. Fox: I have a 14-year-old spayed mostly Maine coon cat, Molly, who has been suffering some sort of intestinal problem for about three months. It started with diarrhea that came on frequently and unexpectedly. She has never before had a problem with using the litter box, but in this case, she went wherever she happened to be.

By: By Dr. Michael Fox, INFORUM

Dear Dr. Fox: I have a 14-year-old spayed mostly Maine coon cat, Molly, who has been suffering some sort of intestinal problem for about three months. It started with diarrhea that came on frequently and unexpectedly. She has never before had a problem with using the litter box, but in this case, she went wherever she happened to be.

I took her to the vet for a complete exam, stool sample and full blood workup. The only minor problem was that her red blood cell count was slightly below normal. She was treated for two weeks with antibiotics and steroids. The diarrhea went away, but within 10 days she began vomiting frequently and, in most cases, the material thrown up looked and smelled like excrement, not vomit.

I took her back to the vet, and it was suggested she might have IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). She was put back on steroids and Pepcid was added, as was a tablet that was dissolved in water in a syringe and given to her by mouth to act as a coating agent for her stomach. She seemed better for about two weeks. Then the vomiting resumed and, once again, seemed more like excrement than vomit.

This time I took her to the emergency vet hospital. The vets did another exam, X-rays and another complete blood workup. They suggested that I might want to have an ultrasound done, although they weren’t sure it would provide any more information than we already had. And, to be honest, by this time I had spent almost $1,000 and my cat was still in the same shape as when we started. They gave me more Pepcid and prednisone. For another two weeks, no vomiting; then, in the past couple of days, the vomiting has started again, same details.

She has had no change in diet at any point. Although I have offered EVO canned food, she will not touch it. She normally eats Friskies and/or Fancy Feast canned, and EVO dry food is available in a dispenser.

I know that steroids are not good for animals, especially for long-term use, but the vets seem to think that if the steroids calm the inflammation, she can take them forever. Can you offer any suggestions on what the problem might be and what I can do about it that will not harm my cat? She has a bad tooth that needs to come out, but nobody wants to do the dental work until the current situation is resolved. – K.B., Owings, Md.

Dear K.B.: You and Molly have my sympathy, as do the veterinarians treating her, because this not-uncommon malady is difficult to diagnose and therefore is not easy to treat.

A food ingredient allergy is most likely, but other factors affecting the gut bacterial population, including genetically modified food ingredients, may also be involved. (For details, see my website.) Although you never changed her diet, remember: Different batches of the same brand may contain different ingredients. EVO was taken over last year by a big company, and concerns about quality and content have been voiced, although I have not yet heard of any problems. Either way, ad-lib feeding from a dry food dispenser is not advisable since cats may overeat and become obese.

Her stinky vomit may indicate a bacterial infection, and the veterinarian might consider treating this as chronic colitis and try sulfasalazine, tylosin or metronidazole.

She probably needs additional supportive treatment for dehydration and may benefit from fish oil, glutamine and probiotics supplements. Catnip or peppermint tea, given to Molly in a dropper, may give some temporary relief. With such treatment, wean her off the prednisone gradually and perk up her appetite with Gerber’s chicken, beef and turkey baby-food formulas.

Do let me know how Molly progresses. I always appreciate hearing back from readers whose letters are published.

Dear Dr. Fox: Whenever my husband and I have a salad, our sheltie goes crazy for carrots. She also likes broccoli, peanut butter and the plain yogurt we put on our cereal.

I know these are “people foods” and wonder if they are safe for dogs. I know onions, chocolate and raisins are not. – Y.S., Springfield, Ill.

Dear Y.S.: Let’s dispel the myth of “people foods” versus “dog foods.” This is an old ploy of pet food companies bent on selling their processed, manufactured products and discouraging people from feeding their dogs anything else. Many companies have changed their tunes somewhat and are including carrots and other vegetables and fruits such as blueberries in their formulas. However, heat processing destroys many nutrients.

I see no problem with giving your dog these healthy raw treats – food is food, after all. Carrots help keep teeth and gums healthy. Plain organic yogurt, rich in probiotics, is good for the digestive system, and peanut butter is an excellent vehicle to hide pills when dogs need to be medicated.

Dear Dr. Fox: My terrier mix, who is 14 years old, went for his annual physical and he checks out OK. But the veterinarian couldn’t help us with Max’s changing behavior.

There are times when he seems disoriented and unsure where he is. There’s nothing wrong with his eyesight or hearing. Any suggestions? – E.M.F., Sequim, Wash.

Dear E.M.F.: As dogs go through the aging process, their brains (just as in humans) may be subject to degenerative changes that can impair cognitive processing. They may have brief episodes of disorientation with associated anxiety, which may increase in duration over time.

Gentle reassurance, patience, physical contact and clear hand signals to get the dog’s attention (especially when hearing is impaired) are important supportive measures. Rugs on slippery floors and dog stairs to make getting up and down from a favorite chair, bed or sofa can make life easier, especially for old dogs with arthritis and weight problems.

One to two tablespoons daily of coconut oil in his food may help improve his brain function, along with such daily supplements as CoQ10 (50 milligrams) and N-acetyl-L- cysteine (50 to 100 milligrams). Severe cases of canine senile dementia may benefit from a prescription of selegiline that your veterinarian can provide.

Send your questions to Dr. Fox in care of The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns. Visit Dr. Fox’s Web site at