The Curious Case of Hansel the Cat

For the past several months our little family has been wrestling with a medical mystery that feels like it came straight out of an episode of “House” only for cats. I felt it appropriate to share our ongoing story for anyone who may go through something similar. But first, happy backstory! Cue the “sounds-like-disney-but-isn’t-disney-to-avoid-getting-sued” music!

In December of 2015 Mike and I added two new additions to our family! No, not the tiny human kind. Even better! We adopted two adorable, mischievous kittens named Hansel and Gretel.

Hansel and Gretel as kittens
Gretel is “undecided” calico/tabby (left), and Hansel is a black and white tuxedo (right)

Their mother, Pancake, was abandoned and left outside after her previous owners moved [insert creative profanities here]. Luckily she was found and brought to the MSCPA in Boston, MA. Mike’s sister, Marissa, fostered her while she was pregnant and soon she gave birth to six beautiful kittens!

Pancake and her six kittens
“Look what I made! I made dis!”

We immediately fell in love with Hansel and Gretel before they could opened their beady little eyes. Gretel looked like she couldn’t decide whether or not she was going to be a tabby or a calico, and Hansel was the only black and white tuxedo kitten. He was the gentleman of his rambunctious siblings. Since all of the kittens were unique, we theorized that they may have had two different fathers. Oh nature. You crazy.

As they grew, their personalities evolved from shy, curious kittens, to unafraid yet still curious young cats. Gretel wants to know what you’re doing constantly and has a dainty strut (#typicalgirl) but still causes a ton of trouble, and Hansel is the most well-behaved (#knockonwood) laid-back cat I’ve ever encountered. He also has a weird obsession with my hair. Sorry Mike…

Hansel snuggles
“Give me your hair, hooman.”

The past several months however have been rough. This is where it gets “Pixar emotional,” so if you abandon ship now I wouldn’t blame you. In November of 2016 we began to notice that Hansel started acting strangely. He was more lethargic than usual, was losing weight, and he started licking plastic surfaces. However, it wasn’t until we caught him eating his own clay cat litter that we determined that something was really, really wrong.

We took him to the vet and found out that he was anemic (low red blood cell count), and that he tested positive for feline leukemia (FeLV). His red blood cell count was at 12%. Normally cats should be between 25% to 45%.

Scientific mumbles: Feline leukemia, despite the word “leukemia” in its name is not a cancer. It is a retrovirus similar to the AIDS virus in humans. It is the common cause of cancer and blood diseases in cats. It is a virus that is only transmittable between felines through saliva and other mucous membranes. Some cats can get the virus and fight it off, however, kittens with FeLV often do not survive past their first or second birthday. Cats with luck on their side can live with the virus for any number of years without symptoms, but they are seen as “ticking time bombs,” and can be struck other diseases at any time. Great. “Exploding Kittens” the game is now real life.

So, as you can imagine this news was as devastating as it was baffling. Before we adopted the kittens, the MSCPA tested both the mother and the kittens for FeLV and they all came up negative. This is standard procedure before adoption can be completed. Then, approximately six months later we had them tested again after being away from their mother and the rest of the litter. They came up negative again, which usually this means that they’re in the clear. However, Hansel, ever determined to defy medical convention, came up positive.

With the possible threat of Gretel having FeLV as well, we had her re-tested. Usually litter mates or cats who live together, share food and water, and clean one another are exposed to the virus since it’s transmitted through saliva. However, Gretel came up negative! We felt like we won the lottery and immediately had her vaccinated, which should protect her from infection. The vaccine is not 100% guaranteed, but it’s better than nothing.

Gretel up close and personal
“Oh, hai!”

Now, you’re probably wondering “Why didn’t you get them both vaccinated when they were kittens?” Since they all tested negative twice and they were not going to be exposed to other cats (AKA they were going to be indoor cats only), usual protocol doesn’t deem it necessary. You wouldn’t get a vaccine for Malaria unless you were going somewhere where you’d be at risk of exposure. The same concept applies here.

Usually if a cat has FeLV, vets advise that you keep them separated from non-infected cats. However, because Hansel and Gretel are a bonded pair, we were advised that it would be cruel to separate them now. If she was exposed to the virus it would have happened already. A life of solidarity was no life for these cats.

Hansel and Gretel cuddle together

We immediately started Hansel on a four-week treatment of steroids (Prednisolone) that would stimulate red blood cell production, and an antibiotic (Doxycycline). The latter was just in case he caught something from a mouse he had eaten a few weeks prior. The little monster caught the rodent in the house from the basement. He’s a killing machine!

After just a few days of being on steroids, his red blood cell count went up to 25%, which was a good sign. We had him re-tested for FeLV with both the “SNAP” test, as well as the IFA test. The SNAP test is a quick blood test that can be done in the clinic. While this test is accurate for the most part, it can give false positives or negatives. According to veterinarian articles and the vets themselves, any positives should be backed up with the IFA test. The latter is also a blood test that looks for the virus in the bone marrow without having to take actual bone marrow.

This is where the plot thickens on the worse episode of “Meouse.” Hansel’s SNAP test came back positive, but his IFA test came back negative. This could mean that either one of the tests is wrong, or that he doesn’t have the virus, or that he was recently exposed and should be re-tested again in 30 days.

Since Hansel’s case was becoming more and more complex, we were sent to Ocean State Veterinarian Hospital to get a more in-depth diagnosis and treatment. As of today, Hansel has had four positive SNAP tests, and four negative IFA tests, and because of this our Ocean State vet can’t say for sure if he does have FeLV. Even after testing an actual sample of his bone marrow, the IFA test came back negative. CURSE YOU MEOW-STERIOUS DISEASE!

Luckily, there was some good news. After an extensive bone marrow biopsy, it was determined that Hansel does not have cancer! It looks like the anemia stems from an autoimmune disease, which is the better of the two possibilities.

Hansel sitting in a pan like a boss
“No cancer? Pan-tastic!”

However, that doesn’t mean he couldn’t get cancer in the future, BUT one day at a time.

So far, the steroids seem to help him the most. However, these drugs are a double-edged sword since it can raise the glucose levels in the blood and cause diabetes. Our vet explained that ideally he’d be weened off of the steroids and become stable on another drug such as atopica, which is another immunosuppressant drug that does not come with the danger of diabetes. However, he did not seem to be reacting to the lower dosage of steroids plus atopica as much as we’d like, so he was recently switched to another drug combination.

Hansel stretched forward
“Moar drugs? C’mon, Mom!”

Now he is being treated with steroids and cyclophosphamide, which is a used as chemotherapy to suppress the immune system. Crazy right?? He doesn’t even have cancer and yet we’re using a chemo drug. We find out on Monday the 27th if the new drug is working well.

Please note that “chemotherapy” for cats and animals in general is very different from human treatment. The word “chemo” is often associated with a lot of pain and discomfort. However, this isn’t the case for animals. Most cats on this drug handle it well and have no side effects, and are completely comfortable. While chemotherapy for animals involves extending their life like it does in humans, it is not practiced at the cost of their comfort.

Since November, Hansel’s anemia has had its highs and lows. Sometimes his red blood cell count would be up to 40%, and at others it would go back down to 12%. On his good days he’d be bouncing around, chasing Gretel and being his normal self. On his bad days he’d be more lethargic and seek out closets or other hidey holes to sleep in.

We’re hoping for the best, and will continue to make him as comfortable as possible as we try to stabilize his anemia. But, no matter how he feels, he still has enough energy to judge you.

Hansel sitting on a table judging you
“Feed me more drugs, hooman, and I will end you.”
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