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( Originally Published 1936 )
OF ALL THE DISEASES THAT afflict our cats, these three are the least curable, the most to be dreaded: distemper, tuberculosis, and infectious enteritis. Feline distemper is different in some ways from canine distemper, and though it is very contagious among cats, it is said that dogs do not catch it from them. Puppies have been known to associate with cats suffering from distemper and to remain immune. However, it is not a good thing to let healthy animals mix with sick ones.
Just as with dog distemper, no scientist has succeeded in finding out much about the microbe that causes cat distemper. Really we know only that it is very virulent and that it manifests itself in many ways, of which the commonest is the deceptive one that seems to be a cold at first. This is variously called infectious catarrh, the snuffles, influenza, and, from the way that it sometimes sweeps through a cat show and even follows the champions home, "show fever."
Watery eyes and a running nose are the first symptoms of catarrhal distemper. Oddly enough, it sometimes affects just one eye, which will be so inflamed and sensitive to the light that you might think it had a cinder in it. The cat sneezes and has fits of shivering, and its hair roughens up into untidy points. Medicine is of little avail in these cases. From one to three grains of aspirin once a day for two days may check the attack and certainly will do no harm, and if there is much diarrhea (a little is salutary because it carries away the poison in the system), a pinch of bismuth subnitrate with each meal is advisable. But it is generally conceded that nursing, not dosing, is the important thing in distemper. Most veterinarians when summoned tell you this.
Make the patient as comfortable as possible in a warm, sunny room (isolated from other cats, of course), and if it shivers dress it in a cosy sweater. Protect it from drafts, but admit plenty of fresh air. Coax it to eat nourishing things. Scraped beef, beef juice, chicken jelly, egg, and milk are best. In the abdominal forms of distemper, however, meat should be avoided, lest it irritate the intestines. These attacks call for arrowroot, white of egg beaten up in milk, and similar soothing foods that are rich in albumin.
In serious attacks of catarrhal distemper the discharge from the eyes and nose becomes a thick, clogging mucus, and this should be wiped away often. Put a pinch of boric acid in a cup of warm water, wash the eyes gently with soft cotton, and clear the nostrils with a tiny swab made by wrapping a bit of cotton around the end of a wooden toothpick. This is important; we know how uncomfortable we feel if our breathing is impeded, and neglect of the eyes at such a time may mean blindness. Remember, too, that cats are unhappy if their fur is soiled, and keep all stains wiped off.
Cats usually recover from mild catarrhal distemper in three or four weeks, but they should be quarantined for eight weeks longer. The distemper germ is long-lived. The room in which a cat with distemper has been kept and the bed and other articles which it has used must be thoroughly disinfected, and even when this is done it is unwise to take a healthy cat into the place in less than three months.
When the distemper germ settles in the pharynx there is trouble indeed. The cat dribbles at the mouth and hangs over its food as if it wanted badly to eat but was afraid to try. Look into its mouth, and on the throat you will see tiny inflamed cysts, which break and turn into ulcers. Unless the disease is halted, a putrid deposit presently collects in the throat, and the patient, unable to swallow, suffers so much that the merciful thing is to put it to death.
There is a pulmonary form of distemper which sometimes manifests itself in pneumonia, bronchitis, or pleurisy. Abdominal distemper generally starts with vomiting and diarrhea, and it can strike so swiftly that at the first danger signal you should call the diagnostician. The death roll in distemper is large, and the victims who recover may be left with ulcerated eyeballs, or skin eruptions, or weak digestion. Veterinarians tell me that chorea, a nervous twitching resembling St. Vitus's dance, which dogs sometimes have following distemper, is not known in cats. But I have read of cats that were left with a palsied shaking of the head, so there you are.
Infectious enteritis, the cat plague, fatal as the black typhus is to man, is sometimes hardly to be distinguished from acute abdominal distemper. Symptoms of this disease are fever, the throwing up of yellow slime, bloody diarrhea, and great weakness. Often there are convulsions at the end. Like distemper, it has a deadly contagion. One catlover I know lost four Persian kittens from it, in succession, in a year. After the death of a kitten she would wait three months before taking another, but the germs were still in her apartment.
Does your cat drink fresh milk? If it does, be sure that the cow has been tested for tuberculosis and found healthy, for milk from tubercular cows is the great source of this disease in cats. But cats who dwell in slums sometimes get it from eating the stuff thrown out from tenements and cheap restaurants, and from the dirt they must swallow in making their toilets, and if your pet is permitted to mingle with these unfortunates it may contract the disease from them.
Tuberculosis in cats develops slowly, with increasing emaciation and weakness, and sometimes, though not always, a cough. The layman cannot distinguish it from the wasting type of distemper, which also brings loss of appetite and flesh, but, unlike distemper, it can be communicated to human beings. Just as in humans, tuberculosis will attack various parts of a cat's body-the abdomen, the bones, the kidneys and bladder, as well as the lungs. It is almost never cured, and it means great suffering for the cat.
I once found, in the dark, wet cellar of a building that had lately been vacated by a speak-easy, a cat far gone in tuberculosis, and I did not soon forget the haggard misery in that feeble creature's face. It is painful to put an end to any spark of life, but I was glad to end that one. Dr. Hamilton Kirk says that death is best for all tubercular cats, whether they be homeless strays or treasured pets. And he speaks not as a cold scientist, but as a real lover of cats.
Tubercular cats have been kept alive for some time by care and good food, by owners who thought they loved them, but I do not think life meant much to these cats, and I doubt the genuineness of such affection.