by Eric Smith, Founder of Four On The Floor

This is one of those articles that's a bit tough to write, but which I thought you and your pet(s) deserved to have the benefit of.

Back in the fall of 1998, we lost 3 cats within 7 days and 5 cats within just a few months.  This article exposes some of what we and a team of veterinarians believe might have been the cause(s).  It is dedicated to our 5 dear cats.

At our previous residence, a small farm outside Indianapolis, we used to use as a home office some space above the 3 car garage.  When, after a few years of searching for the right property, we found a commercial building to purchase for our company, the space above the garage became vacant and, given that it was adjacent to the space we'd added on for our rescued cats, we decided to turn the now-unused home office space into "overflow cattery."  (Most people think of a cattery as a place where cats are bred, which we would NEVER do, but we call our rescue facility "the cattery" anyway.)  The two areas were separated by a wood, 6-panel door, but there was a gap underneath the door (no threshold to seal when the door was shut).

When we'd constructed the original add-on for our rescued cats, we were actually living at our previous home, so the animals were not at the farm.  But, given that we'd sold the previous home a few years before, the rescue space at the farm was now full of cats, so they were there during the brief period it took to adapt the previous home office space for use with cats.

In order to give ourselves some more options, we built a wall dividing the largest room of the previous office into two halves and installed 15-pane French doors in it.  When the space above the garage was used as a home office, there was carpet and pad, so we yanked it all out, installed new underlayment, then installed sheet vinyl flooring (this is really fun, easy, relaxing work and I highly encourage you to do it sometime when you need to practice up on your swearing).  After the flooring was completed, we installed new shoemold to hide the edges of the vinyl flooring, caulked it tightly with silicone to make the junctures immune to cat urine, sanded and repaired some of the drywall where office shelves, calendars, etc. had been, then repainted the entire space using the special paint talked about elsewhere on this website.  So far, so good.  Or so we thought.

Problems Begin To Arise
Soon we began to have sick animals.  Quite a bit of vomiting, weight loss and other relatively nebulous symptoms began to appear, but only in some of the cats.  We repeatedly had them checked by our team of vets and kept a careful watch on them.  Some improved, apparently spontaneously, while others kept declining.

The ones who kept declining included our second cat, Peaches, who was the Alpha Cat of our population, and her best buddy, Sanibel.  A third cat, Iris, never showed any symptoms.

I'll skip all the tests and trips to the vet, both during regular hours and at 3am some 40 miles away at a really good 24-hour clinic, but suffice it to say that we really went through a lot in the weeks leading up to the first 3 cats' demise.  You can imagine how distraught, worn out and helpless we felt.

Peaches had developed liver failure, kidney failure and pulmonary edema due to cardiomyopathy (loss of heart muscle function; this often is accompanied by a thickened heart wall and makes fluid collect in the lungs due to loss of pumping power), all of which were responding to treatment, but she was still looking worse and worse, losing even more weight and at times refusing to drink.  She began to want to be by herself and to bury her head, which is a REAL red flag in a cat that they are nearing the end of their rope.  More on Peaches in a moment.

While we were dealing with Peaches, we also were going through many of the same things with Sanibel, a Tortie we'd rescued back in the late '80s.  Sanibel had been under treatment for Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) for some time, but it was well controlled with periodic steroid injections and at times oral steroids.  Yet she began a decline, too, and ultimately ended up not wanting to be messed with, slept with, etc.  She kept getting worse and began to exhibit severe lung congestion that wasn't responding to treatment.  Her lab numbers got worse and worse and there were many middle-of-the-night trips to the far-away 24-hour clinic.  We finally decided that euthanasia was the only thing that was going to help Sanibel feel better and put her down on October 7th, 1998.

During the week after Sanibel's death, her best buddy Peaches got even worse...and it wasn't just because she missed Sanibel.  X-rays showed that the edema in her lungs, which had been seemingly improving, now appeared to be blood being dumped by an artery.  As could be expected when this happens, her red blood count went down to 13, a number so phenomenally low that it may as well have been zero.

To take a closer look, we decided to perform an ultrasound on Peaches, but when the vet tech shaved her side and chest for the ultrasound, a 3" purplish subcutaneous circle appeared.  The vets immediately aspirated the clearly palpable tumor underneath (meaning they inserted a very fine, relatively painless needle into the mass to take a biopsy).  A few minutes later, we all examined the cells under the microscope and they confirmed what we'd feared:  the cells were highly malignant.  Just for peace of mind, we went ahead and performed the ultrasound and it showed that what we'd thought was edema in her lung was actually a 1.5" tumor surrounded by blood being dumped by her artery.  I fed Peaches some more highly-palatable wet cat food (she had always LOVED to eat; you never heard a cat so vocal when there was wet food or people food around), spent a few minutes with her, shot a little video of her one last time, then our main veterinarian & I euthanized her right there on the "sheepskin" in her cage.

The Truth Begins To Sink In
Here we were, still reeling from the loss of Sanibel the week before, and now Peaches was gone, too.  We and the vets began to think that something was dramatically wrong in our cat population, so we began long discussions about what it could have been.  In these discussions, we talked about the recent renovations we'd performed adjacent to the cats' space and we all began to feel that there might be a connection.  It also came out, though, that we'd recently discontinued the use of a r-e-a-l-l-y strong "all-natural" cleaner because it had made my wife and some of our cats cough, wheeze, sneeze, have watery eyes, etc.  I had lobbied for some time that we shouldn't use this cleaner because of how caustic I thought it was—despite the label's claim of it being all-natural—so its use was discontinued.  We also removed a device we'd installed in the cattery that was designed to automatically, at predetermined intervals, spray a short burst of odor killer into the air.  Now we and our vets began to believe pretty much for sure that there was a connection between our cats' illnesses and some environmental factors.  In a small way, we felt that we were now getting somewhere.  Unfortunately, the situation was about to get worse.

Not Again
Just as we were beginning to formulate our hypothesis about the syndrome that had befallen at least some of our cats and beginning to discuss what to do about things, one of our youngest, healthiest cats, Iris, was heard by Julie up in the cattery crying agonally.  Being an ICU and organ transplant nurse for so many years, Julie knew that what she heard was NOT good, so she ran to the cattery and found Iris under a blanket on the floor crying uncontrollably.  She was in obvious cardiac and respiratory distress, so we got her into the car and drove nearly 100 miles an hour to the nearest veterinary emergency clinic (about 5 miles away, but through a lot of traffic).  There, a quick examination showed that Iris had lost feeling in her extremities, had lost her sight (she wouldn't blink when the vet gently touched her eye) and had a body temperature that was more than 10 degrees too low (90 degrees).  I quickly called one of our main vets at home and she verbally confirmed what we and the emergency clinic vet knew:  our vet said, "Eric, Iris is trying to die."  We euthanized Iris immediately.  We were in absolute disbelief.  Now we had three dead cats in 7.5 days.

Scratching Our Heads
Obviously, now we REALLY started talking things over with our team of vets, who even went so far as to check the medical literature for the statistical likelihood of losing that many animals by chance in such a short time.  We spoke with the health department about environmental contaminants.  We did all the research we could on the Internet, but didn't really come up with anything.  Our vets found that the medical literature proved that our losses had been dramatically outside coincidence, chance or medically-statistical likelihood.

What We Now Believe Went Wrong
When you install underlayment, you put it down with screws or nails, but you also glue it down with construction adhesive.  After you've finished installing it all, you use floor leveler to fill in the nail or screw holes and the seams between pieces of underlayment.

When you install vinyl flooring, you use flooring adhesive that's quite odorous.  To remove the excess adhesive and clean up all the marks you make on the vinyl while installing it, you use mineral spirits.

When you install drywall, you have to cut it, which releases dust from the drywall.  When you finish drywall, you use drywall mud which has to be sanded smooth and obviously releases dust into the air.  Drywall dust contains silica, which has been proven carcinogenic.

When you install baseboard and shoemold in an environment where there will be animals, you caulk it carefully with silicone caulk, which is quite odorous.

When you paint an animal-oriented space, you might use the special type of paint that we did, which was then melamine-based (but isn't now).

It is our belief that one or more of these factors—undoubtedly, in our and our vets' opinions, in conjunction with the fumes from the cleaner we had used for a few months—contributed to our animals' demise.

We thought the nightmare was over.  It STILL wasn't.

Two More Previously Healthy Animals Go Down
A few months after Sanibel, Peaches and Iris succumbed, a white, long-haired, blue-eyed, timid cat of ours named Chester suddenly could not breathe.  Julie was in the cattery and heard Chester begin to gag.  It was obvious because he was becoming cyanotic that he wasn't getting air, so we drove him at nearly 100 miles an hour to our main veterinary clinic some 20 miles away.

There, our two main vets immediately put Chester on oxygen and he actually improved a bit.  The quickly put him on the x-ray table and shot some films of him to see if there might have been an obstruction in his airway, but the films showed that there was none.

Our main veterinarian stabilized Chester as best he could and, after much brief-but-intense discussion with us, decided that it was worth the gamble to quite lightly sedate Chester and to pass an endoscope down his trachea to take a look.  The vet did this, but saw nothing abnormal...except that the flap that covered Chester's windpipe (which closes automatically so that swallowed food would go down the esophagus, not the windpipe) wasn't acting right.  The vet noted that he could open the windpipe with the scope, but that it wouldn't stay open on its own.  Chester's own body was suffocating him.

Much further discussion followed.  It was decided that we should keep the breathing tube in Chester, but gently bring him out of the anesthesia to see how he acted.  He came around and was able to breathe normally without an oxygen mask, but with the tube still inserted.  Obviously, an animal or person who wakes up with a breathing tube inserted is NOT going to be happy about it, so we only allowed Chester to breathe this way for a very short time before we extubated him (removed the tube).

We stayed there for another hour and a half or so so we could all observe Chester, who by now was actually breathing ok on his own.  He seemed to not be in distress, so after further discussion we and our vets decided that we should take him home.  It was decided, though, that if this acute episode were a fluke, Chester could go on and be fine, but that if this episode were indicative of a problem that was going to recur, Chester would have no quality of life and would simply be unable to eat or breathe correctly.  To prepare for the worst, the vet inserted an IV catheter into one of Chester's front legs, capped it off, and gave us the syringes of euthanasia solution.  (Important Note:  this is technically illegal to do, but given our decades of experience and Julie's being an ICU nurse, plus the possibility that Chester could suffocate and die a horrible death, the vet agreed to provide the solutions to us that one time.)  We put Chester carefully into the car and made the drive home, during which he did fine.

When we got home, we moved all the other cats out of their sunroom, which had windows all around and skylights.  We put Chester there and he immediately jumped up into a chair and curled up to sleep in the sun.  Julie stayed with him for awhile and I went to lie down to collect my thoughts; Chester slept peacefully, so Julie went to lie down for a bit, too.  After a short time, she thought she'd go check on Chester and as she approached the cat quarters, could hear Chester gagging.  She yelled for me and I came running.  We uncapped the IV and euthanized Chester right there in the sun.

Now we had lost 4 previously healthy cats in just a few months.

More Of The Same
Just a short time after Chester's death, a white and orange shorthair rescue of ours named Betsy began to lose weight, vomit, refuse food and generally not act well.  Her symptoms progressed to the point where she actually pretty much mirrored Peaches, except that we and a specialized veterinary surgeon believed she had a lung problem that could be corrected.  Given Betsy's good demeanor and the surgeon's (and our regular vets') opinions that Betsy's illness might be treatable, we opted for surgery.  Upon removing part of one of Betsy's lungs, she immediately seemed better, but soon began to decline.  The surgeon had submitted her lung tissue for biopsy because it "didn't feel was all bumpy" and the biopsy came back as cancer.  We took Betsy home and did some hospice care, during which time she actually seemed to be relatively comfortable.  Unfortunately, she soon began to have respiratory distress and, after some high-speed trips to the vet and emergency clinic, it was decided that Betsy should be euthanized.  Right to the end, she ate, seemed to like human attention and used the litter box, but she rapidly lost her sight and would wander around familiar spaces in disorientation.  It was obvious her cancer had metastasized and she was nearing the end, so I slept on an air mattress with her one last night and in the morning, we spent some quality time with Betsy, shot some final video of her and, with the help of one of our vets, euthanized her at home on the air mattress.

Luckily, since the deaths of these 5 cats, we've only lost one cat—our first cat, Linus, who died of kidney failure in May of 2001 at almost 17 years old and whose death was unrelated to the deaths of the previous 5.  We still have some of the other cats who lived in the same population as Sanibel, Peaches, Iris, Chester and Betsy, but who have never developed any symptoms of illness that might appear to be related to what the others went through.  Naturally, we and our vets wonder what might have been different about the 5 who passed away—all of whom had been quite healthy and happy cats.

Note Added 3/03:  Our eldest cat, Skippy, passed away in February 2003 of diabetes, cardiomyopathy and renal insufficiency, none of which was related to the issues talked about in this document.  However, we did lose two other cats in ways that we believe stand a chance of being related.

One was our cat Sophie, who was our eldest after the passing of Linus and Skippy.  The short version of Sophie's story is that she developed lung cancer and sublingual squamous cell carcinoma.  In addition, during the last week of her life, Sophie either became bowel obstructed or developed other problems that may have been cancer-related.  Obviously, none of us can know for sure if Sophie's demise had anything to do with the issues raised in this document, but we believe there is a chance that there was a correlation.

Another was our kitty, Tony, who spent a little time in the cattery at our farm.  Tony had always been happy and healthy and we adopted him to a great couple on Indy's northeast side around Christmas of 2002.  Unfortunately, during March of 2003 Tony suddenly became ill with what appeared to have been neurological symptoms.  His new family spoon fed him and helped him to the litter box for a few days, but Tony took an acute turn for the worse and suddenly passed away as the family rushed him to an area clinic.  A post-mortem exam showed nothing amiss, but given that Tony had been so healthy 'til then...and given his symptoms' similarity to those of Chester, we believe there's a chance that Tony's demise may have been related to the others'.

What About Our New Facility?
Suffice it to say that when we moved to our current home and constructed our private rescue facility, we made sure that the animals were nowhere in sight until the place had been fully constructed, painted and THOROUGHLY cleaned.

We no longer use the potentially offending products in our facility, nor will I ever do any type of construction or use chemicals while there are animals nearby.  We urge you not to perform construction, especially drywall, with your animals sharing the space.

Our spirituality being what it is, we firmly believe that everything happens for a reason, so we're hoping that you can somehow learn from our horrible experiences and improve your animals' chances at having long, happy and, most importantly, healthy lives.

P.S.  You may be wondering what we now use for cleaning at our facility.  Prior to the debacle described above, we'd for years used Dow Brand Foaming Bathroom Cleaner (which is pictured in our educational document about cleaning up cat barf off any color carpet, even white) and had never detected any problems with it, so that's exclusively what we use now and have literally bought thousands of cans of it over the years.  So, wherever you are in our rescue facility, you're never far away from a roll of paper towels and a can of foamy cleaner.  For bigger cleaning jobs, we use a mop and either bleach (once in a while) one of the liquid cleaners like Mr. Clean or Lysol, and are quite sure to rinse well.  Of course, we also use DooDoo Voodoo on a daily basis and most often mop with just it in some warm water.  Julie and the cat nannies will also sometimes use Clorox Cleanup spray cleaner, which contains bleach and comes in a white, orange and green spray bottle; this is especially useful for sanitizing the litter boxes every so often, but is a bit too caustic, in our opinion, for constant use (it can cause coughing).  We've had no further problems except those related in the note added after the Epilogue above.

Here are pictures of (left to right):  Peaches, Chester, Iris (the kitten) and Betsy, Sanibel, Tony, Miss Kitty, Sophie and Skippy.  We miss them all, think of them often and take comfort in knowing that they'll greet us again one day.  To read more about some of the animals who have passed over the Rainbow Bridge, click here.

Peaches_Window_IR1.jpg (26544 bytes) Chester_In_Basket_IR1.jpg (35422 bytes) Betsy__Iris_On_Blanket_IR1.jpg (23784 bytes) Sanibel_On_Couch_IR1.jpg (40261 bytes) Tony when he was young, thin and healthy.  What a great personality!
Miss Kitty the day we euthanized her. Here's Sophie bathing Skippy early on the day we euthanized Skippy.  They were best friends their entire lives.  Little did we know at the time we shot this picture that Sophie would join Skippy over the Rainbow Bridge just a month later.