HOUSEHOLD CHEMICALS, ENVIRONMENTAL CONTAMINANTS & DEAD CATS
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
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.
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
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
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
Two More Previously Healthy Animals Go
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
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
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 right...it 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.
Added 3/03: Our eldest
version of Sophie's story is
none of us
to do with
but we believe there
him to a
to the litter box
for a few
to an area
have been related to the others'.
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
is a bit
can cause coughing). We've had no further
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,