This month’s Animal Hero of the Month is Phil Augello, a HousePaws client who took the initiative to search the U.S. to find and adopt two cats who were a match for his loving cat, Teddy, so that Teddy could have a life-saving kidney transplant. Teddy was an Abyssinian, a curious and smart breed that Phil became familiar with over 30 years. Teddy and his littermate/brother Smoochie came into Teddy’s life at the same time. According to Phil, “Getting two Aby’s from the same litter helped increase the odds that one would bond with me. Teddy was the one who claimed me. Smoochie was attached to my wife. The brothers were total opposites. Smoochie hung out with our other two Aby’s and Teddy was kind of a loner who did his own thing.” Phil’s dedication to Teddy and determination to go the extra mile to seek out a unique treatment for Teddy’s kidney disease inspires us to share the story of his care for Teddy.
Q: Can you tell us about how Teddy came into your life? What is it like living with a breed like an Abyssinian?
A: In my opinion, Aby’s are one of the smartest breeds of cats. I make that claim having shared space with the breed for over 30 years. They master cat toys and become bored if not challenged. They have unique problem-solving skills and usually resolve the issue. They watch everything you do. If you’re working on repairing a household item, they steal small parts like screws, clips, electrical parts. You hardly ever know it’s coming. If you’re lucky, they usually stash them in the same place. They’re very affectionate and usually bond with one person in the household. Some Aby’s demand a ride on your shoulder when you return home. This would become a ritual and you would pay a price if you didn’t comply. Getting two Aby’s from the same litter helped increase the odds that one would bond with me. Teddy was the one who claimed me. Smoochie, his littermate/brother, was attached to my wife. We were fortunate to locate the pair of boys from a breeder in Pennsylvania. The brothers were total opposites. Smoochie hung out with our other two Aby’s and Teddy was kind of a loner who did his own thing. Aby’s are highly independent and work hard to rule their companions. They make it known what they want and when! What they want to eat and what they don’t. They are watchful and will refuse to eat one of their favorites if they think you tampered with it…i.e meds or supplements. They are super curious and want to be in the middle of every part of your life!
Q: Teddy was diagnosed with kidney disease and he was approved by the University of Pennsylvania to get a kidney transplant. This is an incredible commitment. Teddy also had a rare blood type. What processes did you go through to get him the care he needed? What made you decide to take the plunge into surgery for Teddy?
A: Aby’s are predisposed to several congenital conditions. Renal insufficiency in my opinion tops the list. Having lost several Aby’s over three decades, it’s a horrible disease to witness. Loss of appetite, lethargy, dehydration are just some of the symptoms. With CRF (chronic renal failure), it’s a matter of time with no good outcome. There is NO cure, just palliative care to hopefully make them comfortable. One of the treatments for dehydration is the administration of subcutaneous fluids. In the early stages, fluids are given a couple times a week. During the later stages of CRF, fluids are given daily along with other supplements to lower phosphate, enhance appetite or treat anemia. Teddy received subq fluids daily for about 2 years prior to his transplant. Dr. Lisa treated Teddy superbly throughout his 12 years. She worked with us to monitor lab values and recommended alternative treatments. She was relentless in caring for Teddy and thought well “outside the box”. The result of Dr. Lisa’s care kept Teddy alive until we decided and able to pursue a renal transplant. Prior to the transplant, Teddy was fading rapidly and didn’t have long. He ate small amounts, drank frequently, and lived in a reclusive state under the bed. He would only venture from under the bed to use the litter box or drink. I fed him under the bed! As bad as things were, I felt in my heart and in his eyes, it wasn’t his time. There’s no logic to my decision other than when I looked in his eyes, he was willing to fight to live. That’s when I took the plunge!! We emailed Dr. Lisa and told her we were going to research a kidney transplant. She was ecstatic and replied with a big “fingers crossed”! We made an evaluation appointment at Penn for Teddy. After the exam, the Penn vet said that Teddy was suffering from end stage renal failure, and he didn’t qualify for a transplant. That was not the answer I wanted to hear or accept. The reason Teddy was ineligible was because he had rare type B blood. The Penn vet stated there were no type b donor cats to be had. Less than 1% of the cat population in the U.S. are type B. Dr. Lisa began working her network looking for a type B cat as a donor. It became a greater challenge when we were informed that TWO type B donors are required for transplant! At this point, late in 2017, Teddy’s blood values were getting worse and he’d become more lethargic along with an appetite decline. I researched as much as possible looking for two type B donors. I posted Teddy’s dilemma on social media. An Aby breeder/friend who started the Aby Owners Club on Facebook reached out to her breeder network. Three weeks later – nothing! Transplant is a very controversial subject throughout the animal/companion community. Many folks don’t realize when you sign up for a kidney transplant, you also sign up to adopt both donors forever. I was having a difficult time contacting the Renal Transplant Coordinator at Penn. It was near the Christmas holidays and I wasn’t hearing back from Penn. Again, Dr. Lisa to the rescue. She contacted a friend who is a vet at Penn and asked him to leave a note on the coordinator’s desk. I heard back from Penn the next day! The Penn Transplant Coordinator referred me to ABRI, a veterinary blood bank with facilities in California & Michigan. I called ABRI and pleaded my case. They asked me to email my request for 2 type B donor cats to the CEO of ABRI. She wrote back within an hour stating she was retiring a couple type B cats from the blood bank. Penn’s Renal Transplant protocol requires that before it’s a go, both potential donors are required to be cross matched/ typed for blood compatibility. They also receive a CAT scan of their abdominal area to check kidneys and renal arteries. The CEO of ABRI drove the two donor cats 100 miles to Lansing, Michigan for the procedures. Both donor cats passed the screening tests and were accepted as potential donors. Penn requires two donor cats in the event something was missed during their extensive testing.
Three days later we had a meet & greet with 6 members of Penn’s Renal Transplant Team. Dr Lilly, the Program Director spent 30 minutes cautioning us about the numerous possible negative outcomes that existed. Her eyes were piercing as she spoke. I believe she wanted to make sure we knew what we were signing up for! We listened to the high-risk factors and decided that without a transplant, Teddy probably had less than a month to live. We set a date for the transplant – January 18, 2018. Transplant cats receive daily doses of an immunosuppressant drug to minimize the risk of an organ rejection. The downside is that their immune system is comprised and exposes them to the possibility to contract numerous diseases.
It was the first week in January and surgery was scheduled for the 18th. Meanwhile we needed to have both donor cats at Penn two days before the transplant procedure. Shipping them was too risky, so I decided to fly to Detroit to pick them up. The folks from ABRI were super accommodating. I shipped two soft carriers and booked a flight. I arrived in Detroit at 7:30 in the morning, rented an SUV and drove an hour west to ABRI. I arrived to a warm welcome from the entire staff who knew Teddy’s story. It was the first time I saw the two donor cats, Wesley & Nala. The carriers were packed with the two kitties and off we went for a 12-hour drive back home to NJ. At home, Wesley & Nala settled for the night and were shuttled to Penn the next morning. After a quick exam and CAT scan review, Dr. Lilly chose Wesley as the donor. Nala would be backup if needed.
Q: How did things go for Teddy as a result of your treatment choice? Would you make the same choice again?
A: The transplant took place as scheduled. There was a small glitch where the ureter, a small tube between the transplanted kidney and the bladder became kinked. This required a second surgery to repair it. He stayed at Penn for 5 days and returned home. We visited him every day bringing his favorite foods.
The first week at home required extensive monitoring to make sure the new kidney was functioning properly. We needed to have blood & urine tests done weekly to ensure that his kidney values were improving and that his anemia was improving. He did contract toxoplasmosis which I believe is dormant in many cats, in Teddy’s case, he required antibiotics to keep the toxo under control.
He lived for almost a year with a new lease on life. No more fluids; he gained 3 pounds and was up and about. He reverted back to the Teddy I knew and loved. He would sleep on the bed and wake me up three times in the middle of the night to eat. I woke up and fed him. I knew what I signed up for and was trying to do my part with no reservations whatsoever!
He was hospitalized in December of 2018 for a growth on the inside of his ear. It was found to be cancerous and the ear was removed trying to avoid it from metastasizing. In February of this year he developed squamous cell cancer in his lymph nodes. At that point surgery was no longer an option. Since squamous cell carcinoma is so aggressive, I chose traditional treatment of chemo and radiation. The cancer was too aggressive, and he was no longer responding to treatment,
We called Dr. Lisa and she put him to rest on May 9th in my bed while he was laying on my chest. I have NO regrets for the decision I made to go forth with the transplant and would do it again without hesitation. Understand that at no time did I compromise his well being or quality of his life for self-serving or selfish motives. When it was his time, I made the call to DL. When she saw him, she agreed with the decision.
Q: What advice do you have for pet owners who have pets with kidney disease?
A: If your cat is diagnosed with CRF, work with your local vet to monitor blood and urine. The data derived will help your vet guide you to the best treatment plan. Diet is critical. High quality canned or home prepared foods are best. In my opinion, limit dry foods when possible. Learn how to detect if your cat is dehydrated and how to give subq fluids if necessary. Contact your vet immediately if your cat’s thirst increases or if urination is frequent and in larger than normal amounts.
Q: You have had and currently do have several cats, some Abyssinian and some not. How have your other cats impacted your life? What were their relationships with Teddy like?
A: We have three cats at present. Each cat is unique, having its own special characteristics and personality. For me, my cats provide a tranquil feeling. They always appear to be in control of their world…bugs included!
Teddy was a very mellow cat. Other cats in the household would often times defer to him. He would pass our other cats and sometimes give a sniff. Never a hiss, or a fight. Not an aggressive bone in his body!
Q: You recently said goodbye Teddy after his fight against cancer. What made Teddy such a special cat to you?
A: He was affectionate, independent, loving and loyal. He had a way of making a bad day so much better. He is missed. Teddy’s resting beside his brother Smoochie in a pine grove in our yard.