Research may someday find a way to beat HCM

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Q: We lost our dear Gimli to HCM (feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy) in February. He was only 7 years old. We miss him so much. We've Googled HCM research and think it's wonderful that research is being done on how to prevent or treat this disease. Can you tell us more about HCM? -- V.A., Oslo, Norway

A: I'm very sorry for your loss. You're not alone; feline Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM) is perhaps the most common cause of death in cats from about age 2 or 3 to 9 or 10 years (when kidney disease and cancers become more prevalent).

HCM is also the most common cause of sudden death in cats; often, owners don't even suspect their cat has heart disease. Some cats with HCM suffer repeated painful stroke-like events, causing temporarily paralysis. These events may occur with increasing frequency. Owners understandably start running out of money for treatment, which may become more challenging over time.

When diagnosed (often by veterinarians hearing a heart murmur, confirmed with an echocardiogram by a veterinary cardiologist), medication may help slow the progression of HCM, but most experts agree that, in truth, there is no treatment.

When my cat Ricky succumbed to HCM in 2002, I launched the Ricky Fund at the Winn Feline Foundation a non-profit funder of cat health studies. Ricky was a celebrity cat. This exceedingly social little guy performed "concerts" on a children's piano. He could also jump through a hoop, jump over dogs or children, and various other fun behaviors. He craved attention.

Shortly after he was diagnosed, Ricky "retired" as a performer. He died at age 8. Put simply, Ricky was my best friend.

HCM affects too many cats and too many families, so I decided to focus attention on this horrible disease. Through the dollars raised so far, researchers have found a genetic defect which occurs in Ragdolls and Maine Coon cats. With a simple cheek swab, breeders can determine if the defect likely exists in individual cats, and consider whether or not to use those cats in breeding programs. It's a start, but we need to do more.

The 34th annual Winn Feline Foundation Symposium June 28 will focus on HCM. The program features veterinary cardiologist Dr. John Rush, of Tufts University, North Grafton, MA, and Leslie Lyons, of the University of California-Davis. New information and research will be presented on diagnostic testing, dietary implications, and new drugs for treatment of HCM in cats. Lyons will speak about genetic sequencing.

The symposium (which is open to veterinary professionals as well as the general public) begins at 4 p.m. at the Boston Marriott Quincy, in Quincy, MA. Registration is $25. Proceeds benefit the Winn Feline Foundation Ricky Fund. Register online. I will attend, reminisce about Ricky and introduce the speakers. Learn more at: http://www.winnfelinehealth.org/Pages/WinnSymposium.html.

Q: Sadie, our Lhasa Apso, drives our friends crazy. She licks our guests -- their feet, their legs, their arms, whatever she can get at. This goes on non-stop! Sadie does this to me, too. The veterinarian says she has no health problems. I try to distract her and tell her "no," but no luck. Any advice? -- B.T., Henderson, NV

A: Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Ilana Reisner, of Philadelphia, PA, says Sadie's behavior may be reinforced by attention, and/or it may be a displacement behavior.

"If even some visitors sometimes laugh at the behavior or begin to pet Sadie when she licks, she gets attention -- and for many dogs that's extremely reinforcing," says Reisner. "Even if you say 'no,' that attention might also be reinforcing."

By displacement behavior, Reisner means the licking is like a nervous outlet, which has become a habit, not too different from that of people who play with their hair as they talk, or bite their nails.

The fix for all this includes asking your guests not to reward Sadie with any attention when she licks, but instead to provide praise and petting when she's not licking.

Also, if you can, preempt the behavior with a distraction. You mentioned that you've tried this, but Reisner wonders if your timing was off. Once Sadie begins to lick visitors (or you), distraction may be more challenging. Ideally, you want to offer her a treat stuffed inside a Kong toy (for example) before she licks anybody.

Reisner has another great idea: "Teach her little tricks to display for your friends, which is a great way to receive attention." Once Sadie does some tricks and is rewarded with praise, she may not revert so quickly to licking.

Reisner assumes your veterinarian's exam was thorough, but points out dogs may lick as Sadie does because their tummy hurts, when they feel nauseous, or even if there's a dental issue.

Q: I enjoyed the TV coverage of the Queen Elizabeth's Jubilee, but I rarely hear anything anymore about her dogs. Does she still have dogs? -- C.T., Montreal, Quebec, Canada

A: According to the Royal family website (yes, there is such a thing), the Queen still has an affinity for Corgis. The Pembroke Welsh Corgi was introduced to the Royal Family by the Queen's father, King George VI, in 1933, when he bought a Corgi called Dookie from a local kennel. The dog proved popular with his two daughters, so a second Corgi was acquired, called Jane. The family kept two of Jane's puppies, Crackers and Carol.

For her 18th birthday, Elizabeth received a Corgi named Susan, from whom numerous successive dogs were bred. Some Corgis were mated with Dachshunds (most notably Pipkin, who belonged to Princess Margaret) to create the famed 'Royal Dorgis'.

At present, Queen Elizabeth owns three Corgis, Monty, Willow and Holly; and three Dorgis, Cider, Candy and Vulcan.

The Queen's Corgis accompany her to the various royal residences. The website makes a point of saying that Her Majesty continues to look after her beloved dogs. Other members of the Royal Family own dogs of various breeds. The Duchess of Cornwall owns two Jack Russell Terriers, Tosca and Rosie.

Oh, to be a dog in the Royal family -- if those dogs could only talk!

(Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he'll answer those of general interest in his column Send e-mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is http://www.stevedalepetworld.com; he also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." He's also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.)

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