Steve Munt’s family was on a routine run to a shelter for rabbit food in 2011 when they met Zee, and fell in love. “We brought her home, and she instantly enriched our lives, and has brought great joy to all she has touched,” says Steve.
Within months, the family adopted two more cats, including six-month-old Dublin, whom Zee adopted as her own — the two were inseparable. Sadly, Dublin soon became ill with FIP, an incurable illness. After exhausting every option for his recovery, the family said goodbye in January 2012. “When I came home from Dublin’s last trip to the vet, Zee licked my tears,” says Steve. “She comforted me through the night.”
After losing Dublin, Zee was sluggish and uninterested in playing. Several vet visits failed to find a problem. Then she coughed up hairballs, and her energy improved. The family adopted additional cats, one of whom became Zee’s playmate, helping her resume a fairly normal life. Still, Steve says, “She was not the same cat who loved to frolic with Dublin.” He now believes this was when Zee’s real health issues began.
Still, it would be two years before finding a proper diagnosis — chronic renal failure — during which time Steve says her kidneys were deteriorating.
Chronic renal failure (kidney disease) is a leading cause of death in domestic cats, affecting as many as one in three. “Kidneys have a built-in reserve capacity,” Steve explains. “Sadly, symptoms may not appear, and bloodwork can be normal, until two-thirds of kidney function has been lost.”
In 2014, at age four, Zee became seriously ill. Given just a 5% chance of survival, the veterinarian’s recommendation: euthanize her.
“I looked into Zee’s eyes, as well as my heart, and knew what I had to do,” says Steve. “Zee was an amazing cat and an important part of our family; I would not lose her without a fight.”
And fight he did. “I learned all I could about her illness, and assembled a top-notch medical team.”
The first step was a blood transfusion, a dramatic chapter in its own right. The hospital had none of Zee’s rare type-B blood, but managed — on extremely short notice — to reach the owners of a cat who did. This superhero likely saved Zee’s life with the donation of a single pint — all that stood between life or death for her that night.
While Zee survived, Steve says, “Our fight has just begun” and that this marked the beginning of his “education into veterinary specialists.”
Zee’s team would eventually include an internist, cardiologist, surgeon, anesthesiologist, dentist, and acupuncturist. But first she would meet “the cat whisperer.”
Following her blood transfusion, Zee was in a slump. Hiding out in a shopping bag in a closet, she would emerge only occasionally, sit very still, then quickly return to the bag. She would not eat or drink. “I feared I was losing her.” Steve contacted a woman at the shelter, who agreed to visit. She belly-crawled to Zee’s hiding place, and “Zee came to life,” Steve recalls. The woman helped with environmental changes, including a window perch with a view. Soon after, Zee’s signs of life improved even more when “a stranger arrived . . . .”
A sweet orange boy that Steve soon learned lived nearby “came a calling.” Zee seemed to know and be smitten with him, and learning that he was born shortly after Dublin’s departure, Steve felt he knew him, too. Zee’s energy and desire to live continued to rise.
The next step in Zee’s care was to see an internal medicine specialist who diagnosed stage 3 kidney disease (median survival time: 778 days). Additional testing indicated Zee was losing protein through her urine, further reducing her median survival time to 276 days. Also finding a slightly enlarged heart, the doctor referred Zee to a cardiologist. An echocardiogram added a diagnosis of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or thickening of the heart muscle. Medication addressed both issues, and Zee responded with improving labs and weight gain.
Through his extensive research, Steve found that — with strict criteria — kidney transplants were available to cats. He soon discovered, however, that she was “too healthy” for one. His research then led him to stem cell therapy. While such therapy for feline kidney disease was not approved by the FDA at that time, Steve wrangled a compassionate use exception, giving Zee a green light.
By this time Steve was working with doctors at CVRC, who had performed stem cell therapy on dogs for muscle and joint issues, but not on cats or for kidney disease. While the doctor was skeptical it would make a difference, Steve’s persuasion won again: she agreed to perform the procedure.
Before Zee’s journey, Steve says his experience with “the vet world” was, “A vet is a vet is . . . a vet. Then, at the specialty hospitals, I found higher quality doctors — even more notably, higher quality vet techs. When I was initially referred to an internal medical specialist at CVRC, I thought: ‘specialists?’ I had no idea there were [veterinary] specialists.”
“There was an obvious elevated status. Now I always say, ‘If I ever get really sick I’m dressing up as a cat and coming to CVRC.’”
Steve says he appreciated that at CVRC, “No one was dictating to me, like: ‘This is what we need to do.’ The doctor was educating me, and I got to see her process — it felt like a partnership.” Steve says his suggestions were listened to — like the possibility of a kidney transplant and later stem cell therapy — adding, “I could share research I had done and she was very open to it.” He says that while the doctor felt skeptical that stem cell therapy would be beneficial for Zee, “she didn’t feel it would cause harm, and said: ‘If you’re going to do it, do it now.’”
They did. After two infusions two weeks apart, Zee’s kidney function was improving, as was her energy — dramatically. “She was active and gaining weight.”
By early 2015, Zee was better than ever. But chronic kidney disease is progressive, and Steve remains vigilant in her treatment. “Without it she would decline,” he says. “It is a battle we currently are winning.”
Also continuing his research, Steve found that acupuncture was sometimes used to treat chronic kidney disease in cats. He carefully chose a practitioner and made an appointment. “I knew immediately I had made the right choice,” he says. “The initial result was nothing short of amazing. Within minutes of arriving home, Zee had a very distinct response to her treatment.”
Zee continues to receive regular acupuncture and monitoring by her internist and cardiologist. Steve also gives her a daily probiotic “which can help metabolize toxic waste in the gut, before it hits the bloodstream.” Also with prescription meds and diet, Zee continues to improve. “The need for a kidney transplant seems unlikely anytime soon,” he says. Since beginning acupuncture, she’s gained more weight, and her urine protein levels have improved 66%. While additional stem cell infusions will be provided if needed, Zee hasn’t had one since 2014, and based on the efficacy of acupuncture, Steve feels the need might not arise at all.
Nearly two years after hearing “euthanize her,” Zee is very much alive, happy, healthy and active. Her CKD has reversed, and is now in remission.
While that’s certainly thanks to Steve’s investment of love, time and extensive research, he says: “I can’t say enough good things about CVRC. I believe if I had not been put in touch with them, Zee wouldn’t be here. I was able to work with the doctors toward my desired outcome. I didn’t care about the percentages like chances (or not) of survival. I felt if she had a chance of making it, let’s go for it. I don’t think I could’ve done that with any other vet. It’s such a different level of respect . . . a different world.”
Steve and Zee’s experience led to Zee cultivating a Twitter feed where she now has more than 6000 followers. Steve is working on a book to help other pet parents understand the causes, effects, and possible solutions for chronic feline kidney disease.
Find Zee on Twitter via @growingupzee.
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