Cat apparently recovers from feline leukemia

July 07, 1993|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

Kvetch's big green eyes glared through the bars of his cage.

"He's 14 mean, nasty pounds of cat," his owner, Dr. Marian Siegel, said.

If the big, striped brown tabby has any lives left, he owes them all to Dr. Siegel, 46, who has a cat hospital in Owings Mills.

First she saved Kvetch by adopting him after his owners abandoned him. Now, by using the cancer-fighting drug interferon, she is helping Kvetch become a footnote in feline medical history with his apparent recovery from feline leukemia, a common and nearly always fatal disease.

In early 1991, when Dr. Siegel adopted Kvetch -- the Yiddish word for "complainer" -- he was a paw's length from cat heaven. The cat had been "dumped" at the Glen Burnie animal hospital where she worked. The choice was adoption or euthanasia.

"He was headed for extinction," she said.

Kvetch was treated for chronic cystitis, a urinary blockage common in male cats. At the time, a routine blood test for feline leukemia proved negative, Dr. Siegel said.

She took him home, where she has several other cats. All was well until last November when Kvetch became ill, apparently after a fight with another cat in which he was bitten several times.

While treating his wounds at her hospital, Dr. Siegel decided to do a blood test -- just in case -- because Kvetch had stopped eating.

"He had a very low white cell count. He was dying," she said.

A low white blood cell count in animals usually signals a viral infection. Kvetch's count was in the critical range. Dr. Siegel backed up her in-house test with a test by a laboratory. That test also showed positive for feline leukemia.

"I sat down and had a good cry because usually it means they're dead in three to six weeks," said Dr. Siegel, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School in 1990, after a 14-year career as a film and tape editor for Maryland Public Television.

"It was either we put him to sleep or we try to pull him through this episode," said Dr. Siegel, a New York City native whose parents were physicians.

She recalled a veterinary journal article about experiments in treating feline leukemia with oral doses of heavily diluted alpha interferon, a drug used in massive doses in the treatment of human cancers and the AIDS virus. She decided to take a gamble.

Interferon also is being tested in the treatment of FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus), the feline equivalent of AIDS, which attacks the immune system and allows other diseases to take hold of the body.

A veterinary school classmate, who also practices in Baltimore County, had a vial of interferon, and Kvetch's treatment began. For seven days the cat received one daily dose, squirted into his mouth with a syringe. Then nothing for a week. Then the regimen was repeated.

When Dr. Siegel tested his blood in April, it was negative for leukemia. A second test, using another method, also showed negative.

She sent blood to the lab for a confirmatory test. It showed that while most of the cells were negative, a few weak, positive cells remained.

The lab asked for a new test a month later. When those results arrived in mid-May, they showed Kvetch free of the leukemia, Dr. Siegel said, grinning. She is awaiting results of his June test, as well as those of three other cats she is treating with interferon. Another cat had been receiving the drug but died.

Although Dr. Siegel said she cannot positively ascribe the reversal of Kvetch's condition to the interferon therapy, she said natural remission of feline leukemia is very rare.

"We're not dealing with scientific studies here. It's anecdotal: Is it the interferon or was it Kvetch's own immune system taking over?" Dr. Siegel said.

Feline leukemia is transmitted by association -- oral-nasal contact or other forms of contact such as sharing a food bowl -- while feline immunodeficiency virus spreads through penetration contact such as bites in a fight.

Dr. Richard Weiss, associate professor of patho-biology at Auburn University in Alabama, was one of the authors of the journal article on interferon. He said many vets are trying the drug in treating feline leukemia and FIV and while "it is not a cure-all, it seems to be helping."

Cats are very sensitive and react badly to many of the new drugs being developed to combat cancer, Dr. Weiss said. Because interferon is a natural protein produced by the body, the cats do not react adversely and are being helped, he said.

Dr. Joseph Cummins, a veterinary microbiologist in Amarillo, Texas, was a co-author with Dr. Weiss and one of the first scientists to test low-dose oral administration of interferon.

The diseases in cats are a model for cancer and AIDS in humans, and animal studies are providing scientists with an opportunity to study the the effectiveness of various treatments, Dr. Cummins said.

Dr. Siegel said she routinely insists that cat owners have their pets vaccinated against feline leukemia.

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