He may be on life No. 8, but Kvetch is still alive -- and thriving.
"He's fatter and meaner than ever," said Dr. Marian Siegel, a cat veterinarian who has been treating the big brown-striped tabby for deadly feline leukemia with dilute alpha interferon for three years.
"If I had done nothing he would have died long ago," said Dr. Siegel, stroking Kvetch, whose name means "complainer" in Yiddish and whose life she has saved twice.
Interferon is used increasingly to treat feline leukemia and feline acquired immune deficiency syndrome, although its efficacy remains uncertain. Success stories are anecdotal because there has been no long-term study with a control group and no plan for one, said Dr. William Hardy of the National Veterinary Laboratory in Franklin Lakes, N.J.
The patterns of feline leukemia and feline AIDS follow human illness, and the work with cats has prompted the National Institutes of Health to sponsor a long-term study of 560 AIDS patients treated with interferon.
"If there is money, they would rather put it into studying humans than cats," he said.
Dr. Hardy said a small percentage of cats that test positive for the viruses but do not have the actual disease shake them off naturally, "so it is still inconclusive whether the interferon cures it or not."
Even without scientific proof of interferon's effectiveness, "it doesn't do any harm and potentially it does a lot of good," said Dr. Siegel, a native New Yorker. "What we've been able to do for these cats and their owners is to give them time and quality of life."
At her Metropolitan Cat Hospital in Owings Mills, Dr. Siegel has used interferon on about 30 cats, most rescued from the streets and all testing positive for the feline leukemia virus. Some have died, others are clinically healthy while carrying the virus, and four -- Kvetch among them -- now test negative for it.
Kvetch had full-blown leukemia and no more than a few weeks to live when Dr. Siegel began squirting the medicine down his throat daily. She then switched to a week-on, week-off regimen that will continue for the cat's lifetime.
She recommends anti-leukemia vaccinations for pet cats.