The Doctor and The Cat House Part II: The Reckoning

In this ongoing series, Dr. Thomas N. Told shares his thoughts and experiences as a family medicine physician for more than 35 years.

In Part I of this series, I explained how the Northwest Colorado County Health Department had a problem with a repossessed house taken over by feral cats. This presented a growing public health problem and, in order to humanely remove the felines from a property we did not have permission to enter, we needed a solid plan. Our immediate solution was to declare the house a public health emergency, which provided us legal grounds to immediately remove the furry squatters, who resisted until the very end. Here is the continuation of this unique and challenging story.

C-Day: The Great Feline Evacuation

Following our initial incursion into the Cat House, where we were greeted by a truly cat-a-strophic scene of mayhem and destruction, I convened a meeting of local police, fire, and sheriff department leaders to come up with a plan to capture all the cats in one smooth operation. It was a laudable but unobtainable goal, as we all knew that “herding cats” and “smooth operation” rarely appeared in the same sentence—and for good reason. The phrase “herding cats” is rightfully used to describe absolute chaos and disorganization that comes about when one tries to move any groups of land mammals (including those of the human variety), with cats being the most notorious of the lot.

Like the generals who planned D-Day, our group had much to consider in order to ensure success. “Granted, C-Day would be on a smaller scale than the event decades before on the shores of Normandy; however, with all the hazards and complications [the cats presented], devising strategies to mitigate them would also be important.”

As the physician in charge of the operation, I reviewed the biological hazards we might encounter. These cats had lived in cramped, filthy conditions since birth, which made them excellent vectors for all manner of diseases. These included the deadly Rabies virus, Cat Scratch Disease (caused by the bacterium Bartonella henselae, it is transmitted to the cat’s claws and fur during licking and cleaning and can trigger swelling of the lymph nodes, joint pain, and fevers), Pasteruella multosida (the infectious bacteria that inhabits the mouths of 60-90% of all cats and can infect heart valves and other vital structures), and Toxoplasmosis. Caused by a particularly nasty single-celled parasite called Toxoplasma gondii, Toxoplasmosis, commonly found in cat droppings, can infect pregnant women and subsequently spread to the babies in their wombs. I had, for years, advised all my pregnant patients not to empty the cat litter boxes in their homes for this very reason during pregnancy. Because of this concern, we made sure it would be an all-male operation. 

The final and most worrisome was the Hanta Virus. At the time, we were dealing with a Hanta Virus outbreak in Northwest Colorado, and our clinic had identified the first case in our region. We never definitively established where that person was infected, though it could have happened while they were cleaning up the wood pile or outbuildings near their house. Fortunately, since we weren’t sure of the patient’s condition, we hospitalized them early. When the patient suddenly entered the cardiopulmonary phase of the disease in the middle of the night, they deteriorated rapidly. We administered the antiviral drug Ribavirin, which slowed the effects of the disease, and allowed time to transport them to Rose Medical Center in Denver for more definitive care. They would go on to be the first patient in Colorado to survive the deadly disease that had already killed just under a dozen people in our state. Ribavirin would be studied as a possible early-treatment, only to later be abandoned for other, more supportive respiratory treatments. It also sent a chilling message to all of us in public health, that Hanta Virus existed not only in southern Colorado, but in the northwest, as well.

Even though the Cat House was a proper (albeit abandoned) home located in town and not some remote cabin, the chances of a deer mouse surviving in this neighborhood were akin to a balloon’s chance of being left un-popped by a group of porcupines. The felines, during their numerous attempts to escape their confinement, had clawed out holes in the walls, managing to create a few dusty corridors leading outside. Those passages were not in continuous use, making an easy access for deer mice and their droppings to enter the house. The act of wrangling wild cats from those passages would easily aerosolize the virus, potentially infecting both the fur of the captive and the lungs of the captor. Despite the risk, plenty of volunteers from the police and fire departments were on-site to catch the cats.

C-Day dawned bright and windless, with a clear sky and no threat of adverse weather. Silently, police pickups, fire trucks, and a couple animal control vehicles positioned themselves around the Cat House. My resident and I came armed with plenty of bandages and antiseptic to treat any who were wounded, and had checked out the cat hazers and catchers the night before to see to it that their tetanus vaccinations were up-to-date. Small animal cages (and boxes for the very young kittens) were readied outside. Everyone who entered the house was dressed in isolation clothing, high-quality N-95 style-masks and heavy rubber gloves.

After a signal from the Chief of Police, all doors were breached at once and teams rapidly entered to catch the cats. Absolute mayhem broke out, as cats jumped from the light fixtures and curtain rods, trying to escape through the cat tunnels. Many were caught in midair with nets or cornered inside abandoned appliances. Boxes and cages full of cats and kittens were taken to the veterinary hospital for evaluation. The operation took a little over an hour, after which my family medicine resident and I, along with EMTs, patched up the wounded. Despite our preparation, there were still a surprising number of cat bites and scratches to be treated. In the end, only a few participants would need antibiotic treatment in the weeks that followed.

Sadly, the cats and kittens didn’t fare as well. All of the over 200 cats rescued from the Cat House tested positive for feline leukemia, a deadly retrovirus that infects cats and kittens alike, weakening their immune systems. This condition was well-advanced in all of the cats, and with the prospects of curing them being non-existent, the only humane course of action was to put them all down. My vision of everyone getting a free pet was dashed at that moment. The Cat House also become a casualty of this event and would take several “house flippers” with it.

It had been my intention from the start to condemn the house and have it burned as part of a training exercise for the fire department. That did not fit well with the plans of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, however, who wanted to clean the house and sell it. The Department of Housing eventually realized no amount of cleaning and repair could abolish the smell of the cats’ residue, which was by now firmly and permanently ingrained in the wood. The agency ended up listing the house at progressively lower amounts until it was sold. The low prices brought housing speculators from all over the country looking for a cheap house to flip. Soon, my phone rang off the hook as potential flippers learned the true history of the Cat House. I was very truthful, both about house’s history and my opinion that it could not be rehabilitated. Each speculator and prospective buyer assured me that they could make the house livable, but in every case the flippers flopped. Each was forced to give up and sell the house for much less than they paid just to get rid of it. After several years, the price of the land the Cat House was standing on became far more valuable than the house sitting on it. The last house flipper wisely tore down the house and had it hauled off, proving once again that dealing with a Cat House never pays off.

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