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The heart-wrenching agony when your pet gets sick

2017 has been a tough year. Not just for me, but also for my youngest cat. After a recent visit to the emergency vet, I decided it would be a good idea to document my experience with a recurring urinary condition that my cat suffers from.

My account consists of three separate blog posts. It is personal, full and frank, no holds barred. My self-doubts, my fears - I discuss them all with the intent that others will learn from what I've (we've) gone through and so that others can see that they're not alone in their suffering and uncertainty about how to properly care for their furry companions.

I also hope to clear up some misconceptions about the appropriateness of conventional veterinary treatment and natural animal healing modalities. Is one better than the other? Or is there a place for both, side by side, operating to ensure that our pets live a long, healthy, and happy life?

When your cat or dog is unwell, the experience can be unbearable. The feeling of helplessness, fear, sadness, responsibility, worry, and then there's how your cat or dog must be feeling being the ones who are sick! These feelings can be made worse when the sickness is a reoccurrence and you might start to wonder whether YOU are contributing to the illness.

These feelings, these experiences, are all too familiar for me.

One of my cats (Elvy) suffers from struvite crystals causing urethral obstruction. This year alone, he has had three reoccurrences. Yep, three. And I'm a qualified animal nutritionist. Yep, even with my studies and qualifications in animal health, I have not been able to keep him well. This factor weighs on me and when my self-confidence is low, causes me to question my ability as an animal nutritionist. But when my self-confidence has scaled back up again, I appreciate that nutrition does not cure or prevent everything. There are certain conditions where a complimentary approach is needed, that is conventional veterinary treatment combined with natural healing modalities.

What are struvite crystals?

Struvite crystals are a type of bladder stone that form when a cat or dog's urine is alkaline or neutral (pH 7 or greater - optimum pH for a dog or cat is between 6 and 6.4) and the urine is concentrated. They are crystal-like formations comprised of magnesium, ammonium and phosphate.

What causes struvite crystals?

Struvite crystals can form when the diet is based on or rich in ingredients that alkalise the urine pH, such as grains and starch. They can also form when there is an infection or other disorder of the urinary tract, abnormal retention of urine or when the animal is undergoing steroid therapy.

In my cat's case, when he has suffered from urethral obstruction, his urine has ranged from a pH of 7 to 9 - too high for a cat.

Struvite crystals can cause a blockage in the urinary tract, interfering with the animal's ability to urinate. If left untreated, this can cause the kidneys to shut down, ultimately leading to kidney failure due to the kidneys not being able to remove toxins or maintain a proper balance of fluids and electrolytes in the body.

If left to suffer with a urethral obstruction, a cat can die in three to six days.

Male cats and dogs are more prone to urethral obstructions because of their long and narrow urethra (the urethra is the tube that drains urine from the bladder out of the penis). In female cats and dogs, the urethra travels along a straight line from the bladder. In males, the urethra bends to travel down into the penis. This bend is commonly where a blockage occurs. The penis can then get plugged with inflammatory material such as mucus, white blood cells and crystals.

The conventional veterinary treatment for this condition is a urinary prescription diet, which acidifies and dilutes the urine and dissolves struvite crystals, or at last resort a Perineal Urethostomy - a surgical widening of the urethra. This procedure is invasive and entails removing much of the penis and the narrow portion of the urethra.

How did I know my cat had struvite crystals?

The first time Elvy had struvite crystals was approximately 3 years ago. I had been away in Bali for a yoga therapy course and my mum stayed at my place to look after the animals. It was about a month or two after I introduced Louie, a rescue greyhound, into the family that I went away. In hindsight, going away at such a short time after getting a dog, was not the wisest of choices!

What alerted me that something was wrong with Elvy was his abnormal reclusive behaviour, hissing and excessive licking of his genitals. I also noticed that he growled when I touched him on the belly.

A trip to the vet revealed that he had a urethral obstruction. Elvy was hospitalised and had surgery to clear the obstruction. During surgery, the vet found a plug of white material at the penis tip containing debris and struvite crystals. Elvy had a catheter inserted into his penis to assist in draining the bladder with fluids administered to flush out the bladder of crystals.

The relevance of diet to struvite crystals

The vet advised that Elvy's diet was the cause of the urethral obstruction.

At the time, I was studying small animal nutrition. I was feeding the cats a "good quality" dry food for breakfast and Ziwipeak canned food for dinner. With the information I had learned through my animal nutrition studies, I was already prepared to cut the dry food out of my cats diet. Elvy's urethral obstruction confirmed that this was necessary.

As mentioned above, diet is one of the main causes of struvite crystals and this is one reason why it is important to steer clear of biologically inappropriate diets, particularly dry food. Not only is dry food nutritionally inferior due to the high processing involved and pet grade ingredients, it lacks adequate moisture and often contains grains or starchy ingredients - all factors that can contribute to an alkaline urine pH and highly concentrated urine leading to struvite crystals and urethral blockages.

After three days of hospitalisation, Elvy was allowed to come home. I had thrown the dry food out and replaced it with a species appropriate diet of raw meat.

The relevance of stress as a cause of struvite crystals

One month later, we moved house. I noticed that Elvy was struggling to urinate. I immediately took him to the vet for fear that he was blocked again. Fortunately the vet examination didn't reveal any blockage however struvite crystals were observed. The vet diagnosis was inflammation of the bladder due to stress associated with the move. The vet prescribed Prazosin to relax the urethra and reduce the likelihood of obstruction and Loxicom for inflammation.

This year, Elvy has suffered from multiple urethral obstructions caused by struvite crystals. Since the first incident in 2014, Elvy has been fed a complete species appropriate diet - a diet that should produce acidic, not alkaline, urine and prevent crystal formation.

The events of this year have left me with the conclusion that the cause of Elvy's alkaline urine causing struvite crystals and urethral obstruction is not diet. It's stress. Pure and simply.

With each recurrence, my heart aches for the pain that he is in and what he has to go through. I also question my involvement, my responsibility. Do my actions, my own fears, stress and anxieties, contribute to little Elvy's illness? What can I do to ensure that Elvy doesn't get sick again? Is conventional vet treatment the answer or will natural remedies heal him?

In the next instalment, I'll unpack how stress has contributed to Elvy's recurring urethral obstructions.

Have you faced a similar experience with your furry companion? What did you do? How did you cope?

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About Ruth

Ruth Hatten is a Holistic Animal Care Mentor with qualifications in animal naturopathy, pet nutrition and energy healing. She helps animals using holistic principles and natural remedies, including naturopathy, nutrition, plant medicine, energy and spirituality. Ruth believes that animals can thrive when they are supported in this way.​

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