D. E. Larsen, DVM
I arrived in Enumclaw, Washington, in early February for a two-week externship. I was close to completing my final year of veterinary school at Colorado State University. It was nice to be back in the Pacific Northwest, with its mild winter temperatures.
Since we would be moving to Enumclaw when I graduated in March, one of my chores was to find a house to rent. That proved an easy task. I rented a 3 bedroom house that had been vacant for a couple of months. It was a neat little house and would seem like a mansion to Sandy and the girls. We had been living in a small 2 bedroom apartment while in school.
A couple of classmates helped me load our entire household into a rented truck for our trip from Fort Collins to Enumclaw. Another classmate wanted a ride to visit his sister and brother-in-law in Portland. That worked out great for both of us, he was able to do most of the driving of the car, and I drove the truck.
My bother came to Enumclaw and helped unload the truck and set up the house. After everything was put in place, our two families gathered around the dining table for a meal of takeout pizza.
Bam! The sound made everyone jump. There, hanging on the patio screen door was Ralph, not yet named. Sandy went to the door, and Ralph dropped to the ground and stood, waiting for the door to open. The kids were all excited, Sandy opened the door, and Ralph came in, looking like he had been waiting for someone to live in his house.
Ralph was a young tomcat. He was a typical tabby cat with black stripes on a brown coat. If he was hoping for a happy future of fathering kittens, he came to the wrong house. Ralph found himself on the kitchen table, under anesthesia, and under the knife. We neutered him the second evening.
It turns out that Ralph was left at the house when the previous renters moved out. He had been living in the neighborhood since the middle of December. He had some help in his survival, but not much. There was a lady several houses down who fed him tuna every night. Otherwise, his hunting skills kept him well fed.
There was a large open field behind the row of houses. We were located on the very edge of town at the time. Ralph hunted mice in the field much of the time. When temperatures warmed a little, Ralph would perch on another neighbor’s patio roof. He would jump from this high perch and catch birds as they flew across the lawn to the bird feeder in the middle of the yard.
Ralph was a great family cat. He loved the kids and made himself at home, sleep at the foot of Amy’s and Dee’s bed. He had lived outdoors long enough that hunting was very much a way of life for him, and he was at the door every morning after breakfast.
As the months went by, other cats came to our house. That was the way things were for a young veterinarian and his family. We had two female cats show up, both pregnant. So by the time we were ready to move to Sweet Home a year and a few months later, our family had grown. We had three girls, a new son and now, three adult cats and five kittens.
The apartment we lucky to rent in Sweet Home did not allow cats. So Ralph and the rest of the cats ended up spending a couple of months in Myrtle Point at my folks. We had a little concern about how they would cope with the upheaval, but that was our only option. The whole bunch did very well.
Ralph, in particular, was happy when we moved into our first house on Ames Creek. He could sleep on the girl’s bed again, and he had plenty of hunting grounds to patrol.
One morning I watched him walking down the hill across the road from the house. He seemed to be having a lot of trouble walking. My first impression was he must be injured, but as he got closer, I could see that he was dragging a quail. Holding the bird by its neck, the bird was dragging between his front legs. He brought it down to the front steps where is settled down to his dinner, scattering feathers everywhere.
In those years, Feline Leukemia was rampant in the cat population. In my early years of practice, there was no testing available for the disease. I would see cats, weekly, come to the clinic with profound anemia, who would seizure and die on the exam table, just from the stress of the trip to the clinic.
We could buy some time for a few of these cats. Sometimes a transfusion would provide a few weeks, medications would help for a few weeks, but in the end, all of these cats would die.
There was one week when I saw three yellow tomcats, all about 6 months of age, come to the clinic, and die. It was when questioning the owner of the third cat that we discovered that all three of those cats were from the same litter.
In the years before the release of the Feline Leukemia Vaccine in 1984, losing entire litters from an asymptomatic mamma cat was commonplace. Sometimes that would happen before birth, sometimes shortly after birth, sometimes a year or two later.
The virus was also transmitted through bite wounds and close communal contact for an extended time. I would see households of cats with a high incidence of infection. I would also see cats lost to immune failure, sometimes resulting in extreme infection following surgery or what should be a routine abscess.
This all came to an almost screeching halt with the introduction of the Feline Leukemia Vaccine in 1984. That vaccine has fallen into disfavor. There are few veterinarians practicing today who witnessed the carnage of the disease before 1984.
Ralph was unfortunate to have been born in the 1970s. That fact, coupled with his lifestyle, destined him to become a victim of the Feline Leukemia Virus. I noticed he was reluctant to leave the top bunk one morning. I looked close, his membranes were pale, his lymph nodes were swollen.
I felt sick. Ralph would become the first of our pets that I would have to put to sleep. Sandy suggested I see if Dr. Craig would do it for me, but I knew it was my chore. I would do it at the house, sparing Ralph that final trip to the clinic.