I was in my office and my 8-year-old daughter Josie was calling me-almost screaming – from the bottom of the stairs. She ran up before I could stand up from my chair.
“Daddy! Something’s wrong with Georgia!” She was nearly in tears.
We hurried downstairs. Georgia-the three-month-old kitten Josie had wanted since the day she could talk-was dragging her hind legs. She was the newest member of the family and unusually affectionate for a cat. Seeing her struggle was heartbreaking. I almost cried myself.
I grabbed the phone book and thumbed through veterinarians. I dialed Horton Animal Hospital, described the symptoms, and with their instructions, Josie and I carefully raced Georgia to the emergency clinic on Paris Road.
It was June 23, 2005, and Horton veterinarian Michelle Marshall would diagnose a fatal illness few animal doctors will ever see.
Though Georgia didn’t seem to be in any pain, Dr. Marshall asked if anything had fallen on her. Ruling out a fractured spinal cord, she was stumped. She got a book from another room. “Do you have any pesticides or weed killers Georgia could get into?” she asked.
My wife kept a bug spray for houseplants but in a bottle high on a shelf.
Then Josie spoke up. “Georgia’s breathing funny,” she said. We looked at the kitten, lying on a chair.
“Whatever it is, it’s progressing,” Dr. Marshall said. We considered diseases-a cat version of polio, perhaps, or maybe a virus or germ. Then she typed the symptoms into a search engine. “You sure you don’t have any weed killers in the house?” she asked. “Nothing Georgia could get into?”
“Nothing that might contain…arsenic.”
Arsenic? Good heavens, no! Where on earth could our cat…
“It says arsenic is used to kill ants,” Dr. Marshall said.
I remembered something. We left the cat and headed home. I ran upstairs. I looked down, and saw a springtime Missouri nuisance that came and went, little black grease ants, lined up from Georgia’s water bowl along the floor and under a narrow closet door. I opened the door and peered in the darkness under the lowest shelf. From back in the corner, I slipped out a small, black container from last year. Grants Kills Ants. But I couldn’t find a list of ingredients. I rushed to the phone to call the vet back.
By the time we returned, Dr. Marshall had found the culprit. The ant killer contained arsenic trioxide mixed with sugary bait. The ants were enjoying a deadly snack, and covered with arsenic, a drink from Georgia’s water bowl.
Georgia’s prognosis was grim. Arsenic doesn’t just kill ants; it’s among the deadliest poisons known to cats. The smallest amount paralyzes the hind legs, then the lungs. Suffocation is a painful, terrible death, so our best course of action, Dr. Marshall advised, would be to make Georgia comfortable and put her to sleep.
When she understood what that meant, Josie cried as I had never seen her cry before. She was asking for a miracle, in her 8-year-old way. She was asking her daddy and Dr. Marshall to save her best friend’s life.
“I don’t think there’s anything we can do,” the animal doctor said. And I agreed. I had read the same book standing beside her; I saw the same prognosis. But Josie kept asking, and while I couldn’t answer, Dr. Marshall did.
She called around and conferred with fellow vets. Then she called the University of Missouri-Columbia Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital on East Campus Drive. She wanted to know if they could flush Georgia’s bloodstream with a chelating agent, a chemical that binds heavy metals like arsenic and sweeps them out.
They could try, they said. It would be risky, and it wouldn’t be cheap-several hundred dollars-but they could try. We would probably lose Georgia, but they would try.
I didn’t think about it. As we raced Georgia to the MU Vet Center, her breathing was rapid and shallow.
Attending veterinarian Efrat Kelmer and vet students Amanda Hawkins and Sheila Carrera-Justiz treated Georgia in the animal ICU throughout the night. They did tests to confirm arsenic toxicosis. They flushed her system with something called acetylcysteine. They wrote in their notes what a sweet kitten “Georgia Martin” was. Lots of students visited Georgia to observe the first case they’d ever seen of arsenic poisoning in a cat.
My daughter couldn’t sleep. My 3-year-old son didn’t understand. My wife, Alison, and I talked and worried. It was noon the next day before the call finally came.
Oops! I’m trying to type and she just stepped on my keyboard. Georgia Martin, that is. She’s 4 years old now and loves to interrupt me. She’ll crawl into my lap when I’m busy and gently rest her head, kneading my shirt with her paws.
She’s alive, thanks to the four veterinarians who took a big chance on one small kitten and a little girl who loved her too much to give up.
Georgia’s asleep now, but with every purring breath, I know she’s grateful, too.