Sep 29, 2009
On a frosty November morning, three large dogs took off across a field after an orange barn cat named Ernie. Too far from the safety of the barn loft to return, Ernie scampered down toward a nearby ditch, which was running full of icy Colorado runoff. Trapped at waters edge as the pack approached, Ernie plunged into the frigid waters, but the dogs followed. The three of them surrounded Ernie in the ditch, biting at his body and shaking it in turn, as Ernie desperately struggled to get free.
A neighbor spotted the fracas from their kitchen window, and rushed outside to run the dogs off. Ernie struggled to claw his way out of the ditch, using only his front legs to scrabble onto dry ground. There he collapsed, barely moving.
The cat I saw that was rushed into the treatment room of our emergency hospital appeared to be dead.. Barely breathing, frigid to the touch and hair coat soaked to the bone, he felt like a cold, wet rag. “How old is he?” I asked, surprised to find out he was only five. With his sunken eyes and battered face, he appeared to be closer to 15.
Ernie’s body temperature did not register on our thermometer, but probably was close to 85 degrees. Our nurses rushed to warm him up and treat him for shock. A surgical air warmer blew hot air into a blanket under his body. Warm bags of IV fluids were packed around his torso. An IV pump pushed another bag of warm saline into a catheter in his front legs. An IV drip of pain killer and antibiotics was started.
Four hours later, Ernie’s body temperature finally registered at 92 degrees F., still 10 degrees below normal. He finally raised his head and slowly looked around, as if saying to himself, “I’m still alive?” He may have considered himself in kitty heaven with warming air blanket and fluid bottles, along with the doting attention of the veterinary nurses.
Although Ernie had minimal use of his back legs, he gently kneaded his front toes when he was scratched along his back. At this point, I sensed he was going to be OK, despite his apparent rear leg paralysis and the large bite wound in his flank.
By the next morning, Ernie could walk, he was eating, and, although he was moving very slowly, he was ready to go home. With some TLC, pain meds and antibiotics, he would enjoy a week at home before returning to his mouse-hunting haunts in the barn.
In considering Ernie’s astounding recovery from the attack of three dogs in a freezing ditch of water, I suspect that the icy cold water created a hypothermic response that was protective. As his body systems slowed down, to a semi-hibernation state, blood flow to critical organs like his kidney and brain was preserved. Eventually, as he warmed up, his heart was gradually able to restore his circulation, giving him back use of his rear legs.
Cats like Ernie continue to amaze me at their ability to survive the most dire of circumstances. As veterinarians, we can provide the basic supportive care, but it is grit and tenacity, mostly, that carries these tough felines through.