Visiting Vet: Cold cats may choose dangerous hideouts

“My daughter has a new cat named Gaia” a client called me the other day with a cautionary tale. “I had loaded the wood stove with newspaper and kindling, then left the door open and turned away to get matches…”

I could see where this was headed. Cats love to explore, to curl up in strange, out-of-the-way places. These are natural instincts with adaptive value. There may be delicious mice under the porch, or tasty birds in the rafters. In the wild, sleeping tucked away in a hiding place keeps slumbering animals safe from predators and retains body heat in cold weather. But sometimes these natural instincts lead kitties astray. Like our caller’s cat.

“I was about to light the fire when I heard rustling inside the stove,” he continued. Sure enough, Gaia had climbed inside the stove and nestled down in the papers. Luckily, the owner realized it before he set anything on fire.

That family’s cats like heating equipment, I thought. Fifteen years ago their cat Ringtail went missing. They searched in vain. The children scoured the neighborhood on bicycles, but he was nowhere to be found. Three weeks after his disappearance, a neighbor called from Philadelphia. An electrician doing repairs in their vacant Vineyard house had heard faint mewing in the walls. Were they missing a cat? Ringtail’s dad immediately went to the house in question and called for the cat. Ringtail meowed. Calling back and forth like a game of Marco Polo, the owner discovered that somehow Ringtail had gotten into the house, then the basement where he crawled into a heating duct. He had traveled deep into the walls, the ducts becoming narrower and narrower, until he found himself lodged in a six-inch-wide pipe, unable to turn around or back out.

Ringtail had dropped from nine pounds down to four. He was skin and bones, weak, dehydrated, hypothermic, and soaked in urine. But he was alert and seemed to know he had been rescued. We started intravenous fluids and warmed him up. Soon he was eating baby food and using his litter box. By the second day, he was able to stand up. By the fourth day he was able to wobble around a bit. After six days hospitalized in my clinic, he had gained two pounds and was ready to go home. He eventually regained all his weight plus some and lived to be almost 18.

I remember another curious cat mishap, involving one of those old gas stoves with the broiler on the bottom near the floor, and a client cooking pork chops. The chef opened the broiler compartment to peek in and see if dinner was ready. Then, turning around to do something else in the kitchen, he realized he hadn’t closed the stove. Without looking, he pushed the broiler door shut with his foot. Seconds later, there was a wild banging inside the stove. He quickly jerked the door open, and his cat came flying out. When the cat arrived at my office soon after, she had a series of parallel grill marks across her back and side, like steak coming off the barbecue. Luckily, her thick fur had protected her well. It was mostly hair that had been burnt, though she had several linear areas of first and second degree burns to the skin, which we treated with topical medication and oral antibiotics. I don’t remember the patient’s name, but we referred to her thereafter as Broiler Kitty.

It’s understandable that cats would be attracted to warm wood stoves, yummy pork chops, and the excitement of exploring duct work, but what about my friend AnneMarie’s curious kitten story. Here’s what she wrote when I asked for details. “When I was living in a big farmhouse in Vermont, I couldn’t find my little black ball of fur (only eight weeks old) one night. After searching everywhere I could think of, and not finding him, I went to bed, figuring he was all curled up somewhere snug. In the morning I asked my roommate to help me pull the refrigerator out from the wall because we had not thought to look behind it. At the same time we saw he was not there, we heard a meow. I looked at her and said, ‘It sounds like he’s in the fridge!’ Sure enough when we opened the door and pulled out the crisper drawer, there he was! I thought he would be in shock and hypothermic, but he came walking out, started purring and wanted to eat. We figured he was in there for about 15 hours! (I remembered the night before I had made a salad and when done just pushed the drawer in and closed the door.) Needless to say, I do think the cold affected his brain cells because even though he was lovable he was not a particularly smart cat!” In honor of his escapade, she named him Crispy Critter, and he also went on to live a long life.

Not every story ends so happily. Don’t leave the clothes dryer door ajar, tempting your pet with that cozy laundry. More than one cat has been badly tumbled, and some killed from being closed inside. In winter, cats who spend time outside are attracted to the warmth and shelter provided by cars and trucks. Some climb inside wheel wells, tucking themselves atop a tire, or crawl under the hood of a recently driven car, where it is nice and toasty. If you turn the car on without warning, a dozing cat inside can be severely injured. Veterinarians call these “Fan Belt Cats,” and the resultant trauma is often life-threatening. So bang on the hood of your vehicle before you get in. Close the dryer door. Check the wood stove. I don’t know how many kittens would actually climb into the vegetable crisper, but at least one did. Never underestimate a feline’s sense of adventure. Don’t let curiosity kill the cat.