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What is sudden feline death?

Q

We lost four-year-old Freddie extremely suddenly and I am struggling to cope. At a vet check-up as a kitten they mentioned he had a heart murmur but that it was nothing to worry about. I now think I made a huge mistake by not getting this checked in recent years, despite him always seeming so healthy. I have read up on sudden feline death and I feel guilty I did not monitor his potential heart problems as an adult. Why did this happen?

Vet Nikki Gaut answers: Firstly let me offer you my sincere condolences on losing Freddie in this heartbreaking way. Unfortunately without a post-mortem examination there is no way of telling why Freddie died, but it sounds like there was little you could do at the time in the circumstances.

Unfortunately sudden death can occur in cats for a number of reasons, and the most common is cardiomyopathy (or heart disease). As a feline vet I am constantly telling my owners how cats are 'masters of disguise' and rarely show any signs of disease until, often, it is too late.

Heart disease is particularly difficult for an owner to detect in a cat as often the only indication is that they may sleep more - and when cats sleep for 18 hours a day, that's easy to miss! Regular visits to the vet may detect early warning signs but even vet surgeons may not always detect heart disease - heart murmurs can be intermittent and affected by other conditions such as stress or increased temperature and so may not even be associated with heart disease.

The only way of confirming cardiomyopathy is to have specialised diagnostic tests such as an ultrasound of the heart (an echocardiogram), which would confirm structural changes, and possibly an ECG if there were an arrhythmia. However, in early diagnosis of cardiomyopathy there is still debate amongst veterinary cardiologists about when and if to initiate treatment for these cats and regardless of whether they are on treatment, sadly the risk of sudden death from cardiac arrest is still high.

However, heart disease may not have been the cause of death. Poisoning and other systemic conditions (such as Feline infectious peritonitis) are other potential causes for insidious illness leading to death, and again are sometimes difficult to detect due to the secretive nature of the cat. Ultimately, as upsetting as this is for you, you have to try and take comfort from the fact that Freddie was enjoying a happy and fulfilling life and would have known little about his last few moments.