The thyroid is a gland in the neck that secretes two hormones; thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). These hormones are vital for metabolism. Everyone has a thyroid and it does the same thing whether in a cat, dog or human. When the pituitary gland in the brain produces thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), it triggers the production of T4 and T3. But things can go wrong with the thyroid.
There are two conditions that occur when the thyroid doesn’t work the way it should. If too much of the hormones is produced, it’s known as hyperthyroidism. If too little is produced, it’s hypothyroidism. The most common thyroid disorder in pets, especially in cats, is hyperthyroidism. This happens when the thyroid gland cells multiply and produce too much hormone. These extra cells can collect into groups called adenomas. This usually isn’t cancerous, but there is a cancerous type of hyperthyroidism, although it’s not very common.
I had a cat, Tony, who had hyperthyroidism way back in the early 1980s. At that time, this condition wasn’t very common at all. I’ve heard that it’s not uncommon anymore and could be due to pet foods or even environmental factors. That’s a scary thought. But in the ‘80s, it was almost unheard of for a cat to have thyroid problems. I learned about this when Tony, who was about 12 at the time, had a big appetite, more than usual, but was losing weight like crazy.
He didn’t seem to be uncomfortable, but the weight loss concerned me so I took him in to the vet. Tony was always a good patient, so he didn’t object much at all when the vet did the exam.
Symptoms and Treatment
As the vet palpated Tony’s neck and gave him the once-over, he started telling me about hyperthyroidism. It’s more common in older cats, rarely in young kitties. It doesn’t matter what breed of cat or the sex. The main symptoms are weight loss. Check, Tony had that. Larger than normal appetite. Check again. Frequent vomiting. Well, Tony was puking a bit more than usual, but I’d thought nothing of it. There are also other symptoms like increased drinking and urinating, odd behavior, lethargy, diarrhea or hair loss. Tony didn’t seem to have any of those, so the vet did some blood work and x-rays as well.
I was told that poor Tony also had an enlarged heart and liver and had swelling of the thyroid gland in his neck. Hyperthyroidism can cause the muscle of the heart to get thicker and if not treated, can cause heart failure. Thankfully I brought Tony in for treatment before it got to that point.
When the blood test results came back, the vet called me and said it was definitely hyperthyroidism. Blood work is done just to make sure that the symptoms, which are similar to diabetes, really were from hyperthyroidism. There are several treatment options available, although my vet determined that surgery was necessary. Other treatments are a medication called methimazole which is given daily. This isn’t actually a cure, but keeps the hormone in check. This is an option for a cat, or dog, who probably couldn’t tolerate surgery. Then there’s treatment with radioactive iodine. I checked on this one and it’s expensive and not available everywhere.
Surgery means the pet has to be healthy enough to withstand anesthesia, and as pet owners all know, surgery is also expensive. The surgeon has to remove all of the thyroid gland because leaving even a few cells could mean it would regenerate, or grow back. The thyroid is made up of two sections or lobes, one on either side of the trachea or windpipe.
My vet gave me a shock when he said how much the surgery would cost. I was young and in college, so didn’t have a lot of money. He suggested I call a local veterinary school and see if their teaching clinic would take my case for a reduced rate. I called and they were extremely nice because they had never worked on a hyperthyroid cat before (I told you it was rare in those days). Of course, the school was in northern California and I lived in southern California, but my father and I had our private pilot’s licenses and decided that we’d fly up there ourselves. (Pilots look for any excuse to fly).
With Tony’s test results in hand, I visited with a couple of the vet students and talking over Tony’s surgery and follow up treatment. I had to leave him for 2 weeks to recover, but I felt comfortable leaving him there. His surgery was the next day, but I had to fly home the same day. But, I called the school as soon as I knew the surgery was over.
No more thyroid
I was told that he came through the surgery just fine, no complications at all and that he was doing well. He would need to receive a thyroid replacement pill every day for the rest of his life. This worried me a bit, but I’d given Tony pills before and he’d swallowed them with very little trouble. I was also told that during the 2 weeks they were keeping him, they’d have to do follow up blood tests to make sure everything was all right. They would also check his heart and liver.
The vet students would call me and I’d call them every day for the two weeks. They even made a point of telling me that Tony would purr like crazy when anyone came to his cage and that they picked him up and loved on him every day. What a bedside manner those students had!
So, after 2 excruciatingly long weeks, I flew back with my dad and picked up my Tony. He looked great. I had a prescription for Levothyroxine that I had to fill right away and start on his medication the next morning. I didn’t mind a bit. Tony was worth it.
Not so happy ending
Perhaps I shouldn’t say the ending wasn’t happy, because it was for about 4 years. Tony was healthy and took his pill every morning without so much as an objection. But, when he was about 16, a nice old age, he became sick. He was very lethargic, lost a ton of weight and wouldn’t eat or drink. He didn’t even walk straight.
When I visited the vet this time, though, I was given a grim diagnosis. His thyroid had apparently grown back. Not to its previous size though. Apparently a few cells had been missed and it had slowly been growing since. This time, however, it was cancerous. His heart was failing, he had hepatitis and because of his strange gait, the vet thought maybe some sort of paralysis. There was not the option of surgery this time because he was so weak and ill.
My poor baby was going to die. I waited for a few days to think over what I knew I had to do. I made this time comfortable for him, making sure to put him in the sunlight, which he loved, and forcing him to drink some water. Then it came the day to have him put to sleep. I won’t go into detail because it’s not the sort of thing I’d care to relive. But I believe it was the best thing for him and it was over quickly.
So, even though it wasn’t the happiest of endings for Tony, at least the surgery and medication gave me another 4 years with my baby. To this day I know it was the right thing to do.