Rare genetic disorder tests pet owner’s commitment

PURR-AMEDIC: Dr. Casey Kersten of Avery Creek Pet Hospital is Pipsqueak’s primary care veterinarian, though the cat has also received care from specialists as far away as Michigan. Photo courtesy of Avery Creek Pet Hospital
PURR-AMEDIC: Dr. Casey Kersten of Avery Creek Pet Hospital is Pipsqueak’s primary care veterinarian, though the cat has also received care from specialists as far away as Michigan. Photo courtesy of Avery Creek Pet Hospital

Kerbie Berggren had no way of knowing what she was getting into when she adopted Pipsqueak, a 4-month-old black kitten, from Brother Wolf Animal Rescue in 2013. “She was sweet and loving, and we just knew she was our kitty,” Berggren remembers.

The first sign of trouble came during Pipsqueak’s initial veterinary appointment, which was provided for free by Dr. Joann Lackey of Asheville Vet Associates as part of Brother Wolf’s adoption services.

Lackey noticed Pipsqueak wasn’t walking properly. X-rays showed the kitten’s hip was out of joint. The vet tried to put it back in its socket, but the injury had occurred long before and would require surgery.

It would be the first of many, Berggren says.

Whatever it takes

Over $10,000 and four years later, Berggren says, “It’s been worth every penny.” Through all the travails that have resulted from her rare genetic condition, Pipsqueak has kept her sweet spirit, her owner reports. “I work three jobs, seven days a week, to pay for my cat. My husband has been extremely supportive, too.”

Still, if she had to do it all over again? “That’s hard to say,” Berggren muses.

Along the way, Berggren says she’s benefited from the financial and moral support of many groups: Brother Wolf, which raised money to pay for the kitten’s hip surgery; Asheville Cat Weirdos, which has contributed over $2,000 to Pipsqueak’s care; and several veterinarians who have discounted their services or provided payment plans to allow Berggren to pay Pipsqueak’s expenses over time.

One thing after another

About six months after the surgery to repair Pipsqueak’s hip, Berggren says she woke to anguished cries.

“I’ve never heard anything like it,” Berggren recalls. “She was screaming in pain. One minute she was in bed with me asleep and then next thing I knew, eight hours later, she was in pain. I took her to the vet, and they said she had broken her right kneecap.”

On vet’s orders, Pipsqueak was contained in her crate for weeks to heal the broken kneecap.

“It was hard, on her and on me,” Berggren says. “But we did it, and she healed well in no time at all.”

But then, within weeks, she’d broken the other kneecap. The second broken kneecap meant more weeks in confinement and more vet visits.

Around the same time, Lackey noticed Pipsqueak still hadn’t lost her baby teeth, though her adult teeth were coming in. The excess teeth needed to be removed so they wouldn’t start rotting in Pipsqueak’s mouth. To save on costs, Berggren went to a vet in Nashville who agreed to provide a discount on the procedure.

Berggren says she hoped that would be the end of Pipsqueak’s troubles with her teeth and jaw. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. “Her jaw never got better, only worse,” she recalls.

Searching for answers

“Every time I had a vet appointment, I kept hearing the same words, ‘spontaneous, patella, fracture, retained, impacted and FHO’,” she said. After Googling those terms together, she found a rare disorder, feline knees and teeth syndrome, or KaTS.

More research and discussions with veterinarians in America and England led Berggren to Dr. Steven Bailey with Exclusively Cats Veterinary Hospital in Waterford, Mich. Bailey told Berggren Pipsqueak is one of only 62 cats diagnosed with the disease in North and South America.

Bailey asked Berggren about Pipsqueak’s siblings. “He wanted to get Pipsqueak’s siblings to pull their DNA so he could study the syndrome,” Berggren says. “I asked Brother Wolf to help me track them down.”

Audrey Lodato, executive director of Brother Wolf Animal Rescue, says the organization did what it could to find Pipsqueak’s sisters — Pippen, Piper and Gladys. One sister’s owner has participated in the study.

Since then, Pipsqueak has had surgery to remove a portion of her left jaw. She is the only cat in world to have undergone the surgery.

“The bone had proliferated there,” Berggren says. “The vet said it should have been the size of a pencil. Instead it was the size of a kiwi.” The accumulated bone caused a pocket to form within the cat’s jaw. Before the surgery, Berggren says, “She had a rotting flesh, dead-person smell for two years,” due to the decaying tissue surrounding the area.

Road ahead

Though the surgery was a success, Berggren says she expects many more therapies and many more surgeries in Pipsqueak’s future. The older she gets, the more likely she is to suffer from spontaneous bone breaks. So far, she’s experienced four fractures of the patella, two on each of her hind legs.

“She has a safe place to run in the house where she can get away from the dog, and she doesn’t jump up on things anymore to protect herself from breaking anything,” Berggren says. “But she’s doing just fine. … Once you fall in love with them, they’re your babies, you know?”

Lodato says Brother Wolf encourages every new adoptive family to take new pets to a veterinarian to have them checked out.

“With every adoption, we do offer 30 days of free medical insurance with Trupanion,” Lodato explains via email. “After that, we assist on a case-by-case basis depending on the circumstance, but we are always, first and foremost, trying to keep the animal with their family.”

Having a pet with medical issues is sometimes part of the package. Just like other family members, sometimes pets get sick.

“Of course, anytime anyone adopts a new pet, they should absolutely be aware that just like people, pets can have medical conditions that will develop down the line and may need specialized health care,” Lodato writes. “We’d advise folks to think about these things when adding a new family member and to save some of their income aside in case of a medical emergency and consider purchasing pet insurance.”

For the love of cats

Berggren credits Asheville Cat Weirdos, a Facebook group dedicated to cat owners in Asheville, with helping her help Pipsqueak.

Founder Veronica Coit says that, at one time or another, nearly all of the group’s members have found themselves in a situation where finances dictated their cat’s care.

“I saw we all shared one particular story: We had almost all of us been in a situation where, based solely on financial reasons, we had to surrender or euthanize a cat. Medical expenses are insane,” Coit says. “It occurred to me that Pip needed our help. To launch the stickers and the idea of the fund, I decided our first round of sticker money would go to Pip.”

From that first fundraising effort, the Asheville Cat Weirdos Emergency Fund was born. “The fund is a pool of money, raised by volunteers, events, donations and [sales of] official ACW merchandise. We use the fund to help people with their animals when they’re sick, or in times they’re considering rehoming,“ Coit says.

“The Asheville Cat Weirdos are an amazing community that has given Pipsqueak an insurmountable amount of support, both emotionally and financially,” Berggren says. “My family is forever grateful. They are truly unsung heroes.”

“I never thought I’d be one of those people,” Pipsqueak’s human “mom” says, “but I suppose that’s what I’ve become: a crazy cat lady.”


About Liz Carey
Liz Carey is a veteran reporter living and working in Upstate SC. For more than 20 years, Liz has covered everything from crooked politicians to quirky characters from Minnesota to Florida and everywhere in between. Currently, she works as a freelance writer. Her latest book, Hidden History of Anderson County, will be released in February 2018. Follow me @lizardcsc

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