Even today, I miss my best friend.
Ricky and I had one of those special relationships – he could look at me and know what I was thinking. We clearly enjoyed each other’s company. He made me laugh and, although he passed away several years ago, he still makes me cry.
Ricky was our piano-playing, hoop-jumping Devon Rex cat.
During our first clicker-training piano lesson, in walked Ricky the cat. Instantly, he looked up at me, and then looked at the piano, lifted a paw and “ping, ping,” began to play the piano. I had a virtuoso!
I thought, “What am I fooling around with this dog for?” and continued the piano lessons with my cat. I had long wanted to demonstrate that a cat can be taught to do anything a dog can do, and maybe even do it better. In no time, my cat sat on cue, offered a high-four and jumped through hula hoops, over little kids and over dogs.
Ricky was social and leash- and harness-trained. Knowing he wouldn’t mind public scrutiny, I let the cat out of the bag and unleashed Ricky on the American public. If only YouTube were around then, Ricky would have gone viral many times over.
Ricky appeared in recitals at Petco or PETsMART. TV crews regularly paraded into our home, as Ricky appeared on many Animal Planet, National Geographic Explorer and PBS shows. Ricky made in-studio radio and TV appearances in Chicago. He seemed to relish the extra attention being a star brings.
Even when he wasn’t performing Ricky would accompany my wife, the dogs and me on errands, to the pet store or to the dry cleaner.
A Heartbreaking Heart Condition in Cats
In the summer of 1999, during a routine veterinary visit, my best friend was diagnosed with feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) – a common cat heart disease. Many cats with this disease live for many years, dying of age-related illness. Often that is not the case; either cats throw clots and have repeated painful stroke-like episodes, until finally the family is too taxed emotionally and /or financially to deal with it, or cats with HCM die suddenly. HCM may account for more deaths of indoor cats from about 3- to 8-years-old than any other disease.
My cat easily learned to jump on my shoulder to take his heart medication (of course, it was Ricky). At best, the medication only slows the disease progression, and may offer little, but it’s the best veterinary medicine can do.
Ricky was only 8 when died suddenly in June of 2002. A little of my heart was lost forever that day. Ricky gave me so much, and taught so many about what a cat can do – I felt I needed to stop heart disease in cats, or at least try.
I began a fund with the Winn Feline Foundation named for my cat pal called the Ricky Fund, hoping to raise enough money for researchers to help find an effective treatment for cat hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. We’ve raised over $100,000 for HCM, which in cat health is significant. In fact, as a result, a genetic test (using a simple cheek swab) can be done for the cat breeds Maine Coons and Ragdolls to determine if the gene defect for HCM exists. The test is not perfect, but this beginning has started to somewhat diminish the disease in these two breeds.
Still, there’s much to do – to somehow find a treatment for all cats with HCM. I am determined to make this happen.
Attention to Feline Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy
Cat HCM will be the focus of the 34th Annual Winn Feline Foundation Symposium, called “Diving in the Gene Pool,” June 28 at the Boston Marriott, in Quincy, Mass. Cat scholar Leslie Lyons, PhD, University of California, Davis, will talk about recent gene sequencing, and the potential for a genetic-based solution (for HCM and other diseases, too). Tufts University Veterinary Cardiologist Dr. John Rush discusses what is know about HCM, including what we know about heritability. He will reveal the latest information on identification of the disease and treatment alternatives. All proceeds benefit the Ricky Fund. Registration is $25 (and includes refreshments).
The symposium is open to cat breeders and cat enthusiasts of all kinds. Veterinarians and veterinary technicians can receive continuing education credits. Register here, or call (201) 749-7127.