Clare Meade knows all about cats — so much so that she’s founded a hospital that tailored exactly around their needs. It’s the subject of a new RTÉ series, writes Helen O’Callaghan.
The lights are low, the colour scheme inspired by the rich brown, cream and blue hues of Siamese cats, and pheromones are plugged in all over the place to relax the patients. It’s no wonder clients say Ireland’s first dedicated cat hospital is like a Blackrock Clinic for cats — a definite feline spa.
The Cat Hospital, Glanmire — now the subject of a six-part observational series that starts on RTÉ One next Friday night — has been designed in sympathy with essential elements of cat behaviour and psychology.
“There are places for cats to hide, their beds are not near their toilets and we didn’t use any stainless steel that would have made noise and frightened them,” says veterinary surgeon and Cat Hospital founder Clare Meade.
But while cat owners might love the hospital, their beloved felines wouldn’t give it five stars, laughs Clare.
Cats’ ingrained suspicion of change is because, while they’re the ultimate predator, they are essentially a prey animal due to their small size, explains Meade.
“Cats get eaten by dogs in the wild. Cats have gone from being aligned with people to being deeply involved in people’s lives, but their instinct has stayed the same. They become extremely stressed if one of their predators is in the vicinity.”
This, she says, is the concept behind an exclusively-cat hospital: cats naturally – , like any of us, don’t want to share their hospital space with a predator. And also cats are different, points out Meade: they have different metabolisms, develop very different diseases and require very different treatment for most diseases. “You cannot extrapolate from a dog to a cat — they’re extremely different,” she says, citing some of the differences.
“Cats are carnivores — they can’t be vegan. They get a viral form of leukaemia that spreads from one cat to another and is unique to them. They get herpes viruses — different from the ones humans get — which dogs don’t get. They have multiple complex pathways in their liver and lack the enzymes dogs and humans have, though they have their own. They develop Type 2 diabetes, which is rare in dogs. They have their own unique little viruses.”
At any one time, the Cat Hospital has nine or 10 in-patients and the same number again of out-patients. On the day I speak to Meade, Isabel is in for investigation because she has started meowing uncharacteristically, often a sign in older cats of high blood pressure or overactive thyroid.
Twelve-year-old Pudsy is starting treatment for lymphoma (“he’ll do fine,” says Meade), Gary has anaemia, caused by a parasite in his blood (“he’ll go on antibiotics for six weeks and then he’ll be OK”), while Gizmo and Gerry are both in for dental work. “Cats suffer terribly from their mouth and they do so in complete silence — the owner has no idea.”
Cats’ stoicism when ill is because prey animals don’t signal when they’re unwell. “Cats are masters of disguise. They put their best paw forward and show no symptoms if they can avoid it. If you think your cat’s unwell, it’s probably very unwell because if it was only a little unwell, you wouldn’t be aware of it.”
She says owners are always amazed that the cat has got what they see as an acute illness — “she just fell over and couldn’t breathe”. But when her team ask questions, it turns out the cat has been vaguely unwell for quite some time.
“Like maybe a year ago the cat went off its food and the owner changed it and has had to keep changing it since. Or perhaps the cat suddenly stopped going outside, which is what Gary’s owner noticed. Owners, therefore, shouldn’t make excuses for a cat’s behaviour change. It’s best investigated because ifthere is something, early intervention's best.”
Cat Hospital patients come from all over Cork but they can also hail from other counties, as well as from Dublin and the Midlands. The average stay is about a week and Meade regularly sees owners make all sorts of sacrifices for their pets.
“Visiting every day is not unusual. And we’ve had loads come back from foreign holidays because their cat got sick.”
Cats’ sociability with humans is an extraordinary compliment to its owner because they’re not instinctively social animals, says Meade. “Cats are instinctively independent, self-reliant animals. Dogs are hard-wired to be sociable with humans — cats choose to be.”
The Cat Hospital has a mini cat ambulance, but as the practice has become busier, it has become more challenging to do house calls. They generally happen for three reasons — a cat’s too nervous to come to the vet, the owner has mobility issues, or the cat has behavioural issues in the house that need to be seen in the context of the home environment.
“One cat was refusing to use its litter tray. The owner had done her best to sort it. It turned out the litter tray was right next to the washing machine. Naturally, if the speed spin cycle started while the cat was doing its business it wouldn’t be rushing back!”
Over the last 25 years, cats have gone from the backyard to the backroom to the bed, which is why it’s vital to give them regular pesticide treatment.
“You don’t manage the barn cat the same as the cat in your bed,” states Meade, saying that people live more intimately with cats than dogs.
The six-woman Cat Hospital team — alongside Meade, there’s vet Aisling O’Keeffe and veterinary nurses Breena Cass, Chloe Gibson, Rachel Callanan and Lesil Neilsen — are all cat lovers.
“We’ve all done specialisations in feline medicine and everyone has studied cat behaviour extensively. Just figuring out cats is great. When things aren’t going as we’d like [with a patient] we spend a lot of time trying to figure out what this individual cat wants.”
The Cat Hospital is not ‘just for emergencies’ says Meade. “We provide care for cats from when they’re kittens right through their lives. We do all the basic stuff. It’s all about helping people be the best cat owners they can be.”