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A virtual epidemic of nasty, weepy, smelly, crusty paws!

Dear Siouxsie, Thomas and Dahlia:
My cat's front paws are swollen with claws pushed out to the side and the smell is nauseating. I've soaked her feet in sea salt water and vinegar which she seems to like -- she purrs when I do it. I am not interested in having a vet do all sorts of treatments or operations and don't believe in "putting her out of her misery" with euthanasia. My cat is 12 years old and eats a very good diet, Evolution Pet Food. Please advise.
~Emma

Our 6-year-old old female cat, Posh, has recently been suffering from something like a black fungus and pus weeping out from around her paws, plus scabs on her ears, and a black waxy substance forming. We have taken her to lots of vets, which has cost us over 300 in fees, and still she is the same. She sleeps all the time and barely goes outside anymore. We are at our wits' end worrying about her. We have tried antibacterial solution from the vets, antibiotic injections, having her wounds cleaned under anesthesia, and dipping in salt water -- and still she does not improve. Have you any answers please? Do you think she has a virus?
~ Keith

Siouxsie: Emma and Keith, you are certainly not the first people who have written to us about cats with smelly, infected paws. But considering that we got two letters in the same week from people with cats suffering from this condition, we have bumped this topic up the priority list in hopes of helping you and your cats, as well as the others who have also asked about this subject.

Thomas: Based on deductive reasoning, we can think of a couple of possible causes for your cats' symptoms. In your case, Keith, where antibiotics aren't improving your cat's symptoms, we can deduce that either your cat has a fungal or viral infection, she has an antibiotic-resistant bacterial infection, or she has allergies.

Dahlia: In your case, Emma, we think the cause is likely to be a fungus or an allergic reaction, too. But whenever your cat is sick, it's very important to take your cat to a veterinarian to get a medical diagnosis. If one of us had the symptoms your cat has, Mommy would take us to the vet before she tried any home treatment.

Siouxsie: Keith, because your cat's infection seems to have started in her ears (you mention scabs and black waxy substance in the ears), we suspect that your cat may have developed a fungal infection in her ears. Because this infection is very itchy, your cat scratched, which caused the fungus to migrate to her paws, where it grew in the warm, moist recesses around her claws (much like athlete's foot in people), and has caused cracking and bleeding in the pads.

Thomas: Antibiotics don't work against fungal infections. Only antifungal treatments will cure a fungal infection. We suggest that you have your vet take samples of the pus or scrapings from Posh's skin and see if they show evidence of fungal growth.

Dahlia: But don't try to use over-the-counter antifungal products designed for humans. They wouldn't treat the problem, and you could end up poisoning your cat!

Siouxsie: If Posh's tests don't reveal a fungal infection, the next possible culprit is allergies. Cats are very sensitive to environmental toxins and chemicals such as carpet adhesives, rug or floor cleaning products, deodorizing sprays, artificially scented air freshening products, and heavily scented detergents, fabric softeners or dryer sheets.

Thomas: In fact, if you have a mold or mildew problem somewhere in your house, that too could cause allergies in your cat as well as in you. Cats can get into much smaller spaces than people, so they may find themselves in crawl spaces or ducts where mold or mildew is growing.

Dahlia: Emma, it sounds like your home treatment of salt-and-vinegar water baths has been soothing the itch and/or discomfort your cat is suffering. A straight cider vinegar-water paw bath would be somewhat effective in treating a fungal infection; Mommy tells us this is an old home remedy many human women use to treat yeast infections.

Siouxsie: But keep in mind that the fungus would be embedded deep inside her claw sheaths as well as on the surface, so if you're just dipping the paws, the rinse isn't going to get to all the fungus-infected area.

Thomas: But Emma, your vet is going to have to tell you whether your cat has a fungal infection. As we said earlier, a lot of allergy symptoms can mimic fungal infections, and the only way to treat allergies is to find out what's causing the allergic reaction and remove it if possible.

Dahlia: Dr. Richard Pitcairn, in his book Natural Health Care for Dogs & Cats, says that inflammation of the toes and excessive licking of the paws are two common symptoms of allergies. Inflamed ears, digestive upsets, itching/stinging sensations that lead to excessive biting and scratching, and cystitis (bladder infection) are other common allergy symptoms in cats.

Siouxsie: To treat allergies, a holistic veterinarian could be very helpful. Many allergy symptoms and chronic diseases can be managed with a combination of holistic treatment to strengthen the body and conventional veterinary treatment to help manage acute episodes.

Thomas: The American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association has a directory of its practitioners throughout the US and Canada. It also has a few members in England, Australia and New Zealand. Keith, in your case, we're fairly sure there's a more complete directory of British holistic vets that could be found with a quick Internet search.

Dahlia: Of course, your vet, your friends, or holistic health care practitioners for humans may also be able to recommend a good holistic veterinarian, too.

Siouxsie: In the meantime, help your cat recover by stopping or minimizing the use of the irritating products we mentioned above. Feed your cat the best-quality food you can afford, and give him or her only non-chlorinated and non-distilled water to drink.

Thomas: If you live in a city, the easiest and cheapest way to purify your water is to purchase a filter pitcher and use it as directed -- which includes replacing the filters as instructed by the manufacturer. In the US, filter pitchers can be found at drugstores, some supermarkets, and home supply stores, among other locations. When we lived in town, Mama only gave us filtered water. We liked it much better than plain tap water, which tasted like metal and bleach. Ew!

Dahlia: Your kitty litter could also be contributing to the problem. Heavily perfumed cat litters can cause irritation to the pads. In addition, the litter itself could be getting into open wounds and causing further injury or irritation. We would recommend that you switch to an unscented and preferably natural substance for your cat litter; our favorite brand is made from corn, but there are others made of wheat, cedar and pine shavings.

Siouxsie: Switching litter can be tricky, so we recommend you at least keep the texture of the litter as close as you can to your old brand.

Thomas: You also have to keep your litterboxes scrupulously clean if your cat has sore and infected paws. Urine can irritate the sores, and feces can leave bacteria in a wound, which could cause infection. The more often you clean waste out of the box, the better chance your cat has of making a recovery.

Dahlia: In fact, as far as litterbox issues go, you might even take a page from the postoperative instructions for declawed cats.

Siouxsie: No, we're not in favor of declawing, not even a little, so please don't hiss at us! We're just saying that after a declawing surgery, vets give owners very specific litterbox care instructions in order to prevent infection and ease the cat's pain.

Thomas: Any cat with open sores on its feet is in pain, and anything you can do to minimize your kitty's suffering will help her recover faster from whatever is bothering her.

Dahlia: Emma and Keith, we hope we've given you a couple of clues about how you can help your cats walk on pain-free and odor-free paws again. Please let us know how things turn out!

Siouxsie: Oh, hey everybody! Dahlia's getting spayed this week. If you all could send your healing purrs to her on Tuesday, Jan. 9, for a smooth operation and a fast recovery, we'd sure appreciate it. She's a little nervous, but she's being really brave. I'm actually kind of proud of her.

Thomas: Don't you worry, Dahlia. I'll be purring my heart out for you, and Mama will be, too.

Got a question? Need some advice? E-mail us at advice@paws-and-effect.com. None of the material in this column is meant to be a substitute for regular veterinary care.