Since the 1980s, thyroid disease in cats has been on the upswing, and the cause may be found right in your living room. Common chemicals, found in many homes, appear to speed up the function of the feline thyroid glands, which help to regulate metabolism, heart rate and more.
According to a recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study, a group of flame-retardants, called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE), is at the root of the problem. These flame retardants were mainly used in the manufacturing of sofas, rugs and other fabrics.
Since the chemicals are so widespread and labeling was not required in the past, it is difficult to tell which fabrics were treated with these specific chemicals. If you have a flame-retardant item, however, there’s a good chance it could contain PBDE. But an easier task than guesswork is to identify symptoms of hyperthyroidism in your cat, which can include:
- hair loss
- increased appetite and thirst
- weight loss
- increased vocalizing
Sarah Turner, a teacher in Orange County, Calif., always thought that hyperthyroidism was simply a result of old age in her cat Franny. That chemicals in her home could be to blame for her cat’s illness was quite alarming to her. “Hearing this really makes me want to redo my entire home with all-natural everything,” says Turner.
Franny exhibited two of the telltale signs. Turner explains, “My cat’s appetite was insatiable, but I couldn’t keep any weight on her. It just didn’t make sense.” Fortunately, the symptoms did make sense to her veterinarian, who quickly confirmed her suspicion with a blood test.
Treating the Disease
Thyroid disorders are manageable with several treatment options. These include surgical removal of the thyroid glands, radioactive iodine and drugs. According to the Feline Thyroid Clinic in Springfield, Ore., each treatment comes with its own pros and cons.
- Surgical thyroid removal Although this is the most effective treatment for severe cases, all surgeries come with risks, especially for older felines. Since the thyroid is also involved in calcium regulation, removal of the glands can cause dangerous imbalances in your cat. Your veterinarian must therefore closely monitor your feline after the surgery.
- Radioactive iodine For this treatment, radioactive iodine is injected under your cat’s skin. It travels to the thyroid, where it kills abnormal cells. Since your cat will literally be radioactive just after the treatment, it must be isolated from other animals, including humans, for 4-5 days after the injection. Because this is often done at the veterinarian hospital, the cost can escalate.
- Drug treatments Oral or topical treatments can help to regulate a malfunctioning cat thyroid but, as for diabetes, they must be administered for the rest of the feline’s life. Your veterinarian will also have to conduct regular blood tests to determine drug amounts and also to make sure possible side effects, like liver dysfunction, don’t arise.
Turner has been successfully treating Franny with oral medication for the last few years.
Why Cats are at Special Risk
While humans may also be susceptible to thyroid problems resulting from toxic chemical exposure, cats have significantly higher levels of PBDE in their system than their owners. According to Janice Dye, DVM, a North Carolina research biologist who led the EPA study, there are a couple of possible explanations for this.
First, your cat spends 24 hours a day in your home being exposed to dust particles containing PBDE, getting a daily dose average person is not getting. Second, the toxic particles in PBDE cling onto dust and cats are meticulous self-groomers, eating any dust they come into contact with. In contrast, says Dr. Dye, “We sit on the couch, but we don’t groom ourselves thoroughly afterward.”
Before you decide the findings are a good excuse to let your kitty roam outdoors, Dr. Dye points out, “Outdoor cats usually do not live long enough to contract this disease. The risk of being attacked by coyotes or hit by a car is still much greater.”
Is Prevention Possible?
Dr. Dye believes that it’s probably not necessary to “rip up all of your carpeting or throw out your sofa.” She says, “If flame retardants are the cause, the products have been, or are in the process of being, banned.” Also, more studies need to be performed before anyone can conclude for certain that there is a direct link between these chemicals and hyperthyroidism in cats.
In the future, it will hopefully become obvious that people whose indoor cats have high levels PBDE in their blood should get tested themselves because they are exposed to the same toxins. Your cat could be your lifesaver. Says Dr. Dye, “As pets share our home, they give us clues as to what we must use more wisely.”
Cricky Long is the author of The Complete Cat Organizer and The Complete Dog Organizer, as well as more than eleven City Dog guidebooks, which cover dog-centric resources in numerous cities across the country.