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Publication Date: Friday, February 23, 2001

For Mountain View family, stray cats pose ongoing health threat For Mountain View family, stray cats pose ongoing health threat (February 23, 2001)

By Jaime Bloss

Kaelin Kyles, who turned three this week, was in the hospital for more than a month with cat scratch fever last year. His mother believes he contracted it from fleas carried by feral cats she has been trying to remove from her College Avenue neighborhood for several years.

According to a wildlife specialist with the Santa Clara County Vector Control, feral cats climb the Kyles' fence to feed at dumpsters at a nearby apartment complex.

Two-year-old Kaelin Kyles' illness was mysterious. For more than 10 days last December, he was in extreme pain and had fevers reaching 104 degrees. Thinking he had the flu, his mother, Kimberly, took him to his pediatrician.

Kaelin's pediatrician referred him to a gastroenterologist who, in turn, checked him into a hospital because of abscesses in his spleen. After observing him for a week, doctors could not diagnose Kaelin but found that he had swollen lymph nodes. Following tests on a node removed from his leg, doctors finally discovered after two weeks what was wrong: Kaelin had cat scratch disease.

Normally an uncommon bacterial infection, cat scratch disease is, as the name suggests, transmitted via a cat's bite or scratch. Many times, healthy people who become infected merely experience flu-like symptoms and do not need treatment.

However, Kaelin was in the hospital for more than a month fighting the disease. He was given large doses of intravenous antibiotics and had to have two surgeries to insert the IVs, so the hospital staff wouldn't have to keep replacing an IV in his hand. In addition, he now has to take oral antibiotics and visit the doctor twice a week, his mother explained.

According to his mother, being sick and in pain for so long has also affected his behavior. "He's a different child, he's just not the same kid," Kimberly said. "For a long time he was asking me, 'Am I gonna die?'"

She believes her son caught the disease from a flea carried by one of the many stray cats that roam in her College Avenue neighborhood. Moreover, she also thinks he received the bite while playing in Rengstorff Park: it was the only outdoor place she has allowed him to play since the cats took over her back yard.

Kimberly described efforts she has made for the past three years to rid her neighborhood of the cats.

She first contacted Palo Alto Animal Services, which provides animal control to the city of Mountain View. According to its superintendent, Sandra Stadler, the agency would not come out on its own to capture the stray cats because that service is not part of its contract with the city.

However, Palo Alto Animal Services does rent traps to residents, who can call the agency to pick up any animals caught. The Kyles family rented some and hired a private company to remove the cats from the yard, but those measures did not help.

Kimberly asked the agency if it could set up traps at no charge around the neighborhood, since trapping in only one yard would not solve the problem, but the agency could not, citing the need for the other owners' permission.

Kimberly then tried contacting some of her neighbors to tell them what happened to Kaelin, but they didn't see the cats as a serious health threat. Many of the older adults were not bothered because they don't use their back yards, she said.

When she later became pregnant, Kimberly worried about contracting toxoplasmosis, a disease that can be transmitted to pregnant women through cat feces. "The cats use my back yard as a litter box," she said.

Trying to solve the health threat in her neighborhood, Kimberly contacted the city, the police department, and other animal services to find out what could be done. She finally received some assistance from the Santa Clara County Health Department.

Laurie Frazier, a wildlife specialist for Santa Clara County Vector Control, has looked into the Kyles' situation, even though her department normally handles wild animals, such as opossums, raccoons, and skunks. Vector control made an exception in this case and became involved when Kimberly explained her son's illness.

Frazier has visited the area on several occasions to investigate and discovered that an apartment complex behind the Kyles' home has dumpsters that are left open, providing a "24-hour-a-day unlimited smorgasbord" to "hundreds" of cats, she said.

Compounding the problem, someone in the apartment complex has been dumping large amounts of cat food outside for the cats to feed on, Frazier observed.

"(The Kyles') fence and yard are in the direct path of (the cats') travel," Frazier explained. "They lounge in her yard, causing a flea problem and a disease risk."

Frazier also worries about risks from certain rare wildlife diseases the dumpsters may cause. One is a parasite commonly known as raccoon roundworm, which can cause blindness, brain damage, and even death.

In conducting interviews at a nearby condominium complex, Frazier found that residents have had problems with raccoons.

Frazier has had trouble trying to trap animals in the area, she said. A landlord gave her permission to set up traps, but residents keep throwing the traps in the dumpsters, she said. "The public is extremely against trapping, regardless of the situation," she observed.

During Frazier's investigations, she talked to Kyles' former next-door neighbor, who said he had personally trapped 50 cats.

Frazier confirmed Kimberly's fear of the health risk the stray cats pose. "Feral cats are a health risk anywhere, but they are a huge risk when they have as many cats as they do," she said.

The vector control department is now collecting tissue samples from the area's stray animals to test for the bacteria that causes cat scratch disease, Frazier said.

She has observed disease in some of the stray cats she has picked up. One kitten in particular stuck out in her mind; it had an enormous number of ear mites, she said, as well as canker sores in its mouth and blisters in its nose. In addition, disease had eaten away a hole in the top of the kitten's mouth.

Council member Rosemary Stasek has been in contact with Kimberly about Kaelin's ordeal. She has also had conversations with the police department and animal services and said that, in their opinion, the problem is not very widespread.

Stasek stressed that Kaelin's case was "a very serious one, but an isolated occurrence."

Additionally, she pointed out that a large number of feral and domestic cats carry the fever-causing bacteria, and it would be difficult to target just the feral cats in the community.

"Because the bacterium is so widespread through feral and domestic cat populations in the community, it's hard to see what to do that would be effective," she said.

Kimberly plans to organize an educational campaign in the neighborhood education, which Stasek said she would support. "People in the apartment complex think they're doing a nice thing by feeding the cats, but as a result, they're increasing this feral cat population," she said. "The neighborhood education effort would be something very effective to do."

For the Kyles, the experience of Kaelin's disease remains fresh.

"It's the most horrible thing I can imagine, besides losing my child," Kimberly explained. "To hear him in such horrible pain, screaming, just because of some stray cats in the neighborhood." 


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