Cats and Anti-Freeze: A Parable

Thu, 26/01/2023 - 10:49 -- James Oakley

Where the North Sea meets the Atlantic lies a small country, the United Isles of Great Britannia (GB for short)

It is often reported that New Zealand has more sheep than people. GB has more cats than people – they are a nation of cat-lovers. As a result, a thriving industry in veterinary medicine has developed.

In recent years, a new development has disturbed this industry, concerning anti-freeze. Historically, anti-freeze has been thought harmful to cats. For decades, the received wisdom is that it is highly toxic, and even small amounts can cause kidney failure and death. There are ancient veterinary medical books that outline the research in some detail.

However, ethylene glycol is a sweet-tasting substance, and islanders have been noticing that their cats have quite a taste for it. There’s a label. These cats are described as “Anti-Freeze Oriented”, or “AO”. This has led some to argue that cats should not be deprived what they so enjoy. After all, cats enjoy a saucer of milk, so many owners give them one every day at 4 o’clock. Who could be so unfair as to deny a cat with a taste for anti-freeze the same treat.

The pressure for this has, in part, been driven by the anti-freeze industry. Predominantly, they are represented by people from within the motor industry, and have no real understanding of medicine – veterinary or human. The desire to see more anti-freeze sold across the country is putting pressure on the veterinary world. A few leading motor parts suppliers have started printing “leading veterinary expert” on their business cards. Nobody knows why. Nobody questions. The experts are in favour.

Anyway, this trend has caused debate within the veterinary industry. Some senior vets tell stories of cat-owners, distraught after receiving the advice that anti-freeze would harm their cats, and have wondered if a change in the official position is due.

The island has just come to an end of a 6 year period of consultation.

During the first 4 years, a series of “shared conversations” took place all over the Isles. They were structured by county. Each town had two or three “town hall” meetings at which cat owners could come and share their stories. Discussion of the medical data was discouraged. The organisers said that this was not as hard and fast as first thought; the more honest campaigners did concede that the data was clear that anti-freeze is harmful, and the debate was over the relevance of this data. Instead, these meetings were an opportunity to hear stories of owners and their cats. Facebook groups were created where photos could be shared of cats doing strange things in unlikely places. Owners who had never tried anti-freeze themselves before were encouraged to try a small sip and see how good it tasted. Each town group then sent representatives to a county-wide gathering. These took place in country hotels over 48 hours.

There was no actual decision taken at the town or county meetings, but the feelings and observations of those present were recorded and fed back to the national body. A task force was set up – the Anti-Freeze Next Steps (ANS) group. ANS met several times over the next 2 years.

A number of traditional vets were anxious at the way events were unfolding. Especially troubling was a report that a number of traditional vets had met with representatives from ANS in the town of Hilda (a pretty spa town in some hills in the Midlands), and had reassured ANS that they would support whatever was proposed.

Some vets have been asked by concerned cat owners whether they would support a change within their practice. They bravely explained that they could not knowingly poison a cat, so they would not commend any anti-freeze products. The cat owners then asked if they would be willing to supply a list of neighbouring practices that do sell anti-freeze in feline form. The vets said that, again, they could not refer a cat to another practice where they would suffer harm. The owners were heard muttering that there would be court cases for vets with such rigid views.

Anticipation has been building. The Vets Annual Convention (VAC) meets in February each year, and the proposals were due to be discussed in 2023. It was known this would cause some heated debate, and there was unlikely to be anything approaching consensus.

In the past few months, a number of the most longstanding vets practices have begun jumping the gun a little. They anticipate a change of policy will come, and cannot bear to see cat owners upset any longer. They have made public their hope that the policy will change, and have begun holding gatherings for AO cats and their owners. It has been rumoured that small samples of milk laced with ethylene glycol are being handed out, but it’s hard to be sure.

The ANS group has just reported its findings.

  • First of all, there is to be an apology for the hurt caused to the owners of AO cats over many decades.
  • Second, there will be no change of policy. Anti-Freeze will officially remain on the list of products that all vets are to consider harmful for cats
  • Third, a number of new products have been coming on the market. These are not anti-freeze as used in a motor vehicle, but are products that cats would enjoy eating or drinking anyway that contain some ethylene glycol. The idea came from the rumours of enhanced milk being served at the AO meetings. These will be approved for use. The food and drink themselves are already approved for feline consumption (milk, chopped chicken, and the like), so it is argued that serving these products with added glycol is already allowed.
  • Some may argue that this is changing the policy by the back-door. The lawyers have looked into this. (Most of them specialise in property law, but their great intelligence and education has qualified them to acquire a new specialism very quickly.) It is very clear, they say, that products containing ethylene glycol are not actually anti-freeze. So it is entirely coherent to refuse motor anti-freeze whilst allowing other products containing this complex organic chemical.
  • The VAC in February will hear a report on these recommendations and be given some time for debate. However no vote will be taken. As there is no formal change to either the current policy or the foods that may be fed to cats, there is no need.

The two most senior vets in the country held a press-conference to announce this. The most senior vet for the south of GB said that he’s absolutely thrilled to commend these conclusions. However, vets around the world look to him for leadership so he won’t himself be recommending enhanced food and drink in his practice. The most senior vet for the north of GB had tears in his eyes. Many of his closest friends have AO cats, he said. He thinks this is long overdue, and will be selling the new products as widely as possible. There is further to go, and cannot wait for the day when cat owners can visit Holfards and buy their cats the actual product.

Meanwhile, a small number of veterinary practices are dissociating themselves from the national bodies making these changes. It’s hard to set up a new structure when the Royal College of Veterinary Medicine is so established, but they’ll find a way. The vets practices that are already independent say many cat owners have been registering.

Meanwhile, many vets practices affiliated with the Royal College are considering their options. Often, the surgery is owned by the regional board, and they’d lose all the subsidies that come from their affiliation. They can also see the harm that is about to be done and do not wish to lose their voice at regional level and at the VAC. The decisions are hard, and a few are off-work due to stress.

Meanwhile, the nation as a whole looks on bemused, wondering what on earth is going on.

And, meanwhile, a number of cat owners are about to lose the pets they love so dearly, sleepwalking into a nightmare.

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