2007-05-02 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

by Joanne Anderson

Dr. James Richards, holding Doctor Mews. Dr. James Richards, holding Doctor Mews. The poet Byron said it best: "The dew of compassion is a tear." A dedicated champion to all cats and to everyone who has ever adored one died last week. Dr. James Richards, age 58, director of the Cornell Feline Health Center, nationally recognized expert on cat care, and mentor to so many, succumbed April 24 to injuries sustained in a tragic accident two days before. The veterinary community and the pet world lost a truly compassionate teacher and friend.

Cats have healthier lives because of Dr. Richards. As the past president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners, in the 1990s he investigated why many cats were developing aggressive cancers (sarcomas) at injection sites. He helped create a task force to research the problem. The findings led to safer vaccine protocols. He was also an advisor for Alley Cat Allies, a national Trap- Neuter-Release group to manage ferals, and served on a panel for feline senior care.

Author of the ASPCA Complete Book of Cats, co-author of the Cornell Book of Cats, Dr. Richards was editor of Cornell's newsletter "CatWatch" as well where his monthly "Ask Dr. Richards" column mixed medicine and musings. In 10/ 05 when answering a letter about a cat's extra pounds, he remarked about a "portly veterinary colleague" who whispered, "You know, Jim, the only people worried about fat cats are skinny vets!" Then he went on to clarify the real dangers of feline obesity. Dr. Richards was also a comforting voice on Cornell's Pet Support Loss Hotline and 1-800-KITTY-Dr which responds to distress calls from vets and owners.

With some assistance from Cornell's spokes cats, the late Dr. Mew, a tuxedo, and now Elizabeth, a tri-color, Dr. Richards de-mystified the complexities of cat illnesses and behavior. He simplified scientific lingo without talking down to anyone. When Dr. Mew, the Health Center's cherished mascot, died at the age of 17, he offered Elizabeth the vacant feline ambassador position after she lost her job at the assisted living where his elderly mother resides. Choosing Elizabeth was so symbolic. It re- emphasized the loving bond people of all ages have with their cats.

No one could interpret the natural poetry of cats like Dr. Richards. No one was more willing to share this feline insight with others. He made it his mission to educate. Last year he launched a "Healthy Cats for Life" program to spotlight how adept cats are at hiding symptoms of sickness. This year he was in the middle of the "KNOW Heartworms" campaign to tell professionals and the public that deadly heartworm disease was often misdiagnosed or overlooked in cats. He had just been on CNN, Martha Stewart's Sirius Channel, and CBS news.

It didn't matter if you were a big mew or a small mew in the animal media. Dr. Richards would make time for you. Several wellknown members of the Cat Writers A s s o c i a t i o n (CWA) attribute their careers to his guidance and reassurance. I never had the privilege of meeting Dr. Richards although I was supposed to last Friday to learn more about feline heartworm after he taped a Ch 12 "Family Pet" show. When his publicist first invited me, I said I was a nobody so he need not meet with me. She assured me that he wanted to speak me.

In the 8/06 "Cat Watch" moved by the outpouring of sympathy upon Dr. Mew's passing, Dr. Richards wrote: "….people who love cats don't just love their own cats; they love all cats. ….Felines are "common threads" that knit us fortunate ones together, and I believe our community is a blessed lot indeed." As a role model, he often reminded us that what we do to help cats, also helps people.

All cat lovers can honor Dr. Richards' memory and perpetuate his wonderful work, by contributing to the Cornell Feline Health Center, College of Veterinary Medicine, Box 13, Ithaca, NY 14853-6401.

This week "Crayon" the featured cat for adoption at Oyster Bay Town Shelter (677-5784) Miller Pl. Syosset would make someone a SUPER-loving companion. "Crayon" #269, a tortie with lots of red, was turned into the shelter when her owner died. "Fiona" #258, an older, chubby Beagle/Basset, is looking for a best buddy too. See more photos on the shelter's Petfinder site.

More Cats: "Molly" #202- a sweet tabby surrendered because of family allergies; "Heckle" & "Jeckle" #173/ 174- the mature cream cats abandoned in an empty apartment.

Dogs: "Reba"- a friendly black Pit; "Gus"- a big boned Shepherd mix.

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