The Ricky Fund

Even today, I miss my best friend.

Ricky and I had one of those special relationships – he could look at me and know what I was thinking. I believe if my name happened to be Timmy, and if I feel into a well – he would have been there to rescue me.

Most people might bet that Ricky would have been a Collie, or perhaps a German Shepherd dog or even a Poodle. Ricky was a Devon Rex cat.

That’s right – a cat.  He was no ordinary cat, aside from our close bond, he was talented. Ricky could jump through a Hoola hoop, over dogs (or young children) on a down stay – and did I mention that he played the piano?

One of our dogs, named Lucy, did animal assisted therapy work. My wife asked me to teach her something new, so I thought I’d show Lucy how to play a little kids piano I’m not sure why I thought this.

I closed the door in our practice room so I could begin our first clicker training piano lesson. I began to shape Lucy’s behavior. Well, I apparently hadn’t closed the door securely, and in walked Ricky the cat. Instantly, he looked up at me, and then looked at the piano, lifted a paw, and “ping,” “ping,” he began to play the piano. I had a virtuoso!

I thought, ‘What am I fooling around with this dog for?’ And continued the piano lessons with Ricky. I had long wanted to demonstrate that a cat can be taught to do anything a dog can do, and maybe even do it better. So in no time, Ricky had an entire regiment of behaviors.

But what good is a circus act for just me and my wife?

Ricky was social, and leash and harness trained. Knowing he wouldn’t mind public scrutiny, I let the cat out of the bag and unleashed Ricky on the America public. If only YouTube were around, Ricky would have gone viral many times over.

Ricky, thought nothing of appearing in recitals at Petco or PETsMART. TV crews regularly paraded into our home, as Ricky appeared on several Animal Planet shows, National Geographic Explorer and PBS. Ricky made in studio radio and TV appearances in Chicago. He seemed to relish the extra attention being a star brings.

Even when he wasn’t performing Ricky would accompany my wife, the dogs and myself on errands, to the pet store or to the dry cleaner.

In the summer of 1999, during a routine veterinary visit, my best friend was diagnosed with feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) – a common heart disease of cats.

Some cats with this disease (an abnormal thickening of the left ventricle of the heart) live for many years, dying of old age related illness. However, often that is not the case – either cats throw clots and have repeated painful stroke-like episodes, until finally the family is too taxed emotionally and /or financially to deal with it, or cats with HCM die suddenly. HCM is the most common cause of sudden death in cats. In fact, HCM may account for more deaths of indoor cats from about three years to eight years than any other disease.

Ricky was easily trained to jump on my shoulder to take his heart medication  (of course, it was Ricky). At best the medication only slowed the disease progression, offering little – but it was the best veterinary medicine could do.

Ricky was only 8-years old when died suddenly in June of 2002. A little of my heart was lost forever that day. Ricky gave me so much, and taught so many about what a cat can do – I felt I needed to stop heart disease in cats, or at least try.

I began a fund with the Winn Feline Foundation named for my pal, hoping to raise enough money for researchers to help find an effective treatment. We’ve raised over $100,000, which in feline health is significant. And, in fact, as a result, a genetic test (using a simple cheek swab) can now be done for Maine Coons and Ragdolls to determine if the gene defect for HCM exists. The test is not perfect, but this beginning – and at least has begun to diminish the disease in these two breeds.

Still, there’s much to do – to somehow find a treatment for all cats with HCM. What’s frustrating is that when it comes to cat health every dollar is a struggle  to raise. For reasons I don’t quite understand, it’s far easier to raise money for canine health studies. Meanwhile, cats are the most popular pet in America – and too many are dying of heart disease.

We don’t know how many cats succumb to HCM, many suffering for months or even years prior to their deaths – something must be done. Please help.

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Positively Expert: Steve Dale

Steve is a certified dog and cat behavior consultant, has written several books, hosts two nationally syndicated radio shows, and has appeared on numerous TV shows including "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "National Geographic Explorer," and "Pets Part of the Family." Steve’s blog is


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