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'Miss Kitty' spends $20,000 to save cancer-stricken cat

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"He's really like my little three-legged soulmate," says Kathy Lee, of Rochester, of her rescue cat and "million dollar baby," Elvis, who underwent $20,000 worth of medical treatment in 2014.
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A Rochester woman affectionately known as "Miss Kitty" essentially gave veterinarians a blank check after Elvis, her cat, was diagnosed with cancer in 2014. When the final medical bill hit $20,000, she barely batted an eye.

Cuddled on the couch Wednesday with her 3-legged feline friend — and four other cats lounging nearby — 53-year-old Kathy Lee laughs off the notion that she's a crazy cat lady.

"Maybe this sounds weird to people, but he's really like my little three-legged soulmate," said Lee, who receives monthly allergy shots to maintain her menagerie. "He reads me and I can read him. I've never had a connection with an animal like I have with (Elvis).

"We cried a lot, but here he is. He's really my little shadow."

Lee has become a regular at Rochester's Safe Haven Pet Rescue , where she connected with Elvis in 2009. The two quickly became inseparable, prompting an adoption of the 6-year-old cat. Two days after Lee lost her third pet to cancer, Lee discovered lumps on her latest addition.

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Dr. Marlys Kraus , of Vetmobile Housecall Veterinary Service , diagnosed Elvis with soft-tissue sarcoma on its back right leg and a sarcoma of the intestine.

Lee was devastated, resigned to losing another of her pets to cancer — until Dr. Kraus referred her to BluePearl Veterinary Partners in the metro area. To her delight, surgery was recommended as a solution.

The "triad of care," as the team-based approach is called, amputated Elvis' back right leg while also performing a hemipelvectomy, which resulted in the removal of half of the cat's pelvis. The initial work cost $14,000, while a second medical issue added another $6,000. Lee nursed Elvis back to health by sleeping on the living room floor for a month straight.

Dr. Kraus says that Elvis has had no recurrence and is now "a healthy, happy cat."

The surgery was so technically challenging, with such a positive end result, that a YouTube video of Lee, Elvis, Dr. Kraus and veterinary surgeon Andrew Jackson was used to open The American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine 2016 Forum hosted June 8-11 in Colorado.

"What impressed me were the lengths Kathy wanted to go to for Elvis," Dr. Jackson said. "Having clients willing to go the distance for their pets is one of the coolest aspects of my job, because chances are, there are options available today that weren't in the past. Without medical intervention, (Elvis) may have only had several weeks … to live."

A recent survey by VetSpecialists.com found that 63 percent of pet owners aren't aware of veterinary specialty medicine, like the kind used to save the life of Elvis. The website was developed in 2015 as a partnership between ACVIM and the American College of Veterinary Surgeons to provide education about diseases, and to increase awareness of veterinary speciality medicine for the animal-owning community.

Lee counts herself among those who had never heard of that new pet-friendly resource — but no one is surprised she jumped at the opportunity, no matter the cost. Lee's mother, Pat, was fully on board with the extensive treatment and cost.

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"We've both cried a lot of tears over this little guy," Lee said.

That devotion prompted Lee's former coworkers at the Federal Medical Center, a federal prison in Rochester, to tease her with the nickname Miss Kitty, while often using their work radios for good-natured "meows." Immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attack, Lee adopted a stray cat who showed up outside the prison. She named it Liberty.

Lee's pets enjoy an over-the-top pet-friendly living environment. Her home includes four fluffy pet-sized bed, four pillows embroidered with huge cat faces, and two paintings of Lee's past and present pets. Elvis also enjoys new stairs to reach his elevated bed next to the couch, accommodating its limited jumping ability.

Still, Lee's entryway is very much the focal point thanks to a pet shrine that greets each guest. The display includes pictures of numerous deceased pets, who have all been cremated and are now held in urns. Two humorous pet-friendly signs hang over the memorial.

"They've improved my quality of life," Lee said. "I had no 2-legged kids of my own so these are my kids. It's probably cheaper too — no designer jeans, no smart phones, no college."

But $20,000?

"I don't spare any expense when it comes to caring for my babies."

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Kathy Lee has five cats but said her connection with Elvis is particularly special.

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