Amputee cats

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Adapting to life on three legs, the story of Buba


Teresa Martins looks at how owners can help their cats adapt to disability and the loss of a limb

Sleeping on a chair was Buba's most frequent (in)activity following the amputation of his left hind leg

Pet cats can sometimes find themselves having to adapt to life on three legs. The loss of a limb can affect normal feline behaviour and activity. Although cats usually find a way to adapt and live a happy life, the adaptation process can be aggravated by the distress of the incident or illness which resulted in amputation.

Buba was a neutered male six-year-old, extrovert and friendly domestic shorthair who lost his left hind limb in a motorbike accident. His story illustrates the process of adaptation pet cats must go through. After surgery a three-legged cat will find out that for some mysterious reason it is no longer able to perform some tasks it could easily do before. Frustration and anxiety can make the cat feel unsettled and can, in some cases, lead to distress and altered behaviour.

Facing up to life with three legs

Buba's adaptation to life on three legs was not easy. He became depressed and inactive. He stopped playing, gave up grooming, stopped cleaning himself after using the litter tray and also stopped purring. Perhaps because he felt frustrated, Buba compulsively engaged in a behaviour that still gave him pleasure and caused him no pain: eating.

During the first days after hospitalisation Buba was unsettled, not least because he needed to wear a collar to prevent him damaging the wound. Initially, Buba also became more introverted and aloof, wary of strangers as he had never been before the accident. However, his extrovert character won the day and over time he gradually lost his fear of strangers.

Physical adaptation may be complicated by hallucinosis (phantom limb). The cat will feel that it can still rely on the missing leg and it may take longer for the cat to find alternative ways of performing tasks that involve the amputated leg. Four years after the accident, Buba still tries to scratch his left ear with his missing leg. Observation of Buba suggested that phantom pain may be a problem in cats, as in humans. Several months after the surgery, when healing was completed, Buba was uncomfortable with his stump being touched. During vaccination, he was extremely reactive when he was injected in his left hindquarters, near the stump. However, this sensation eventually seemed to subside and he could tolerate being touched on the stump.

The role of the owner

Even though a cat's adaptation to a life on three legs will depend in part on their personality, it is clear this can be a difficult period for the cat. The pain and fear associated with many of the situations leading to limb loss can traumatise and distress the cat as well as adapting to their new limitations. It is important for owners to help their cats to cope with this new situation.

Buba faced a number of practical problems following the amputation. Jumping onto favourite furniture was difficult and he was inclined to give up. To aid him, furniture was rearranged enabling Buba to move from one piece to another, and gain easy access to favoured places. As his confidence and ability increased, so the furniture was moved apart until eventually it was returned to its normal location and Buba was able to go wherever he wanted.

Similarly, to enable him to get up on the bed, a step was provided at the side. As his confidence and muscle tone improved he was able to pull himself up and gained more freedom.

The litter tray was another problem. Despite the removal of its cover and the provision of a step, Buba was reluctant to use it. Buba was helped into the tray each time and initially helped to cover and dig which enabled him to gradually re-learn the habit and adjust to his new situation. Cleaning himself after using the tray was also initially difficult and he needed to be cleaned when he would not clean himself. However, as his balance and skills improved, and when he no longer fell over while trying to turn around to wash, normal grooming and cleaning habits were re-established.

Buba's compulsion to over-eat was overcome by distracting him with play when he started to search of food. Soon his natural desire to play, along with steady adaptation to life on three legs, overwhelmed his compulsion to eat. A three-legged cat's body weight should be controlled, as becoming overweight can exacerbate difficulties in them adapting to life. It may be useful to use low-calorie foods, especially as the cat will be less active (at least initially), and especially if they start to over-eat.

In summary, the owner has a critical role during the adaptation of cats to a life on three legs. Some cats adapt quicker than others, but especially when the process falters, a caring owner can help the cat adapt, help motivate them, and help them re-learn or develop new skills. Thoughtful adjustments will help accelerate the process of adaptation to enable the cat to have a full and enjoyable life.  

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