Life with three legs - Bupa's story
Ref FAB case report - http://www.fabcats.org/owners/disabled/info.html
Teresa C Martins looks at how owners can help their cats adapt to disability
Wild cats are unlikely to survive the loss of a limb, but pet cats can find themselves faced with the prospect of adapting to a life on three legs. The loss of a limb can affect normal feline behaviours: the cat will have difficulty in walking, running, jumping, climbing and pouncing. Its hunting abilities will be affected. Activities which rely on good balance, such as digging and grooming will also be affected and entire males will have problems in mating.
Although cats do find a way to adapt and live a happy life, the adaptation process is delicate, and further aggravated by the distress of the incident or illness which resulted in amputation. Buba is a neutered six-year old, extrovert and friendly domestic shorthair who lost his left hind limb in a motorbike accident. The story of Buba illustrates the sensitive process of adaptation pet cats must go through.
After surgery the 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 animal feel unsettled. Depending upon the cat's personality, circumstances and its owner's support, it may become depressed, give up some normal behaviours or indulge in compulsive survival behaviour such as grooming or eating.
Facing up to life with three legs
Buba's adaptation to a 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 started regurgitating after meals. When his Elizabethan collar was removed, Buba would start grooming. The vomiting and grooming seemed to be used by Buba to relieve tension posed by the collar and this persisted until healing was completed and the collar removed. 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, although with a shorter duration than in humans. Several months after 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 now seems to have subsided and he can tolerate being touched on the stump by his owner.
The role of the owner
Even though a cat's adaptation to a life on three legs will depend on the cat's personality, it is clear that it can be a very negative period in the cat's life. The pain and fear associated with many of the situations leading to limb loss can traumatise and distress the cat and it may become less adaptable. It is important for owners to help their cats to cope with their new situation.
Buba faced a number of practical problems following the amputation but his owner's support made a huge difference to his recovery. Jumping on to favourite furniture was difficult and he was inclined to give up. To aid him, Buba's owner moved pieces of furniture closer together enabling Buba to move from one to another. 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. His owner initially gave him a step on to the bed and then encouraged him to pull himself up. Once he could do this, his confidence soared as his muscle tone improved.
The litter tray was another problem. Despite the removal of its cover and the provision of a step, Buba was reluctant to use it, but his owner perservered in putting him on the tray. By encouraging him, initially by helping him to cover and dig and ensuring that the litter was kept clean, Buba gradually relearned the habit. Cleaning himself after using the tray was initially difficult. His owner cleaned his bottom with damp cotton wool which stimulated Buba to try grooming himself. Once he had re-discovered his balance and didn't fall 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 his owner distracting him with play when he entered the kitchen in search of food. Soon his natural desire to play overwhelmed his compulsion to eat.
A three-legged cat's body weight should be controlled subtly as the cat is in a delicate psychological state which may be aggravated by frustration caused by food removal. Low-calorie food should be offered and the amount of food provided slowly reduced. If the cat feeds many times a day, it is better to reduce the amount of food given each time, than to suddenly cut out feeding times.
In summary, the role of the owner during the adaptation of cats to a life on three (or two) legs is particularly important when the cat has lost adaptability. In these situations, cats may be unable to cope with the difficulties they encounter and may give up. Owners can motivate cats and help them re-learn, reshaping behaviours to help the cat adapt to his new condition. Adjustments and positive reinforcement will accelerate the process of adaptation to enable the cat to have a full and enjoyable life.
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