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Life with an Amputee Cat

Posted by Tom Benedict on 17/02/2015

Ember Sleeping - Close-Up

Several years ago one of my cats, Ember, lost a leg to a car. It was a long, drawn-out process during which we and his vet tried to save his leg and give him back the life he had before the accident. In the end Ember persuaded us all that he’d be better off without it. Rydra and I took him in, and his vet performed the amputation. His road to recovery was lightning fast compared to the hell we’d already put him through. Within days he was running, jumping, meowing…

Ember Sleeping - Low Angle View

And sleeping… just like a cat.

The weekend before the amputation Rydra had me scouring the web for stories from people whose cats had also had legs amputated. We both knew what we had to do, but she wanted me to be comfortable with the decision. I found some Youtube videos and a couple of forum posts, but not much more than that. Now I’m doing my part so that other pet owners who find themselves in the situation I was in will have a little more information to draw from.

Ember’s case is complicated because the accident caused nerve damage and damage to his urinary tract as well as the shattered femur. His bladder and urethra were both ruptured. His vet was able to stitch his bladder closed, but she couldn’t reach his urethra, buried down inside his pelvis. Instead she inserted a catheter and used it as a mandrel over which he could rebuild his urethra on his own. When she removed the catheter a week later we all breathed a huge sigh of relief that the operation had worked. If his urethra hadn’t healed, he would’ve died.

The combination of the injury to his urinary tract and the nerve damage he suffered has some longer-term implications. He refuses to drink water, so we have him on a special diet of wet food that provides the water he needs. The nerve damage makes it hard for him to have bowel movements, so that, combined with his tendency to under-consume water is a recipe for constipation – a life-threatening situation if not treated. His vet prescribed him a laxative and a combination laxative and stool-softener, which we give to him twice a day. Even with the diet and the medication he sometimes needs enemas to reset the works, so to speak, and get him moving again. (No, no pictures to share for that particular operation!)

Setting those complications aside, life as a three-legged cat isn’t bad. Walking is awkward, but he manages. It hasn’t slowed down his ability to run, though, which makes sense if you look at a cat’s running gait: their back legs move as one. He can’t jump as high as he used to, and climbing trees is out of the question. But otherwise he gets around just as well as he did before the accident.

Ember Cleaning His Leg

The biggest impact has been with grooming. Cats scratch their head, neck, and shoulders using their back legs. He can still reach all those spots on the left side of his body, but not on the right. Within a couple of days of the amputation we’d worked out a kind of sign language so he can tell us he needs help: he arches his head and pops his leg nub as if he’s scratching. That’s the sign for one of us to reach out and lend a hand.

Ember - Surrogate Right Leg

These scratching sessions are distinctly different from normal petting, which he still enjoys thoroughly. He wants fingernails, and he wants them kicking as if he was scratching himself. He’s pretty good about giving us directions for where to scratch, how hard, etc. The only thing he likes better than a good scratching is the cat brush. At the urging of his vet we got a “slicker” brush we use to brush him all over every day or so. Just as he does when he asks us to scratch him with our fingers, he directs the brush sessions to hit all the spots he can’t normally reach. He’s a good teacher, and I’m a well-trained surrogate rear leg.

We’ve been careful not to take that too far, though. It’s one thing to be a surrogate leg so he can scratch places he can’t reach on his own. It’s another for us to carry him around and help him with tasks he’s perfectly capable of doing himself. We’ll pick him up to groom him or to pet him, but we always let him get down on his own or place him back where he was when we picked him up. He doesn’t rely on us for getting around.

All of our cats are indoor/outdoor animals, and all of them hunt. Ember is no exception, and is still just as avid a hunter as he was before he lost his leg. From the reading I did before taking Ember in for the amputation, I gathered that weight gain and lethargy are major concerns for amputee cats. Maybe it’s because he likes getting around on his own. Maybe it’s because he’s still such an active hunter. I can’t say for sure, but this hasn’t been a problem for him so far.

One surprising change is that he’s far more comfortable around cameras now. The first time I pointed a lens at Ember he freaked and ran as if a one-eyed monster was chasing him. (Which, in a way, one was.) I did photography at various stages of his treatment, so I guess he just got used to having a lens pointed at him. These days he’s completely laid-back about the whole thing, and even has patience for lighting.

Lighting Setup

As much as the pictures in this article might indicate that Ember is a complete slacker, I should probably point out that they’re all from one photo session that came after a full night of running around carousing outside. Eventually he had enough of me and my camera, and sent us packing.

Ember - Done

– Tom

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