banner ad
banner ad
banner ad

Living With A Disabled Cat – Part 3

| November 3, 2010
Some cats are born disabled, other have suffered accidents or the degenerative effects of old age. A disabled cat can still lead a full and enjoyable life, given a chance and an understanding owner. Cats adapt their lifestyles to cope with disability far more easily than do most humans

Some cats are born disabled, other have suffered accidents or the degenerative effects of old age. A disabled cat can still lead a full and enjoyable life, given a chance and an understanding owner. Cats adapt their lifestyles to cope with disability far more easily than do most humans


The term ‘spastic’ may be considered politically incorrect, however cats have no concept of political correctness and this colloquial term (defined in my dictionary as “suffering from spasms”) covers several conditions with similar symptoms. I apologies to anyone who objects to the term, but I would point out that the term is used in the UK to describe cats with disabilities of co-ordination, muscular spasms and muscular tremor. To avoid confusion among American readers, the term “spastic” is not used in the sense of a cat whose muscles lock rigid e.g. during a fit.

Spastic cats (CH cats) are sometimes born to females who have suffered Feline Infectious Enteritis (FIE, Feline Panleukopaenia, Feline Distemper) during pregnancy. Cats which have suffered brain damage through an accident may also be unco-ordinated so these notes apply. It can also be due to injury, poisoning or simply a random development problem. It is not known to be caused by a pregnant cat receiving a the Enteritis vaccination and is usually only seen in kittens born to feral, stray or unvaccinated cats.

Adult cats have an immune system which can usually can fight off FIE, but in kittens the virus can cross the blood-brain barrier and cause defects in the cerebellum. Unborn kittens at 1 – 4 weeks gestation are usually killed by the infection and the foetus is reabsorbed by the mother or spontaneously aborted. Kittens at about 4-5 weeks gestation may be stillborn and have major defects; if born live they are unlikely to survive. Kittens infected near the end of the pregnancy may be stillborn or may be born with Cerebellar Hypoplasia (spasticity). These timings and the effects depend on the development stage, size, health and strength of the kitten. It also depends on the mother cat’s health, the environment and the amount of virus she was exposed to. There are different strains of the virus and some may be more damaging to unborn kittens than others.

Affected kittens may not grow as large as unaffected kittens or they may have slower development. The virus affects the cerebellum area of the brain, an area involved in fine motor control. Typical symptoms are ataxia (poor co-ordination), gait abnormalities and perception. Affected cats are wobbly and unco-ordinated (variable degrees from wobbly through to unable to walk) and have characteristic head tremors which are evident when they try to focus on something (e.g. a bird). Many also have sight problems, but it is difficult to assess their sight due to their strange posture and gait. It often looks as though their body goes the opposite of what they are telling it to do, or one part goes in one direction while the other tries to head off elsewhere! They adapt to these challenges, but will always be clumsy and may be nervous or unsure of themselves in new situations. Barring any accidents caused by their unco-ordination, their life expectancy doesn’t seem to be affected and given a safe environment, they live as long as unaffected cats and seem little troubled by their condition.

In humans, the problems would be significant disabilities. CH cats don’t worry over their inability to do things in the same way or at the same speed as other cats. Spastic cats can do everything other cats do and are equally independent – they climb fences, play and performs daredevil feats, though they can be alarming to watch, especially as they teeter along a fence. Occasionally they slip, catch hold with their claws and haul themselves back up again; make sure there are soft plants to cushion any fall! Like disabled humans most won’t want to be overprotected, but in the same way that disabled facilities are made available to humans, some thought needs to be given to toilet facilities, access to favourite spots etc to ensure their wellbeing.

It is not advisable to give a spastic cat free access to outdoors as their mobility problems, perception problems and possible sight problems makes traffic doubly hazardous to them. If you have an enclosed garden or a cat harness and leash they can have access outdoors. Many people are unaware of the condition and people who see these cats twitching on the path outdoors sometimes try to help the ‘injured cat’, but the cat’s crazy zig-zag run confuses most pursuers – they simply don’t end up in the place they appeared to be heading for (one more reason roads pose such a threat, a driver who tries to avoid the cat cannot compensate for the cat ending up in the wrong place). Even birds are caught unawares by this zig-zag approach and I know of spastic cats who are reasonable hunters, exploiting this element of surprise. CH cats are extremely independent and owners report that affected cats usually have “sunny personalities”, but some allowances still have to be made.

Cushions and rugs under windowsills act as safety nets and crash-mats for an unco-ordinated cat. CH cats often lean against walls when at rest and when running, using the wall for stability and guidance. If you provide a ramp up to seats or sills, make sure it is wide since such cats rarely walk in straight lines, carpet it for extra grip and make sure there is some form of crash-mat in case the cat does fall. It may be a good idea to leave such cats with a full complement of claws since they need the extra grip to compensate for limb tremors. These should be clipped regularly so they don’t accidentally snag in furnishings.

The litter tray needs to be untippable and high-sided apart from the entrance. Puss may need to lean against a side while using it. Even so, you need newspaper around it and must be prepared for some accidents as they don’t always position themselves correctly. You may need to clean under the tail more frequently as the cat may be unable to co-ordinate itself well enough to stay in a squatting position while using the tray, or it may stagger and tread in the faeces. Spastic cats are also messy eaters, placing both front paws in the food to prop their head up while eating. If they twitch, some of the food goes flying so feed it in an easily cleaned area and use an untippable water bowl!

Despite what would seem to be unsurmountable problems to humans, CH cats enjoy a good quality of life, but need you to watch out for their inevitable accidents. When they fall, they often go floppy and relatively short falls (coffee table etc) will damage their dignity rather than their body. One owner of a spastic cat told me “let him pick himself up first, don’t compound the indignity by picking him up unless it is obvious that he needs help or is injured – and remember – cats bounce!”


Much of the information given here for Twisty Cats can also be applied to cats which have lost both fore-limbs through injury of birth defect. One of the earliest accounts of a double amputee cat with no fore legs can be found in Philip Brown’s book “Uncle Whiskers” (1970s, out of print, but sometimes turns up at secondhand book stores or jumble sales). To protect his healing stumps, Uncle Whiskers was originally fitted with leather “boots”.

Some people who see a cat with Radial Hypoplasia (RH) for the first time either think it has both front legs broken or notice that it sits up like a rabbit. They walk in a shuffling or scrabbling motion. There are varying degrees of the condition, these tips take a worst case scenario. Mildly affected cats may get along just fine, but have a peculiar bobbing gait. Some affected cats are found among feral cat colonies, but unless the colony is being fed by someone, RH cats are unlikely to survive outdoors – they cannot hunt, cannot run from predators, traffic or malicious humans and cannot defend themselves if molested. In addition they are likely to be singled out for abuse because they are different and therefore “easy targets”.

The front legs can be considered severely crippled, often with toes going in all different directions. To help a cat with radial hypoplasia in getting around the house, you need carpet or rugs because they may have a hard time slithering across slippery floors on almost useless front legs. Because the cats are walking on a crooked part of the leg rather than on the paw, you need to watch out for sores developing on the leg over time, the skin becomes callused and hardened, but when an affected kitten is learning to walk and trying to play, the skin can become abraded. If calluses do not form, you may be able to fashion a padded leather bootee to protect the cat’s skin. Favourite resting places need to be at low level and should be well padded to give the forelegs a well-earned rest.

Cats with severe RH have problems cleaning their faces, particularly their ears and eyes. This can result in recurrent infections and a build up of debris around the eyes, in the ears and also food debris can accumulate around the mouth and nose. Extra attention is needed to keep these areas clean so that infection does not occur. In a multi-cat household, other cats have sometimes been seen to wash the face of an RH cat (and even to “cover up” in the litter tray for them!). One or two RH cat owners have reported that their cats have extra skin around the eyes though this trait is not necessarily linked to the foreleg deformity.

One danger is that of ingrown toenails because the claws do not get normal wear from walking and often the twisted leg cannot scratch a scratching post, either vertically or horizontally. Sometimes the claws are deformed or twisted and even cutting them is hard. Even if you are normally opposed to declawing, this is one instance where declawing may be necessary for health purposes. Some owners have reported horn-like spurs growing out of the paw pads; these might be bony spurs growing from damaged toe bones (bones are prone to growing spurs after certain types of damage) or to the unused tissue of the paw shrinking back to leave a “mummified” section of bone. If these are causing discomfort or interfering with the cat’s locomotion, they should be removed. Depending on the severity, the RH trait does not necessarily cause pain in movement, tendon problems or arthritis.

Because they can still climb and often develop more powerful hind-legs to compensate for the weak forelegs, most RH cats can get onto chairs, beds etc either by jumping or by climbing. Jumping onto higher surfaces such as shelves may be impossible but the front paws are not positioned to grasp the edge of the surface as a cat with normal forelegs does. Normal cats tend to “run” up the final few feet of a high leap and RH cats cannot do this. They can only jump as high as their back legs can propel them or they might climb up soft furnishings or wire mesh.

However the jump down is problematical because they must land on the forelegs. With their reduced forelegs, the landing is more dangerous and even painful. The cat’s chin may graze on the ground as normal forelegs act like shock absorbers, damping the impact. Having climbed up onto a chair, many RH cats find the descent daunting and dither while they psyche themselves up – at this point you may opt to lift your cat down. A ramp with a shallow angle and covered with securely fixed carpet or sacking, or with ledges crosswise every few inches, so he doesn’t slither on smooth wood, may help him get up and down to a favourite chair.

Stairs are especially hazardous to a cat with severe RH. Thought they can get up the stairs, getting down stairs is dangerous because they are likely to overbalance and tumble down the stairs, or even off the edge. The fall can be lethal so try to restrict the cat to one level or use a solid (not mesh or the cat will climb it) child gate on the stairs to stop the cat from going onto them. If he lives upstairs, the child gate must be at the top of the stairs. If he lives downstairs it must be at the foot of the stairs and the banisters must have no gaps in which would otherwise allow him to bypass the child gate.

A cute peculiarity which I noticed with an RH cat at a cat shelter is the tendency to rest the chest and forelegs on a raised ledge, sometimes with the forelegs dangling right over the ledge. This is more comfortable for them as it more closely approximates a normal feline resting position. Some RH cats, however, take it to extremes and sit almost upright with forelegs dangling over the back of a chair. The fact that they sit like a squirrel or rabbit often leads to misidentification as a “cabbit” (a genetically impossible cat-rabbit hybrid) or squitten (squirrel-cat hybrid – literally squirrel-kitten). The lack or partial lack of the main leg bone means that RH cats cannot crouch in a typical eating position, their either need the food raised to their normal head height or they will eat lying down. If your RH cat regularly rests its head and forelegs on a ledge, trying placing the food on the ledge so it can reach it more conveniently.

As with most of the disabilities mentioned, if your garden is securely fenced in (RH cats can climb wire mesh), or you have an outdoor pen or your cat is leash-trained, limited supervised access to outside is possible. Unfettered access to outdoors is especially dangerous to a cat with severe foreleg deformities.


Living With A Disabled Cat

The ramp is based on a deckchair design with notches for the prop to allow the height of the ramp to be altered.

If you are able to use a saw (preferable a jigsaw or scrollsaw) and drill, it is not hard to make an adjustable ramp or a simple set of steps. These are general guidelines only.

The ramp is based on a deckchair design with notches for the prop to allow the height of the ramp to be altered. It is best to assemble the ramp and fit the prop before carving any notches, that way you can mark out where to carve notches to give a suitable range of heights, The notches must be deep enough that the prop doesn’t slide out when the cat’s weight is on the ramp. To provide grip on the sloping surface, fit some carpet or nail a series of small battens across the ramp (i.e. ladder-style).

To make the steps, measure the height of the surface the cat wishes to reach. Then work out how many steps and how deep or shallow the steps need to be for your cat. This will also affect the overall size of the item. In general three steps is adequate. To prevent the two sides splaying under the cat’s weight, brace the steps at their base as shown in the diagram.

Another simple steps design is shown below. The top step can either be set at the height of the surface the cat needs to reach or a step’s depth below it.

Copyright & Credit:
Copyright 2009, Sarah Hartwell – MESSYBEAST.COM

Photo copyright and courtesy: Lena Povrzenic – stock.xchng

Category: Feline Health and Care, Feline Resources, Felines Disabilities & Medical Conditions

Comments are closed.

banner ad
banner ad