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Living With A Disabled Cat – Part 4

| November 3, 2010

Some cats are born disabled, other have suffered accidents or the degenerative effects of old age. A disabled=

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

This section provides answers to some of the more commonly asked questions.

Do Other Faculties compensate for the missing one?

After losing a sense or a limb, cats must rely on their remaining faculties. Many owners notice that the remaining senses may become more acute or remaining limbs may become stronger. For example, a blind cat may have extremely acute hearing while a hind limb amputee may have front body strength comparable to a weightlifter.

The apparent sharpening of remaining senses is part of how the brain works. The brain isn’t static, it is capable of rewiring. In animals and humans that are born blind, the unused areas of the brain normally associated with sight become commandeered by intensively used adjacent areas such as hearing and touch. In cats which lose their sight during life, they rely more on other sense and those neuronal pathways become stronger and that area of the brain a little larger. It’s a case of “use it or lose it”. In a sense, while the sight area atrophies through disuse, other areas can grow into the freed up space. Although a blind cat may be concentrating more on listening, the adaptation isn’t a conscious effort, but a neurological effect. This is greatly simplified; you can learn about brain wiring in Matt Ridley’s book “Nature via Nurture”.

Physical attributes are much the same. A cat who lacks one leg spreads his weight across his remaining limbs. Like anyone who weight trains in a gym, those muscles are used more and get stronger. In cats and dogs, the front limbs carry most of the weight, especially when moving. In a hind limb amputee, there is additional weight on the fore limbs and these develop even more than usual. Owners of dogs who have recently lost a front limb are advised to exercise the dog gently to give the remaining foreleg time to build up its strength and not to put too much strain on it too early. Anyone who works out in a gym to develop specific muscles can see the same effects – the muscle responds to the strain by growing and becoming stronger.

In addition to adaptive changes in the brain and muscles, cats use their intelligence to cope with disability. A cat with mobility problems can often be watched figuring out the best route onto or off of a shelf – it might figure out a route where it can get onto the shelf in a series of steps with little jumps, rather than a single leap. A blind cat might gauge the height of a chair seat by reaching up on hind legs to pat its forepaws on the seat before making the jump. A cat with one eye swivels its head to get several angles of view to get some depth perception before making a jump.

Where a sense is lost gradually, the brain can compensate over a long period of time. For example, we may not realise our cat is going deaf until all hearing is lost. Where a sense or limb is lost suddenly (illness or accident) the speed at which a cat adapts seems to be related to its age. It just takes older cats a little longer and the adaptation may be a little less perfect.

Do disabled pets become more affectionate than able-bodied ones? Is this gratitude towards their humans?

“Gratitude” is anthropomorphism i.e reading human emotions into animals. Animals do have emotions, but not the complex abstract emotions of humans because they perceive the world in a different way to us. A better explanation of the “gratitude effect” in disabled cats is that the cat allows itself to become more dependent on its human family. Cats frequently relate to humans as though we are parents (providing food and comfort) and they are juveniles. A disabled cat is even more likely to view the owner as provider and may exaggerate its own role as kitten. The owner makes additional efforts to accommodate a feline disability and the cat modifies its own behaviour to suit this relationship – we may not even realise this is happening, but it is a continual process. Remember that cats interpret owner/cat relationships in feline terms, not in human terms.

Are cats with genetic disorders also genetically programmed to adapt in certain ways? For example are Twisty Cats genetically programmed to have stronger hind legs?

A Twisty Cat will have relied on its hind legs since kittenhood hence these will have grown stronger. The same extra-strong hind legs would be seen if the kitten’s forelegs were deformed through birth accident rather than genetic mutation. In genetic mutations, the gene(s) affected have all sorts of visible and invisible effects (there is not a one-gene-one-trait correlation) and it is possible, though unlikely, that some of the gene’s effects will compensate for its other effects. However, it is more often the case that all of the genetic effects will be detrimental – throwing one part of a delicately balanced machine out of balance has a detrimental knock-on effect on other parts of that machine. Genes give cats the potential to develop in a certain way, the environment hones how the cat actually develops.


A caring owner can think of other ways in which to help a disabled feline companion, but beware of being overprotective. A disabled cat still requires some semblance of independence to allow it to fulfil that inner ‘catness’ that we love in our feline friends. Most seem unaware of their disabilities and they do not expect life to make allowances, but a helping hand and some adjustments to their lifestyle and perhaps your own lifestyle will ensure a disabled cat has a healthy, happy and safe life.

There are plenty more resources on the web.
– information and links including links to companies providing wheelchairs, ramps etc
– adoption, resources and bulletin board
– Handicats Yahoo group for owners of special needs cats
– The Cerebellar Hypoplasia Kitty Club (UK: Spastic Cats)

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

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