“Amputation is possibly going to be the outcome, but he should get around just fine with three legs.”
The veterinarian’s words made me feel dizzy. I didn’t cry; shock and confusion suppressed my emotions.
A terrible event in mid October changed the life of my cat, but also demonstrated the resilience and capacity to adapt that felines so commonly exhibit.
I acquired the stray, all-gray kitten just two months earlier, but bonded with him immediately. This critter displayed the most endearing of cat traits: total floppsy submission to human coddling. He’s the sort that will allow little girls to dress him in doll clothes without biting or hissing, and I love him enormously.
Zipper looked to be about six months old, in good health, but small and fragile. I took him to a clinic for his first round of shots, worming and flea treatment, and scheduled his neutering appointment.
The day before the appointment, I let the little cat out in mid morning, and called him in around suppertime. When he didn’t show up, a feeling of dread hit me; he normally came in immediately. I kept calling and searching with no results until my neighbors phoned me at eleven. “Zipper’s out here in the bushes and he’s hurt.”
My neighbor carried him into the house. The cat’s left hind leg was dragging, but there was no blood or other apparent injury. I’ll never find out what happened.
The all night emergency vet clinic’s waiting room is populated with anxious folks. As with a human ER, a full gamut of violence, flaring infections and sudden trauma abounds, and hours of waiting often end with a heart wrenching diagnosis. The doctor explained that Zipper’s X-rays showed three severe fractures to the upper left femur. She said they could keep him until morning when a surgeon could insert rods, plates and screws. The procedure might or might not work, and if the recovery went badly, amputation might be necessary. This procedure would be about $2100 and the money was due on the spot.
It was impossible. I couldn’t get that kind of money together, and it all seemed surreal. I think I acted so brain dead that the vet simply wanted to shove me out the door and yell, “NEXT!”
The vet put a pain patch on the cat’s shoulder, covered it with a stretchy T-shirt, and put a blue plastic cone collar on his neck. She advised me to see my family vet in the morning.
Dr. W. has been our family’s vet for more than twenty years, and now treats the second generation’s companions. He knows my financial limitations, too. He showed me the X-rays revealing a femur split diagonally into three long shards.
“Frankly, I don’t have a lot of confidence that screws and wires will successfully give this cat good mobility. We could go that route only to end up amputating eventually. If we remove his leg now, he will do very well. The remaining leg centers in time, and cats are able to adapt beautifully with three legs,” he explained.
In the movies, amputees always struggle with phantom limb pain, so I questioned him about that. “Today, we have much better surgical procedures. We actually curl up the end of the severed nerve and overcome that problem.”
When I told the vet that Zipper’s neutering and second round of shots had been scheduled for this morning, he said he could take care of everything during the surgery and keep the cost down to $500. Amputation sounded shockingly extreme, but I trusted him.
The next day, the cat came home. He needed cage rest, so I borrowed a big dog crate, and made him comfortable with a warm blanket, food and water. As a litter box I got a shallow disposable aluminum baking pan so he wouldn’t have to climb over high sides. The first time I saw him use it, I was amazed at his ability to remain upright squatting with one hind leg.
Zipper required pain meds for five days and antibiotics for about ten. Both were liquids that I could easily squirt into his mouth with a plunger. He hated the collar, and proceeded to bite it into shreds over the next week.
In all honesty, I must admit there was an “eewww” factor momentarily. A long stitched incision from the base of his tail ran half the length of his body. With his fur shaved off, his hip and upper thigh musculature is visible, but no limb is left. He looked like a stuffed animal with those prominent stitches. Since he’s young and rapidly growing, the incision healed quite fast. As his hair grows back, his lopsided appearance will lessen.
Surprisingly, he enjoyed the cage. He never struggled to escape and when I began letting him out into the room for exercise, he voluntarily went back in when he wanted to nap. At five weeks post-op, Zipper rapidly handles the steps in my two-story house. He can’t leap to his favorite spot on top of the microwave, but he can surmount chairs and beds. Like his old pre-accident teenaged self, he zips around madly, but occasionally stumbles and rolls.
One big logistical problem remains: I don’t know how to make certain that he won’t get outside. My neighborhood is secluded and quiet, but he’s proven that he’s not street smart, and I know he’s not ready for the big world. When Zipper runs now, he moves in long arcing hops exactly like a squirrel. Since he’s small and solid gray with a bushy tail, heartless drivers might easily think he’s a squirrel. I use a walker, so I can’t smoothly slip in and out of the front door. Any suggestions?