Disabled Cats: Caring for a Twisty Cat

by Sarah Hartwell
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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. Favorite resting places need to be at low level and should be well padded to give the forelegs a well-earned rest.

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 favorite 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.

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