Special Needs: The Inspiring Lives of Disabled Cats

Cats with disabilities can live long, happy lives, and surprise their owners with their resilience.

Stevie, a 17-year old domestic shorthair, has been blind since birth, but you’d never know it to watch her. She does almost everything a sighted cat can do, such as frolicking outdoors, stalking insects and racing around the house. I’ve seen her sit in the middle of the living room floor and ‘watch a spider walk across the ceiling, said Stevies owner, Grafton Houston, DVM, owner of The Pet Hospital of Tierrasanta in San Diego. She’s not handicapped in the slightest. In fact, I attribute her general well-being to her lack of vision.

Stevie is living proof that being impaired doesn’t have to mean a life unlived. In fact, veterinarians say that with a little help from their owners, most disabled cats can enjoy a long, happy existence.

The worst thing you can do to a disabled cat is treat it as less than whole, said Robert Munger, DVM, president of the Animal Ophthalmology Clinic at the Veterinary Referral Center of North Texas in Dallas. You have to figure out what it can do on its own, but don’t limit what its allowed to do, within reason. Don’t treat it as an invalid.

Physically impaired cats have an astounding ability to adapt to their situation and the world around them, said Sharon Crowell-Davis, DVM, professor of veterinary behavior at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine. Owners can facilitate the process with lots of love and understanding, especially when the disability occurs suddenly.

Don’t withdraw from your cat as it adapts to its disability, Crowell-Davis said. As the cat learns to cope with the change in its ability to interact with its environment, you need to increase your involvement with and attentiveness to it. A newly blind cat, for example, shouldn’t just be left by itself in a corner. Its alone either because it hasn’t figured out how to maneuver yet, or it might be clinically depressed, in which case the owner needs to consult a veterinarian.

Leading the Blind 
Vision loss is not uncommon in cats. Causes include congenital defects, traumatic injury, glaucoma, cataracts, chronic uveitis and degenerative retinal disease. Hypertension is the No. 1 cause of blindness in older cats, Munger said; so senior cats should be examined by a veterinarian at least twice a year.Sudden blindness can result from traumatic injury, but more often disease takes away the vision of cats by degrees. Unfortunately, cats often hide their diminishing vision from their owners until their eyesight is all but gone. According to Munger, common indicators of progressive feline vision loss include increased vocalization, greater caution when moving around a room, bumping into furniture and misjudgments when jumping onto or off of favorite perches.

Cat owners should regularly monitor their pets vision by checking their pupils light response, Munger said. When you shine a light in a cats eye, the pupil should constrict. If the light reflex is abnormal, then the animal may have a problem and should be evaluated by a veterinarian. If caught early enough, the problem may be something we can treat.

Cats adapt to blindness by relying on memory and their other senses, but this adjustment can take time and owners should be supportive and patient. Realize that just like people, the cat that goes blind is going to find itself having to cope with issues that its not used to, such as navigating around the house, Crowell-Davis said. Some of the things we can do to help are common sense, such as not rearranging the furniture every day.

Its also a good idea to move through your house at the cats level and see what needs to be done in the way of cat-proofing. Sharp table edges, decorative metal work or low, protruding objects can all pose a hazard to a blind cat and should be cushioned or removed for the animals safety. Baby supply stores carry a variety of products, such as table pads, that can be used to protect cats with disabilities.

A cat that suddenly can’t see will understandably be timid as it learns to adapt to its situation. Cats that are extremely fearful may benefit from a few weeks of anti-anxiety medication, Crowell-Davis said. An owner can also encourage her pet to walk around by leaving a trail of favorite treats for the cat to follow. Over passing days, place the treats farther and farther apart. Once the cat learns that it can walk around safely, it will steadily build up its self-confidence.

The Hearing-Impaired
As with blindness, many cases of deafness are the result of a congenital defect. For example, many blue-eyed, white cats are born deaf, said J. Veronika Kiklevich, DVM, clinical instructor and veterinary practitioner at Washington State University Veterinary Hospital. Other common causes include traumatic injury and severe, untreated ear infections.

One of the biggest obstacles when living with a deaf cat is communication. People tend to use sounds to let pets know their intent, whether its calling them to play or running the electric can opener at dinnertime. But that’s not possible when a cat can’t hear.

The alternative is to develop a special sign language.

If its time to feed the cat, you might want to provide some kind of visual signal, such as holding up a can of cat food so the cat can see it, Crowell-Davis said. Of course, your cat must be looking at you when you do this.

Because cats are very sensitive to vibrations, an effective way to get a deaf cats attention is to tap your foot on the floor. Its smart to do this before approaching a deaf cat from behind to avoid startling it.

No matter what, a deaf cat should never be allowed to roam outdoors, Kiklevich said. Though it may be able to see, a deaf cat cannot hear approaching cars or barking dogs. In lieu of outdoor play, deaf cats should have plenty of visual enrichment via interactive toys and window perches.

While the outdoor dangers may be obvious, there are indoor hazards also, as Robert Neal of Dearborn, Mich., found after adopting Marley, a 4-year-old Sealpoint Siamese that was born deaf.

We’ve learned that we need to be especially careful not to step on Marleys tail or paws, Neal said. She likes to be right next to us, and since she’s deaf she doesn’t have the ability to sense when were taking a step back or to the side. Consequently, she gets nipped by our feet two or three times a week.

Physically Challenged
Cats are agile, active creatures, so the loss of a limb due to trauma or cancer can pose a serious challenge. But most cats are quite adept at meeting that challenge and getting on with their lives.

Joanne Hergert of Kooskie, Idaho, knows this firsthand. She adopted Scrunchy as a kitten because the orange domestic shorthair had lost the use of his left front leg due to physical abuse. Though initially reluctant to have the limb removed, Hergert was astounded at how quickly Scrunchy adapted to life with three legs.

He’s not really inhibited by his disability at all, she said. In fact, I think he was relieved because he didn’t have to drag the leg around anymore.

While the long-term prognosis for a physically disabled cat is usually quite good, the first few days or weeks following the loss of a limb can be traumatic. Some cats become depressed, as indicated by decreased appetite, increased vocalization, decreased play or simply giving up. However, most cases of feline depression can be successfully treated with medication.

Thankfully, most cats aren’t going to need [medication], Crowell-Davis said. In most cases, recovery is a mechanical issue. For example, a cat that loses a hind limb won’t be able to jump as high as it used to. The owner can help by making access to favorite spots easier, perhaps by providing a ramp.

Life can also be made easier for a three-legged cat by carpeting hard surfaces and monitoring its weight. Fat is an extra burden a three-legged cat doesn’t need, Kiklevich said.

Be prepared for a very different animal when he or she first comes home, said Robert Conrad of Canastota, N.Y., whose 10-year-old domestic shorthair, Leo, lost a hind limb to cancer. The first two days or so will be rough for your cat as well as you, he said. But after a couple of days, you will be amazed at how quickly it copes and, before you know it, your cat will be back to normal.

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