Owning a cat with an amputated limb

International Cat Care helped fund a vet (Lyn Forster) to undertake some important research on improving the welfare of cats which have had limbs amputated for one reason or another.

Her research formed part of the work of the Centre for Animal Welfare, where she worked with Dr Sandra Corr, at Nottingham Vet School in the UK. For part of her work, Lyn surveyed owners of cats which had lost a limb or tail to help us understand better how a cat copes after this sort of loss.

Limb and tail amputations are undertaken to treat different conditions — most commonly in cats this is a result of trauma, very often after being injured in a car accident.

Results of the survey

More than 230 cats with amputations were included in the survey. Some of the results were as expected:

  • 80% of the cats were domestic shorthair (DSH) cats - this corresponds to the breed populations in the UK
  • Two-thirds of the amputee cats were male - this is probably because males roam further than females, and so are more likely to get into accidents
  • Two-thirds of the cats were under four years old - probably because younger cats are less experienced and therefore more likely to come into contact with dangers
  • The main causes of amputation were the same in both females and males:
    • Trauma, such as broken bones
    • Nerve damage, and
    • Damage to the skin and muscles.
  • The main causes were the same for both leg and tail amputees, although tail amputees had nerve damage as a reason for amputation more commonly
  • Few people see the event that caused their cat's injury, but it was thought in most cases these were caused by road traffic accidents
  • Cats were equally likely to lose a left leg as a right leg
  • Cats were twice as likely to have a back leg amputated as a front leg. This may be due to several factors:
    • The front legs carry more weight than the back legs - it is generally believed that amputation of a back leg will be more successful, so amputation of a front leg may not be offered so frequently
    • Cats that have damage to the front leg are more likely to also have damage to the chest, and this may reduce their chances of survival
    • It is possible that the back legs are actually injured more commonly as well

Differences between cats and dogs

So a 'typical' cat amputee would be a young male DSH, with a leg amputated following a suspected road traffic accident. This is different to what might be expected in dogs, where a typical amputee may well be an older male, probably purebred, who had a leg amputated following a tumour. It quickly becomes apparent that as with other issues, we must look at and consider cats as a unique situation, and not just as small dogs.

How do cats and owners cope with amputations?

Owners were asked questions about their cat's behaviour, activity, movement, speed, playfulness, mood, body and coat condition, appetite, grooming, and friendliness with humans and other animals.

Interestingly, the only differences noted by owners with a cat amputee were that they tended to be less active and moved slower - in all other aspects the cats were generally no different following amputation. When providing extra information, some owners reported that their cat got tired more easily. These observations probably reflect the increased effort involved in getting about on only three legs, but show that quality of life for most of the cats appears excellent. In fact, over 90% of owners believed that their cats had a normal quality of life after the amputation. This is very encouraging - although there are still 10% of cats do not achieve this, most owners are very satisfied that amputation has not impacted on their cat's quality of life significantly. When asked whether they would make the same decision if they knew then what they knew now, 95% of owners said they would.

Importance of pain relief

Almost 90% of owners were aware that their cat had received pain relief medication to go home with after the amputation surgery. This is reassuring as the surgery is inevitably painful. However, 36% still thought their cat had been in pain at some point after it had returned home, suggesting improvements could be made. As well as being emotionally unpleasant, pain is known to delay healing, and if we can improve the way pain relief is monitored in these postoperative amputee cats we can potentially improve their speed of recovery as well.

Interestingly, the results of the survey showed that if the owner thought the cat was in pain, the cat took over a month to recover from the surgery, whereas cats that were not in pain took on average only two weeks to recover.