Lyn Forster is a veterinary surgeon working as a postgraduate researcher at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC). She is interested in cats and improving the welfare of feline amputees. Her research forms part of the work of the Centre for Animal Welfare where she is working with Dr Sandra Corr, Clinical Reader in Small Animal Surgery at Nottingham Vet School, and Professor of Animal Welfare at RVC, Christopher Wathes, and is supported by FAB.
In 2009-10 Lyn surveyed owners with cats which have lost a limb or tail to help us understand better how a cat copes after its loss. Limb and tail amputations are undertaken to treat different conditions — often with cats it is after an encounter with a car. Lyn explains the results of her research below.
The response to the questionnaire was fantastic - at the point at which I started to analyse the data in 2010 we had 234 responses, and I continued to receive questionnaires right up until the point of writing this update. Such an enthusiastic response is a great help as it's from owners that the vast majority of the information about feline amputees originates. As well as information on what sort of cats undergo amputations and why they might need to do so, there was also a lot of other information about how the cats coped or any problems they had. It's this information that perhaps offers the most to owners who's cats have recently undergone amputation, as there isn't much out there on how best to look after amputee cats specifically.
Some of the results from the survey are as expected; 80% were Domestic Shorthairs - this corresponds to the breed populations in the UK as most of our cats are Domestic Shorthairs. Two-thirds of the amputee cats were male, and two-thirds were under four years old. It’s thought that this is because younger cats are less experienced and more likely to come into contact with dangers, and males perhaps roam further than females. However the main causes of amputation are the same in both females and males; that is trauma, such as broken bones, nerve damage and damage to the skin and muscles. This was the same for leg and tail amputees, although tail amputees had nerve damage listed as a reason for amputation more commonly, perhaps because when a tail is damaged, a broken bone is less obvious in a tail than it would be in a leg, whereas nerve damage and a non-moving tail is very obvious. Although very few people ever see the event that caused their cat's injuries, it's likely that in most cases these sorts of traumatic injuries are caused by road traffic accidents.
Cats were equally likely to lose a left leg as a right leg, but 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 a lot more weight than the back legs, which means it is generally believed that amputation of a back leg will be more successful than amputation of a front leg. It's also the case that cats that have damage to the front leg are more likely to also have damage to the chest, and this can unfortunately affect their chances of survival. I believe the reason that hind legs are amputated more often than front legs is due to a combination of these causes.
So we have our image of a "typical" feline amputee - a young male Domestic Shorthair, with a leg amputated following a suspected road traffic accident. This is different to what we might expect to see in dogs, where the typical canine 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.
The rest of the results focused more on how the cats coped with their amputations, and how the owners felt about it. I asked questions about behaviour; activity level, movement speed, playfulness, mood, body and coat condition, appetite, self-grooming, friendliness with humans and other animals. Interestingly the only differences noted by owners were that amputee cats 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.
I also asked about pain and pain relief - almost 90% of owners knew their cat had received pain relief to go home with, however 36% thought their cat had been in pain at some point after it had returned home. This suggests there may be improvements that can be made in advising vets and owners on identifying the signs of pain and improving how the success of pain relief is monitored. 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 post-operative amputee cats we can potentially improve their speed of recovery as well. In fact, our results showed that if the owner thought the cat was in pain, they also took over a month to recover, whereas cats that were not in pain took on average two weeks. As cats canhide some signs of pain and so give the impression they are in less pain than they actually are, I was also interested to see whether any subtle behaviours noticed by owners tied in with other signs of pain, and in fact over-grooming was more common in cats that the owners thought were in pain. Animals sometimes focus their grooming on painful areas so this may be another way to identify a focus of pain in cats.
When asked if they thought their cat had a normal quality of life, over 90% of owners believed that they did. This is very encouraging - although there are still 10% of cats do not have a normal quality of life, most owners are 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.
So it looks like most owners are happy with the decision they made and the outcome, and are happy that their cats have a good quality of life. There are some issues that need our attention, such as monitoring pain, and what we can do to help those few cats that do experience problems following amputation, but on the whole the results paint a positive picture for feline amputees.
If you have access to academic journals, you can read the published results of this study in the Veterinary Record - http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/vr.c5893
NEW QUESTIONNAIRE: Feline amputee survey 2: behaviour