Let’s Get Physical (therapy) – for Cats!!

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Welcome to Feta’s torture physical therapy exercises! It’s time to get moving!

“Noooooooo!!!! I do not like to exercise!!!!”

As we humans who have endured physical therapy can tell you, it is not designed to be fun or even especially comfortable. However, the end results are well worth the struggles.

Embarking on our exercise journey, there are three very important things to keep in mind: 1) discomfort is good, 2) pain is bad, 3) safety is paramount.

As my human PT doctors said, the goal is to exercise “to the pain” but not “through the pain,” because that can set you back even further. You want to just tickle the edges of your comfort zone, with the goal of stretching them just a little bit further each day, such that eventually you are back to life, back to reality! Since in this case we are working with animals, whose instinctive response to human-inflicted discomfort is to bite/scratch/claw/paw/etc., it is very important to keep your delicate parts (e.g., face) away from the pointy bits and also to be sensitive to your animal’s unhappiness threshhold – and do not push it to the point that your animal responds negatively!

(Full disclosure, Feta is a lovely, forgiving cat, but one time trying to snap a picture I got lazy, she got upset, and she clawed my arm pretty hard while trying to escape me poking at her. It was nothing serious, but if that had been my eyeballs, I would not be writing this post right now!)

With that out of the way, we start with our warm-ups. For Feta, whose primary current challenge is muscle tightness, we work on relaxing her muscle tissue through heat and electromagnetic therapy.

Since it is winter, and she enjoys being snuggly, I often begin by wrapping her up in her favorite soft blankie (a gift from our fabulous Auntie Meaghann) to warm her up all over.

ZzzzzZZZzzzz….

 

We also do a 15-minute session with the Assisi Loop, which was kindly donated by someone to Westfield Veterinary Group, who then generously donated it to us.

“The warmup is my favorite part of PT because it involves sitting comfortably and getting treats, both of which I am very good at.”

We then move to some gentle massage, which is hard to describe and even harder to video! Basically, imagine gently petting your animal’s major muscle groups using your fingertips. With Feta Cat, imagine the pressure you would use for a gentle cheek rub, and using that pressure (or lighter) down the spine and legs, stopping and reducing pressure if you feel any signs of tension. Remember that your pet is likely to be sore, so be very careful and gentle.

This isn’t quite what I mean by “cat massage,” but you get the idea!

In this video, you can see my (unskilled) demonstration of some of Feta’s sore spots – she has a lot of back pain, no doubt caused by her odd two-legged movement and posture, so we are working on reducing that through gabapentin medication and our massage/exercises.

After a bit of relaxing massage, we move on to the “passive range of motion” stretches. These are especially important, very gentle, and are useful for almost all animals with any sort of physical/orthopedic challenges (I do them with my arthritic dog, also).

I place Feta lying on her side, with her stump down and her stiff leg on top. Then, according to the vet’s instructions:

• To perform PROM for flexion and extension of the stifle, place the upper hand above the stifle and lower hand below. Try to keep your hands close to the joint. Be certain that the stifle is supported to avoid any undue stress.
• Slowly and gently flex the stifle. The other joints of the limb should remain in a neutral position. Try not to move the other joints while working on the affected joint.
• Continue to flex the joint until the patient shows initial signs of discomfort, such as tensing the muscles, moving, turning the head toward you, or trying to pull away, but do not cause undue discomfort.

My best attempt at a video showing our stifle stretches can be found here!

One of the most important things to remember with these stretches is to work on keeping the animal relaxed. If your pet is upset and fighting you, they will be tensing their muscles and you will not be getting the stretching you need. You may want to have someone helping you keep your pet calm, have treats on hand to soothe them and reward them, do it in a quiet, comfortable location, whatever you need to do. Relaxation is really, really important!

For Feta, we also work on back-elongating stretches to help her spine. One of the most effective for her is nicknamed the “Lion King stretch,” for obvious reasons:

This stretch works best if done while singing the opening lines from the Lion King movie. Or at least, so I hear.

Holding the cat up in the air, with your hands supporting her behind her front shoulders and in front of her back hips, encourages her to stretch out the full length of her spine.

We are also working on any movement we can do to keep her actively stretching out her back – having her grip into something and pull while I gently hold/pull her hips back is ideal, but we can get similar movement from types of play, using some of her favorite toys, as you can see here. Brushing her briskly along her back while she lies on her side also encourages here to stretch out and elongate her spine.

We are also working on what we cal “tail walking,” which is encouraging her to bear weight on her “bum leg” and to essentially re-train her brain to recognize the sensation of normal movement in that leg. We do a lot of practice with that, and with “rear leg weight shifts” (basically pushing her mildly off balance so she has to re-adjust her position, using all those little balance muscles and putting weight on her leg), while she is eating her dinner. Since she is extremely food-motivated, and does not “guard” her food (again, be careful), she doesn’t mind me messing with her rear end during dinner time as long as she has some tasty cat food to distract her.

Video of the weight shifting and “tail bracing” here!

Note: be VERY careful using the tail in these exercises, as it can be strained/sprained, which would require additional rehabilitation.

As you can see here, she’s doing well with the weight bearing, even though the leg is still extremely stiff. I am also working on getting her to stretch her back while she’s standing – if I scratch her bum, she tends to kind of curl/flex away from the scratches, which puts her in a much better posture.

Me: “Stretch! Move! Flex! Hold!” Feta: “FOOD FOOD FOOD FOOD FOOD! FOOD!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

 

We have more exercises to work on once she gets some more strength and flexibility back. For now, we’re working on doing this routine 2-3x/day, which is keeping us plenty busy!!

I am thinking of trying clicker training with her in the hopes of making some of these exercises a little easier – what do you guys think? Should we go for it?


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Feta Goes to Physical Therapy!

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Even though Feta Cat is now some 6 months post-amputation, as noted in our previous entries, she has really been struggling with the use of her remaining hind leg.

However, physical therapy is a pretty fancy (expensive) treatment for a shelter cat, so we spent a lot of time trying to do what we could at home. Primarily, we tried to help her with stretches and with practicing the use of her leg.

Unfortunately, the vast, vast majority of online PT resources are dog-specific, which was our first challenge. Even more challenging were Feta’s own particular limitations. How far could we push “passive range of motion” on that stiff leg without hurting her? Were there additional underlying physical problems (such as nerve damage) that might be making it actually impossible for her to do some of the things we saw online? What movements would be the best for helping with her specific weaknesses?

When it ultimately became clear that Feta’s leg was getting worse, not better, I offered to sponsor her physical therapy myself. With the assistance of the fabulous Tripawds.com community and the amazing Maggie Moo Fund:

the shelter (Liberty Humane Society) set Feta up with an appointment at Westfield Veterinary Group, an amazing practice that had been extremely helpful with an earlier case of theirs, and the Maggie Moo fund covered the cost! Thank you, Tripawds Foundation and supporters!!!

So, off we went to the vet for our initial evaluation and personalized (cat-inalized?) physical therapy prescription.

The vet started by pinching Feta’s foot and toes, trying to gauge how much sensation she had in the foot. While she did not seem to have much reflex to pull the foot away from pinching, she did seem to be able to feel (and disapprove of) what the doctor was doing. This is a good sign!

“The only ‘good sign’ I’m looking for is the exit!”

Next, the doctor tested her range of motion, which was significantly less good. For whatever reason (and certainly compounded by months without use), the muscles in Feta’s back leg were extremely tight, leading to very little flexibility in the hock and, in particular, the hip and stifle joints (the one between the hip and the “elbow”).

“I hope you’re happy, human.”

Next, Dr. Fellen used laser therapy to work on relaxing some of Feta’s tense muscles and, hopefully, reduce some of the pain she detected in Feta’s leg and back. (Animals are very stoic, and cats especially so, so it can be very difficult to detect pain if you don’t know exactly what you are looking for. And, despite experience with dogs and horses, I didn’t know how to evaluate a cat! But by feeling particular areas around Feta’s spine, Dr. Fellen was able to figure out areas of discomfort. This is another reason that evaluation by a professional is so important – wouldn’t it be awful to know that your pet had been in pain and you didn’t even know?)

Dr. Fellen applies the laser wand to Feta’s stifle joint. (“Worst. Spa. Ever.” -Feta)

Although she didn’t like the pressure of the laser wand, the warmth of the laser treatment must have eventually begun feeling pretty good to Feta, as she relaxed and started happy-purring while Dr. Fellen worked. (Note: cats can also purr when under stress, but her body language suggested that in this moment, they were happy purrs.)

Next we moved on to exercises and massage, which poor Feta liked significantly less. As I was holding her and being instructed how to do the exercises myself, I didn’t get a lot of photos, but it was great having individual, customized instruction on what she specifically needed for exercise and what would best address her particular problems. I will write more about them, and share some pictures/videos of our practicing, in future posts.

“Seriously uncool, you guys.”

For Feta, the most important things for her right now are stretching and exercising that leg, to get the muscles looser and more relaxed, and getting her re-used to the sensation of weight bearing on the leg, even if it’s not done in perfect form. Towards both of those aims, we are to start every “workout session” with 5-10 minutes of gentle massage, “passive range of motion” stretches, and heat (if possible) to loosen the muscles, coupled with forcing her to walk actually using that hind leg (rather than jutting it out stiffly in front of her as she crawls).

In our next post, we will talk more specifically about the stretches and exercises we are working on, as well as how Feta is faring with them. Stay tuned!

Feta’s Stump Stumps Me

So, I found myself with this 3-legged cat living in my bathroom. After diving head-first into fostering, this was neither the strangest nor least-expected thing to happen to me this year.

Still can't decide if she sniffs and licks me out of love, or a desire to see if I'm edible.
“Well, looks like I ended up with a 3-legged bathroom cat.” “Well, looks like I ended up with a weird-smelling crazy human.”

 

While the cat herself was easier than expected, her leg stump was starting to seriously concern me. I didn’t know what if anything I should be doing to care for it (clean it? bandage it? leave it alone?), and it looked to me to be open and unhappy. But, since it changed very little from when I first brought her home over the next several days, I figured it must be working as intended. Or something like that.

Seriously, that does not look comfortable

Before long, however, it started to get worse, and what I thought was “cat breath” smell I started to suspect was actually coming from the wound. Uh oh!!!

Graphic wound picture – if the amputation site looks like this, it is not good. Also, bad smell is bad news.

Consulting with the shelter, it was decided I would try to keep her from licking it and see if it got better.

Curse you, human, and your lick-blocking contraptions!

“I will lie here glaring at you with angst and resentment until you feel guilty enough to feed me the good treats.”

 

To keep her up and moving about, I also started feeding her kibble out of an interactive food dispensing ball. This worked great, except she would roll it around until it got stuck in corners or passageways where here lifesaver-bumpered head couldn’t reach. Eventually we gave up the food ball and donated it to another cat at the shelter whose current enrichment feeder was wearing out.

Before long it became evident that the licking was more likely to be a consequence of, rather than the cause of, the issues with the amputation site. So, much to everyone (except the vet)’s dismay, back to the vet clinic she went for a thorough wound-cleaning and antibiotics.

I took advantage of her absence to Macguyver her a new litterbox contraption, as she was having significant trouble using the standard-shelter-issue stainless steel pan I’d had for her before. Cardboard “waterproofed” with decorative tape? Why not? Nothing but the most attractive bathroom decorations for my precious, abscessed, 3-legged shelter snowflake.

One must be polite to one's pottying pets
Thanks for your sacrifice, neighbor’s Chewy.com box I pulled out of the trash room! Pinterest, here we come!

 

To everyone’s frustration (except perhaps the vet’s office, since they loved “Mama Cat” and were always happy to see her), this process of leg infection, treatment, good health, then reinfection, continued through several more cycles (and several different antibiotics) before things finally settled down. Fortunately, the abscesses all seemed to be relatively superficial, but we were all still very concerned that the infection might either spread (“It’s not like there’s anything more we could cut off!” lamented the shelter director) or indicate the initial infection was worse than we’d thought (“But what if it’s been the SAME INFECTION all along?!” I moaned to my dog. He sighed indifferently.).

Along the way, Feta was graduated to the full Cone of Shame, which she had to wear for several months. She donned it quite glamorously, even if she looked kind of like a deformed art deco lamp.

“I am a blooming Catflower Lamp! Give me treats to see me shine!!”

 

Eventually, after some additional veterinary flushing and re-suturing, the amputation site looked like this – forming an ugly-but-healthy kind of barrier of dead skin, which eventually came off of its own accord. The tricky part was keeping a close eye on it to make sure no infections / abscesses returned.

Maybe we’ll give you a few more weeks to recover before your Sports Illustrated bikini shoot, eh, Feta?

 

What was most remarkable to me was how sweet and cooperative Feta remained through the whole recovery process. Whether it was happily slurping up her raspberry-flavored meds (mixed with wet food and canned pumpkin, to help with poo problems):

This looks more like the result of the poo problems than the prevention!!

Or just continuing to be gentle and affectionate with me even as I gave her uncomfortable hot compresses and leg stretches several times a day:

Volume up for a purr party!

Feta the Cheese Cat was just a rockstar, a true model patient. Good girl, Feta. You are awesome.

Cheese Cat sold separately.
Like my shirt? You can get one just like it, or one featuring a cat instead, here! 😀