The Occasionally Challenging Life of a Three-legged Cat

Having only three legs presents a few challenges for Sammi but it doesn't prevent her from being a happy, healthy cat.There are a few things she has difficulty doing but we’ve tried to make her life as a three-legged kitty easier and safe. 

Sammi's History

Sammi was surrendered to the SPCA and had her left front leg amputated by U.C. Davis veterinarians in November 2008. We adopted her about one month after her amputation with very little information about what had happened to her. We believe her paw was injured and was not affected by some type of disease. We were amazed at how active and capable she was just one month after the amputation. She was on one of the tallest perches in the adoption room, came down, ran across the floor, and hopped up to the back of a couch. She has certainly demonstrated how resilient cats are. 

The first few months were a time of recovery and adjusting. I suspect the amputation site was still a bit tender because there must be a lot of nerves, tendons, and muscles that need to heal after an amputation. We could tell she wasn't 100% sure of her balance or abilities, but she tried to do everything a 4-legged cat would do. After 8 months, I think she’s pretty well adapted to having only one front leg. Her slim body probably makes it easier for her to adapt. If she were just a couple pounds overweight I don't think she'd be doing nearly as well. Maintaining a healthy weight is something we will be careful to monitor.
1+ year update:
she's currently 7 pounds 6 ounces and I'm guessing that may be from adjusting to a new home and developing a little more muscle to compensate for her missing leg. She recently started medication for inflammatory bowel disease, so I'm hoping she gains a few more ounces as her condition improves. She is thin and a little weight gain would probably be good for her without making it harder to jump or walk.

Jumping & Climbing

Sammi is a long, lean, jumping machine. Her hind legs are strong so she has no difficulty jumping up or leaping forward. She's just a little less agile than a 4-legged cat because she has only one front leg for pulling up or balancing, but that doesn’t affect her too much.

Getting down from perches or other high places is what's hardest for Sammi. With only one front leg to do all the work, descending puts a lot of strain on that leg & shoulder and makes it more difficult to balance. When we adopted her she was eager climb the perches we had, but she had a difficult time getting down. On most perches, the platforms are either too far apart vertically or too close-in to the support post – so she’d get her front paw on the platform, but couldn’t support her weight and balance long enough to have time to get her back legs down to that level. This meant her momentum would carry her rump over her shoulders and she’d tumble down. We could tell it scared her and it was dangerous.

To make Sammi’s life more fun and safer, we’ve purchased additional perches with her special needs in mind. It’s difficult to find a perch with the platforms positioned suitably for her so we get two perches that can be placed next to each other in a way that she can criss-cross between levels coming down. This way she uses more of a walking motion to descend the perches. The photos show we put one perch on cinderblocks so it was the correct height for her to criss-cross between levels. From the top view you can see she has a lot of room on each leve to just stand or turn around.

We’ve also arranged furniture so that Sammi has steps up & down from tall places. For example, an ottoman gives her a step up to a tall table in front of a favorite window; a perch is behind the couch so she can get up and down easily; and we have a bench at the foot of our bed that she uses as a step to get up and down. She tends to slide a little when she jumps up on smooth surfaces, so we put non-skid pads (grippy shelf-liner) on top of the table by the window.

Here are several more photos of the things we've done throughout the house to make Sammi's life easier and safer.

Walking & Running

Sammi’s walking is awkward and a bit slow as she uses her single front paw to balance and move forward. She gets around just fine, it just appears to take a lot of effort.

Her gait seems more natural when she’s running. She can run quickly, especially when she hears the can of cat food open or when she senses she’s going to get her ears cleaned! She and Raven do a little bit of chasing every day, and Sammi is usually the one being chased.

Two cat perches side-by-side for Sammi
Two perches side-by-side

Top view of two cat perches side-by-side
The same perches from the top.

Two cat perches behind the couch
Perches behind the couch.
We added 3-inch feet to the
perch on the left so it was
a better height for Sammi.

Play

Sammi doesn’t run long distances chasing toys, but she plays in-place just like a 4-legged cat. She grabs toy mice with her teeth, tosses them in the air, then pounces on them with her front paw. Of course it’s always fun to bite the little tails off and eat them. She rolls on her back, swats for toys, and pounces on things just like any other cat. She loves to pounce on her wand toy with mylar strips on the end. We wiggle it beneath tissue paper to make it extra enticing. She’ll chase/pounce on it about up to about 3 feet away, but not much farther. 1+ year update: Sammi chases her toys farther now. The wand toy is still a favorite, but she'll run back and forth about 6-8 feet during the chasing game.

Two of her favorite activities are playing in a pile of tissue paper and playing on the bed with a sheet on top. On the bed we call it “chasing crinkles”. She leaps & crawls around the bed attacking the crinkles in the sheet. She grabs at them with her right paw or smoothes them out by sliding on them with her left shoulder area while propelling herself with her back legs. She’s almost fallen off the bed several times because she gets so rambunctious chasing crinkles – and this is a king-sized bed. 

Sometimes during play or scratching we see her move her left shoulder area as if her paw were still there. The only adjustments we make during play time is to try to keep her toys in front of her right leg so she has an easier time catching them. She won’t reach across her body too far to the left because she’d be off balance. 

Scratchers

She uses the scratchers both standing and lying down. We purchased several cardboard scratchers specifically for her. A couple have steeply angled sides (kind-of like a box with the top removed), but the one she seems to like best is the SmartyKat Cat Chaise. She can stand and scratch, or lie and scratch with her front paw. The photo at bottom-right shows one scratcher the way it's packaged. What I found is if you get two and glue their sides together, you get a "double wide" scratcher that the cats love to scratch or lie on. Then they prefer to use it "sideways" and stand along the top curved part and scratch, or lay down like Sammi is doing and scratch at the curved up portion. Or, they just use it as a bed! I've found these scratches at both Target and Walmart (online) for about $15. That's not cheap, so I found a money-saving tip. Both Raven and Sammi tend to scratch at the sloped-up ends, so when the ends are worn out, I pry the scratchers apart where I glued them, turn the pieces around and glue them together again so the unscratched "middles" become the "ends" and they're good for more scratching. Then when those ends are scratched up, I flip the whole thing over for an entirely new scratching platform. You can see a photo here.

Sammi will also scratch a little bit on the upright perches – standing on her hind legs and digging in with front paw. But I think she does this more for a good shoulder & back stretch than for scratching.

Sammi on her cardboard chaise scratcher
A "double wide" made from two Cat Chaise
SmartyKat Cat Chaise
SmartyKat Cat Chaise as packaged.

The litter box can be a bit frustrating when you have only 3 legs.

Since Sammi has only one front leg she can balance better if the cat litter isn’t too deep. I think she balances a bit better if the litter is only 1-2 inches deep, but then when she scrapes the litter when preparing to go potty, she'll find the bottom of the box and pee on exposed plastic and make a bit of a mess. A box filled 2-3 inches deep works well. It gives her something to scrape in without being too deep to balance or too shallow to hit bottom.

Sometimes she'll go in the box and just squat and do her business. Other times she'll prepare herself a little spot by scraping first. To scrape, she plants her back feet and shifts her body weight towards her back legs. Then she scrapes with her one front foot. It's a bit laborious, but she has a nice little rhythm of scraping and quickly lifting her shoulders & swinging her leg forward to plant it just in front of her shoulder. Scrape - foot plant, scrape - foot plant.

Like most cats, she wants to bury her waste, but it does take a bit more effort. Again, she does her scrape - foot plant motion, but she doesn't have very good maneuverability and often misses her target. But she tries.

Sometimes I see her trying to use her amputated left leg to bury. She stands on her three legs and wiggles her left shoulder like she's moving her leg. It doesn't seem to distress her, it's just that nothing is getting burried. If I'm in the bathroom with her I get out the litter scoop and help her bury. I say “I’ll take care of it” and she scampers out of the bathroom. I figure she can save her energy for something more fun. 

Grooming presents some challenges

Like all cats, Sammi is meticulous about grooming, but there are a few things she has difficulty doing. It’s a little harder for her to groom her legs because she has only one front leg to balance on while she’s cleaning a leg or twisting backwards. She grooms the right side of her head with her right front paw, but since there’s no left paw she can’t groom the left side of her head. She’s devised her own ingenious method of grooming her head using a perch. She licks the edge of her carpeted perch, then rubs her head on it! What a creative thinker! Sometimes I help her out by wiping her face and head with a damp washcloth, but for the most part she’s figured out how to give herself a thorough grooming.

Where to get supplies

Most of the items we've purchased to help Sammi can be found at a local variety store (Target, WalMart), or the hardware store. We got some inexpensive ottomans from Target that we use as steps for her. They're nice because you can find some different heights or shapes (round, square, rectangle) and they are very stable. We have a sturdy wicker basket with a wooden bottom that we turned upside down for her to use as a step. It's the size that could hold your newspapers for recycling so it's a good step size for her. Of course, the cinder blocks we used to elevate one of the perches came from the hardware store. And we bought "feet" from the hardware store to screw onto the bottom of another perch to make it about 3 inches taller. Just that 3 inches made it a lot easier for her to get down from one perch to the next. You get them in the furniture-making department where they also have table legs and ready-made table tops. Grippy shelf-liner works well to prevent slips on smooth surfaces where she jumps up.