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The Curious Case of the Lame Kitty

Pet Column for the week of May 14, 2007

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Sarah Dowling
Information Specialist

In the morning, the cat was fine. But when the owners of an eight-year-old neutered male indoor housecat returned home, they were alarmed to discover that their cat was suddenly having trouble walking and using the litter box.

They rushed their beloved feline to the emergency clinic. Unfortunately, this cat's case proved more complicated than most. That's when they were referred to the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, Ill. The following is a recap of the case of the suddenly lame kitty.

When he arrived at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital, the cat, like every animal patient, was thoroughly examined by a veterinarian. The cat's general attitude was noted as bright, alert, and responsive. His temperature was slightly below normal at 99.4 degrees F, with the normal temperature of a cat being between 100 degrees F and 103 degrees F. His respiration rate was found to be elevated at 80 breaths per minute--a common finding in animals that are either stressed or in pain.

When placed on the exam room floor the cat would walk with his back arched and legs hunched under his body. Other abnormalities detected in the examination included an abnormal heart rhythm known as a gallop rhythm, characterized by an extra heart sound; ocular discharge; a cloudy appearance to the corneas; and a body condition characterized as obese, with a body condition score of 8 out of 9.

From this examination and the cat's medical history, a problem list was compiled: decreased appetite, inappropriate defecation, rear limb weakness (acute onset), gallop heart rhythm, ocular discharge, and obesity. From this problem list, veterinary experts assembled a comprehensive list of possible diagnoses and developed a diagnostic plan.

First on the list was a complete neurological examination to rule out any diseases, disorders, or injuries to the cat's nervous system. Fortunately, no neurologic abnormalities were detected. Next was a musculoskeletal exam; no crepitus (grating or popping sounds and sensations), pain, or laxity (looseness) was noted in the joints. No musculoskeletal abnormalities were found. However, during the exam the cat was "squirmy," making the exam very difficult.

The next step was to perform diagnostic tests, including a complete blood count, serum chemistry, and urinalysis, blood pressure measurement, echocardiogram, toxoplasma titer, radiographs (X-rays) of his chest and abdomen, and an ultrasound of the abdomen. The goal of each of these tests was to rule out additional diseases or disorders from the list of possible diagnoses. The tests did not pinpoint the cause of the cat's problems, but did succeed in ruling out metabolic, cardiac, neurologic, and electrolyte-based possibilities.

With still no answers, the veterinarians requested a consult with a University of Illinois veterinarian specializing in orthopedics. The orthopedic examination at last revealed a diagnosis! Bilateral cranial drawer signs and stifle effusion in the cat's hind legs indicated that the cause of the cat's abnormal gait and rear limb weakness was cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) rupture, a problem that is more commonly noted in large breed dogs and human athletes.

The recommended treatment for feline cranial cruciate rupture when trauma, such as a bad fall, is the cause is surgical stabilization. In this cat's case it is likely that his weight--and not trauma--was the primary cause of the rupture. Non-traumatic CCL rupture in cats is very rare, so no standard treatment has been established. With these patients strict cage-rest and weight reduction is generally recommended before surgery is considered.

This case demonstrates that thorough diagnostic testing and physical examinations are essential, especially when the cause of the problem is rare or complex.