Gazette Vet: Wally the Feral Kitten

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By John Andersen, DVM

Wally's x-ray
Wally’s x-ray

One morning, our practice owner Dr. Michael Rose got a call from a friend.  This person had gone out to start his truck on a cold morning and immediately heard the screams of an animal coming from inside the engine.  He stopped the engine, popped the hood, and inside was a 12-week-old kitten who had just been beaten up pretty bad by the truck’s fan blade as the engine started.

Sadly, this is not an uncommon occurrence in cold weather.  Stray cats go looking for warmth and find a cozy place inside the hood of a car.  Seems like a good idea until the people come back to the car and start it up.

So there the man stood, looking at this poor kitten who was clearly in pain, scared, and still in his engine.  He instinctively reached down to help get the kitten out of the engine, which is when he found out it was really going to be a really bad morning.

If you ever find yourself in a situation where a dog or cat is injured, even if it’s your own trusted pet, be very careful if you go to touch it or pick it up.  When animals are scared or in pain, they often go into survival mode.  Even though you may be trying to help them, they may see that as a threat and defend themselves with their teeth.  I would guess that approaching a scared or injured animal is easily the most common reason for a person to get bit.

Our poor injured kitten saw this man’s hand coming down to get him and he let him have it.  “Mr. Jones” was bitten and scratched, but somehow managed to get the kitten out of the engine.  It ran under the truck, hissing and panting.

Dr. Rose headed over on his way to work and somehow got the kitten into a box.  Mr. Jones’s hand was bruised and already starting to swell.  Dr. Rose explained to him how cat bites always need immediate medical care because the bacteria in their mouth almost always will cause a terrible infection when they get under the skin.  Even one day’s delay in getting on antibiotics has sent many people to the emergency room with a systemic infection.  Additionally, we knew nothing about this cat’s rabies status, as it was a stray.  Mr. Jones went to an urgent care facility to get started on antibiotics and Dr. Rose brought the kitten to the office.

The problems with “Wally,” as we named him, were many.  For starters, he was badly injured.  It was clear that he could not use his back legs, as they were dragging behind him, and there was a decent amount of blood in the box.  On top of that, he was clearly feral.  “Feral” is a term we use to describe domestic cats who have never been socialized and are terrified of human interaction.  These are basically wild animals.  Adult feral cats will almost never allow someone to pet them, and when these cats have kittens, their kittens quickly pick up on this avoidance of people.  Wally was feral.  He was hissing and spitting at us, making it very clear that he was not going to allow any kind of exam at all.

Lastly, Wally was now in rabies quarantine.  Because he bit Mr. Jones, we now had to determine if there was any chance Wally could have rabies.  The odds are probably low that he did, but rabies would surely kill Mr. Jones. We can’t take any chances when we have people bitten by an unvaccinated animal, especially a “wild” animal.

The options for Wally were either to euthanize him and send him to the state lab for rabies testing or to quarantine him for 10 days to see if he started showing any signs of rabies.  Animals with rabies will die within 7 to 10 days of becoming contagious.

So what do we do?  Kill this poor kitten?  Maybe it would be best to put it out of its misery, since there’s no way it’s going to let us care for it.  Or do we keep it for 10 days, knowing that the poor thing is injured and there’s nothing we can do for it except try to sneak it some pain medication in its food.  When faced with these hard decisions, we usually err on the side of life, and thus Wally was pardoned.

Fortunately, Wally was a survivor and an eater.  We were able to lace his cat food with some pain meds, and every day cleaned his cage as while he hissed and spit at us from the back of it.

Day 10 came and Wally was alive.  No rabies.  Now what?  Do we put him to sleep since he’s a feral kitten who can’t use his rear legs?  Or do we try to fix him up, knowing that if he’s not functional, we couldn’t release him back “into the wild” and would have to put him to sleep eventually.  Again, we erred on life, and again Wally was pardoned.

The following Monday, my surgery schedule read “Fix paralyzed feral cat.” Our attempt at humor.  By utilizing our “squeeze cage,” we were able to inject Wally with a heavy sedative and finally get our hands on him.  After examining his legs, it was clear they were broken and x-rays confirmed that he had fractured his right femur (thigh bone), his left hip, and had a few small pelvic fractures to round things out.

Decision time again.  Fractured pelvises can often be accompanied by spinal cord damage, and we had no way of determining his current nerve function.  Do we spend the time to fix his broken legs knowing it may all be a waste?  Or just put him to sleep? Once again, Wally was pardoned.

Wally’s broken femur was already trying to heal despite being completely displaced.  I had to “re-break” these attachments and was able to pin the bone back together.  His left hip was badly broken and was also repaired.  We also took the opportunity to neuter and vaccinate Wally while he was out.

We moved Wally into our recovery ward and as he awoke from anesthesia, our staff was doing their best to handle him and love on him in his drugged state.  After several days of a lot of love, and a lot of pain meds, Wally transformed from a hissing feral kitten to a purring loving pet!  Additionally, with his legs in alignment, Wally began standing and walking for the first time in two weeks!  No nerve damage!  Wally spent another two weeks recovering at our hospital and was quickly adopted by some wonderful clients.  He is now a spoiled indoor cat about to celebrate his first birthday.

Decision making as a veterinarian can be very difficult, but sometimes if you ask yourself “what would a little kid do?” things can turn out okay.