I haven’t written anything for a while ‘cause kitten season(s) have been keeping all of us very busy here at the shelter for the last six months. I’m happy to say that we’re down to our last 15 kittens. All 105 kittens that have passed through our door this year have found good homes, and I’m sure that’ll be true of the last 15. I’m also very pleased to add that our disease rate amongst kittens this year was about 5%, opposed to about 80% the year before I joined the shelter*.
In the midst of kitten mania, a cat (who we named Dinah) came into my clinic. She had trouble walking (walked as if drunk). I know our first thought should’ve been cerebellar hypoplasia (CH), but we have to cover and clear everything else before we defaulted to CH.
So first, we tested for head trauma. We gave her a week to see if her motor skills improved. They did not. Next we tested for a brain tumor which could be affecting her neurological function. We injected her with DSP (Dexamethasone Sodium Phosphate) which temporarily shrinks swelling around a tumor. If she started walking normally after the injection then the diagnosis would be a brain tumor, and the prognoses would be, unfortunately, euthanasia. The DSP had no affect, which at that point was a very good sign. So I started researching (CH). I had heard about it but never encountered a CH cat. Everything Dinah was exhibiting fit CH. She wasn’t in any pain, and she acted like a normal cat except her motor skills weren’t very good.
In the vast majority of cases, CH cats are born with the disease due to there mothers receiving a panlukopenia injection (feline distemper) when pregnant. This vaccine halts the development of the cerebellum in the unborn kittens, which, in addition to many other things, is responsible for motor skills. There are varying degrees of CH, from cats who have minor difficulties walking to those who can’t stand and/or walk at all. Dinah’s condition is on the minor side. She could walk with some difficulty, climb, and jump off low structures. (When she jumps off her favorite cat tree and lands on the floor she looks like one of those Ice Capades’ clowns who can’t skate. I’m laughing with her…) Dinah can not jump up, though. At least I haven’t seen her jump up.
My immediate emotional response with Dinah was to feel sorry for her. I have a real soft spot for animals (and humans) who are dealt a shitty hand in life, whether from birth or acquired along the way. They’ve never had, or never will have, a chance to be “normal” (whatever normal is). But as I spent time with her, my attitude changed. I shouldn’t feel sorry for her. Dinah doesn’t know she’s “different.” She has no idea that she’s any worse off (or better off for that matter) than the rest of the cats she shares this facility with. She can’t rationalize, like we can, why she has trouble walking and why other cats don’t. In Dinah’s world, she doesn’t have trouble walking. Or jumping. Or anything. In Dinah’s world, she’s perfect. She’s just Dinah.
And that’s what sucks about being human. We do understand why we’re different. Or why someone else is better or not. We have the ability to rationalize why we’re dealt a shitty hand in life. And because we can rationalize, we transpose these rationalizations on animals, because it’s human nature to feel compassionate or sorry or superior toward the less fortunate. Well, don’t do that. Don’t transpose your feelings on an animal. Despite what you think, they think they’re perfect. So treat them that way. Treat them as the perfect animal that they think they are.
Enough opinion. Back to Dinah.
It’s important to keep CH and semi-paralyzed cats/animals active so their muscles don’t atrophy. So every day I made sure that Dinah exercised by making her walk around our communal cat area (whether she wanted to or not… often not) to help encourage and strengthen what coordination she had. If a cat’s CH is worse, and they have a lot of trouble walking or can’t walk at all, then exercising them in a pool or on an aqua treadmill in a pool is the best way to keep their muscles active. I know I know, cats and water don’t mix. But you’d be surprised how they can/will accept water if you slowly acclimate them to it. Really. Trust me. (See the "This Is Flurry” video on our Fave Videos page.)
Anyway, I spent at least one hour a day working with Dinah – five 20 minute sessions. And, because of my disposition with special needs cats, Dinah quickly became my favorite. Every time I walked into the communal cat room, and Dinah heard my voice, she’d jump from her favorite cat tree, prance proudly across the floor, and lean against my ankles waiting for me to pick her up. Of course, I’d pick her up, she’d vocalize her fussiness with that, then we’d sit on the floor for a few minutes, Dinah cradled in my lap. Then, fussing again, we’d work on her walking the rest of the time.
I remember sitting on the floor one morning, Dinah in my lap. She was tired. I had really worked her hard that morning. I remember when it first occurred to me: I should do more to help more special needs cats. I should start volunteering at a local special needs facility. Or maybe convince the shelter to start a special needs program here. No. I knew the shelter wouldn’t undertake that, so maybe I should start my own a rescue for special needs cats/kittens. I could take old cats from other shelters that will probably be euthanized because they’re deemed unadoptable. I could take one-eyed cats. Paralized cats. Cats that others discard because they need a little extra help. Honestly, that’s where my heart really is, why not. I love shelter medicine, the ability to help an animal in need. I realized then, with Dinah, that she and the rest of special needs cats was my calling.
So, inspired by Dinah, I started SNAP Cats. Although I was hoping Dinah might be my first resident, deep down I knew that it’d be in her best interest to be adopted long before that, as it would take me months, maybe a year to get my non-profit going**. And she was. A month after I left the shelter, a month after she inspired me to build a home for special needs cats, Dinah was adopted.
There are a lot of Dinahs out there. And, with help from you and the community, I will be here for them, and all other special needs cats that need a peaceful, healthy, serene environment, free from judgment and harm.
* My success for keeping our kitten disease rate so low was to keep all of them in foster care until they were adopted. Despite how hard we clean and sanitize, our shelter is very old and riddled with disease. Our adult animals’ immune systems can fight off what lives in the shelter, but young animals (kittens/puppies) cannot.
** For those who‘ve read my columns, you know that I’d be featured on “Buried Alive: Cat Hoarders” if it wasn’t for the fact that my cat, D.J., hates other cats. And as much as I love Dinah and other cats that’ve crossed my path over the years, I love D.J. just that much more.