Dan: Portrait in Courage
by Nancy Marano
The small, black cat sat in the window at the Albuquerque Cat Clinic attentively watching the traffic in the parking lot. When I came through the door, she greeted me and then ran down the long hallway to the back of the clinic. She looked like any cat as she sat in the window, but when she ran, it was obvious this cat had no hind legs. Balancing on her two front legs, she raced off to her special pillow in Dr. Emily Walker’s office where she could play with her toys.
Dan (short for Dandelion) and her sister, Amazing Amy, were rescued by a firefighter’s wife who found the three-week-old kittens at an old pump house in the South Valley. Dan was missing both her hind legs below the knee. Amy was missing one hind leg at the knee and had bone protruding from the skin. Realizing the kittens needed immediate medical help, she called Peggy Sufall, a paramedic with the Albuquerque Fire Rescue Squad.
Sufall took the kittens home. She called a veterinarian who could not help because the kittens were too young for any kind of surgery, but he suggested she call the Albuquerque Cat Action Team (A.C.A.T.) to see whether they could provide any assistance.
Sufall agreed to continue fostering the kittens until other arrangements could be found for them. Best Friends in Kanab, Utah, agreed to take Dan if A.C.A.T. would take five of Best Friends’ adult cats in exchange. Since A.C.A.T. didn’t have space for five more adult cats, this plan was put on hold. Then A.C.A.T. suggested the kittens be taken to Dr. Walker for a second opinion.
“They were getting around on their stumps but they had continuing infections from trauma to the stump ends,” Dr. Walker said. “The longer they walked on the stumps the more infection there would be. I was concerned the continued trauma to the area would eventually cause infection of the bone, which would be difficult to treat and very painful for the cat.”
No one knew what had happened to their legs, but Dr. Walker thought it might have been a congenital birth defect.
Amy’s leg was amputated, and she was returned to A.C.A.T. where she was adopted into a loving family.
Dan’s case was different because Dr. Walker wasn’t able to find any precedents for the bilateral removal of the hind legs. She found some cases of dogs who had bilateral amputations and used carts for mobility but when Dan tried a cart, she couldn’t tolerate it.
“I finally decided I would be doing Dan a disservice if I didn’t give her a chance to live a pain-free life. I thought in terms of myself and my family. I’d want a doctor to try a procedure that could give me a pain-free, possibly shorter life, even with the chance of catastrophic results, than to live a longer, pain- ridden life. I also knew it was better to do the surgery on a healthy cat rather than wait until she had an infection,” Dr. Walker explained.
In June 2004, Dan underwent surgery. The procedure took 1 1/2 hours and resulted in Dr. Walker leaving about one third of the femur as protection for Dan’s abdomen. “It took a long while to stitch the wounds closed because of the need to get the muscles aligned and the veins and arteries closed,” she said.
Dr. Walker didn’t know what to expect in Dan’s recovery process. She kept her mildly sedated at first so Dan could recover slowly and become accustomed to her new challenges. “Since she walks on her front legs, she needed to adjust to a lot less weight on her hind end,” according to Dr. Walker. “She only drags herself if she’s going short distances. Otherwise she walks and runs on her front legs.”
When she’d healed sufficiently, Dan went back to her A.C.A.T. foster, but Dr. Walker thought it would be difficult to find the right person to adopt her and she couldn’t guarantee Dan’s health. “After thinking about it, I asked to adopt her on a trial basis as my clinic cat. I didn’t know whether she would be able to adapt to life in the clinic and I wasn’t sure how my clients would react to her,” Dr. Walker explained.
It obviously was the right match. “Dan lives in the clinic all the time. She climbs up into the chairs, checks out the cats arriving in their carriers, suns in the front window, and plays with her toys. She is a happy, active, affectionate cat who set off our security alarm three times before we figured out she could climb up the cages ,” Dr. Walker laughed.
Each day Dan demonstrates how adaptable cats are, and Dr. Walker’s clients have fallen in love with this gutsy little girl. Some bring her toys and treats on a daily basis.
“I’m very glad I didn’t talk myself out of doing the surgery because it has given Dan the possibility of a normal, happy life, and seeing how people have reacted has restored my faith in human nature,” Dr. Walker said.
Asked whether she would write up this experience for the veterinary medical journals, she said, “I don’t mind people knowing Dan’s story but I don’t think I’ll write it up because it would seem as if I were exploiting her. I didn’t do the surgery or adopt her for that reason. I just wanted her to have a chance at life,” she said.
Dan got her second chance thanks to Dr. Walker’s willingness to take a risk. As Dan purred and rubbed against my hand, I’d say she’s making the most of it.
Nancy Marano is an award-winning writer who lives in Albuquerque and is owned by two cats, Sammy and Rocky, and a Westie named Maggie May.