Like most cats, Herbie is a creature of habit, and Sarah knows him well. He’s a typical Irish cat who is allowed to come and go as he pleases, through a cat flap. But he doesn’t like inclement weather, and if it’s rainy or stormy outside, he doesn’t stay out long. He goes out to do his business, then comes back to the comfort of his indoor bed. So last month, on a rainy December evening, when he failed to come back inside by the time Sarah went to bed, she knew something must be wrong.
She hoped that he might be back by breakfast time the following day, but there was still no sign. So as soon as she returned from work later in the day, spent two hours looking for him. She checked everywhere: all around the house, and the local parks and woodlands. There was no sign of him.
As it fell dark, she took out a torch, and kept calling him. Suddenly, he appeared, as if out of nowhere, right beside her, miaowing. She went to pick him up, but he bolted under a parked car, and refused to come out, even when tempted with food. Sarah went to find some even tastier food, but when she came back, he’d vanished again. Just as she was about to despair, she heard the cat flap rattle: it was Herbie. He had come home on his own accord, and there was definitely something wrong with him.
He’s normally a calm, quiet, affectionate cat, but now he kept miaowing and hissing, for no obvious reason. When she approached him, he darted off, hiding from her. Sarah knew something was wrong, but it wasn’t obvious: she decided to bring him to the vet.
When I examined Herbie, he seemed very tense: this is typical of a cat in pain, but the question was: where was he hurting, and what was the cause? I poked and prodded him all over, flexing and extending his legs. There were no obvious injuries, although he did hiss as I examined him. Then I gently pressed on his lower back, and he gave an extra-loud yowl. This seemed to be where he was hurting, even though there was no visible damage. It was hard to know what had happened: had he been hit by a car, or fallen out of a tree? Regardless of the cause, the initial plan was the same: Herbie needed to be given pain relief and rest. This is usually enough to cure most minor injuries.
Sarah was able to give him this treatment easily: the pain relief came as a sweet-tasting liquid that Herbie liked. He even started to put out his paw as soon as he saw Sarah coming with the syringe, as if asking to have it. Then he happily licked the liquid straight from the end of the syringe: there was no need to force him to take the medication.
However two days later, Herbie was no better, so she brought him back to see me. He was still in a lot of pain. It was time to investigate his injuries further, so I took him into our clinic for the day to take some x-ray pictures.
The x-rays showed what I was looking for: Herbie had a slipped disc in his lower back. This is less common in cats compared to dogs, but it can happen in any species of animal. Studies show that around one in thirty dogs suffer from slipped discs at some point in their life, while it only one in four hundred cats are affected.
The spine is made up of a long line of bones, separated by jelly-like discs which allow the bones to move smoothly and easily against each other. A slipped disc happens when the disc moves out of its normal position between the bones, moving upwards so that it presses directly onto the spinal cord. This causes pain, and in severe cases, the pressure can stop the nerve impulses travelling up and down the spine, causing weakness of the back legs, and even paralysis.
Treatment depends on the severity of the slipped disc: in the worst cases, where a cat may be paralysed, urgent spinal surgery is needed to physically remove the disc. In minor cases, like Herbie, a simpler approach normally suffices: strict rest, with anti-inflammatory pain relief.
Herbie had already been given pain relief, but now we needed to implement strict rest, rather than allowing him to move around the house like normal. Sarah borrowed a large wire cage to put his bed in: it was big enough for him to stand up, turn around, and use a litter tray, but he could no longer run or jump. This forced immobility would allow the slipped disc to fully settle down.
Two weeks of strict confinement in the cage was needed, and this would be followed by four more weeks of being kept indoors. Once he was doing well as this stage, he’d be allowed out to resume life as normal.
Herbie did not like the strict confinement at first: he even needed some valium to calm him, as he became agitated, yowling loudly and getting excited. Once he’d grown used to it, he was fine. And when I saw him last week, the pain in his back had completely resolved.
Herbie’s definitely on the mend: another month of resting at home, and he should be fully cured.