Caring for Special Needs Kittens/Cats

We have acquired a lot of knowledge about treatment and care of special needs kittens and cats at Three Little Kittens over the years.  We’ve written previously about what we have learned about the testing for and care of kittens with Feline Aids (FIV).  This is one of the conditions that a special needs kitten, available for adoption from Three Little Kittens, might have.  More likely, as this previous article stresses, additional FIV testing might be needed for one of our adoptable kittens as, when they are ready for adoption, they are still too young for definitive testing.

In this new feature article, the aim is to share what we’ve learned about three other  medical and social conditions of kittens that warrant special consideration on our part in foster care, and on the part of adopters. These are:

  • Cerebellar Hypoplasia (CH)
  • Feline Leukemia (FeLV)
  • Late Rescue & Socialization

Special needs kittens can make terrific pets, often with normal life spans and just minor accommodations in care routines.

Cerebellar Hypoplasia (CH)

Feline Cerebellar Hypoplasia (CH) occurs when a mother cat is exposed to one of the distemper viruses during her third trimester of pregnancy.  Distemper is very common, so all unvaccinated outdoor cats are  vulnerable to it. Three Little Kittens has also seen cases where CH kittens were born because a pregnant cat was given a distemper vaccination at the wrong time.

CH affects development of the cerebellum, leaving a kitten with permanent motor and muscle control issues.  Some call these kitties “wobblers”.  The most similar disease in humans would be Cerebral Palsy.  Film clips showing how cats that have Cerebellar Hypoplasia move are easily found on the web (e.g., on YouTube).   As I write this, there is a particularly good video clip available of a cat with CH, named Gordon, as an infant and again as a 1 year old.

When kittens with CH are faced with  the normal challenges (e.g., learning to use the litter box, competing with other cats for food, climbing stairs, etc.), they are just as quick as other kittens at figuring out “what” they want to do.  However, it takes them a little longer to gain the physical skills to do it.  They can improve in motor skills as they get older, but they will remain, at least, somewhat uncoordinated in their movements for life.

Though there is no treatment, kittens with Cerebellar Hypoplasia are otherwise normal and healthy and have a normal life expectancy.  They will thrive best when treated the same as other cats.   Much the same as with humans who have disabilities, over protection can harm them more than help. There is often much to admire in their spirit.  CH kitties do tumble over regularly, especially when they are excited.   They frequently move forward in a zig-zag run and sometimes experience tremors as well.    While they have to work harder than other cats for everything they do, they typically don’t need special accommodation.

Possible exceptions to the no-need-for-special-accommodation rule could be related to litter box access or protection from tumbling down the stairs.  Most CH kittens, however, learn to handle both stairs and litter boxes  just fine.

Feline Leukemia

Feline Leukemia is a highly contagious retrovirus affecting cats, but not humans or other species.  The virus is shed in high quantities in the saliva and nasal secretions of affected cats, as well as in their urine, feces and in milk, in the case of infected nursing mother cats.  Cat-to-cat transfer of virus can occur during grooming, from a bite wound, and (though rarely) through shared use of litter boxes and feeding dishes. Transmission can also take place from an infected mother cat to her kittens, either before they are born or while they are nursing.  FeLV doesn’t survive long outside a cat’s body— less than a few hours under normal household conditions.

Because FeLV is easily transmitted, kittens who test positive for Feline Leukemia must be kept apart from healthy cats.  There is no cure.  It is the most common cause of cancer in cats, it may cause blood disorders, and it may lead to a state of immune deficiency that hinders the cat’s ability to protect itself against other infections.  It is a condition that can shorten a cats life considerably.

Three Little Kittens kittens are tested for Feline Leukemia before adoption.   In the US, FeLV infection rates are only 2-3% of the entire cat population.  Rates are higher, though, among very young kittens, which are very susceptible to the virus.  Despite this, in its first five years of operation, Three Little Kittens has been fortunate to never have had a kitten test positive for Feline Leukemia.   That doesn’t mean that it won’t happen, though.

The perfect home for an FeLV positive kitten would be one with other FeLV positive cats; and we have met and read of compassionate care givers who provide just that.  The second best alternative is a home where there are no other cats.  It takes a special person to adopt and commit to caring for a terminally ill pet.  If you have that capability and interest, we would love to know you.

Late Rescue Kittens

Elsewhere on Three Little Kittens‘ website, we have talked about kitten rescue and the ideal age for it to occur (under 6 weeks old).   At this young age, kittens have a very good chance of forgetting their mother-taught-fear of humans and becoming loving, affectionate pets.   Sometimes, Three Little Kittens ends up fostering kittens that were rescued after the age of 6 weeks.  We’re pretty good at judging kitten age, but even we make mistakes.  Also, sometimes we’re just too soft-hearted to say no.

We find that these “late rescue” kittens are more difficult to socialize.  They are likely to be human shy, dislike handling and frequently hide.  Three Little Kittens works to help them get accustomed to living with people.  Our volunteers pay special attention to them, carefully and patiently coaxing them to come out and play – even if just for a minute.

The special needs of these “late rescue” kittens are for acceptance and understanding.  These kittens weren’t raised knowing people – they were raised to stay away from them.  They are fine with other cats, and not aggressive, they just don’t act affectionate (or if they care).

Their adoptive family’s patience will be rewarded by their trust, eventually.  Once an adopted kitten of this temperament realizes that this is “home” and the place where they get fed, they will naturally come out and socialize with their “family”.  However,  they may never like being picked up and they will probably choose to move to a hidden spot whenever you have visitors.

Three Little Kittens asks all potential adopters to tell us whether they’d consider adopting a “special needs” kitten.  We hope you understand, after reading this article, that there are a wide range of conditions that might necessitate special care for a kitten.  Some might not be conditions that you can accommodate, but others most certainly could be.  We believe that all of our kittens have the potential to be loving companions, to the right loving human companion(s).  Part of our pleasure is helping to make the right match.

One more note:  Although Three Little Kittens sometimes fosters and adopts out rescued kittens with physical disabilities (e.g., a missing limb or eye), we don’t consider these kittens to have “special needs”.  Well, they wouldn’t make good barn pets, perhaps … as they’d be extra vulnerable.  But, they make just fine house pets; as quirky and lovable as any other kittens!

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