THE £50,000 BIONIC CAT: THE PET WHO LOST TWO PAWS IN A FREAK ACCIDENT AND THE EFFORTS TO GET HIM BACK ON HIS OWN FOUR FEET
By KATE ALLAN FROM THE MAIL ONLINE – PUBLISHED: 22:00, 16 February 2013 | UPDATED: 15:28, 17 February 2013
- Oscar the cat lost his hind feet in an accident four years ago.
- Thanks to a team of optimistic vet he was fitted with prosthetic legs.
- The cost of Oscar’s operations is estimated to come to up to £50,000.
- Kate AllenMid-afternoon, there was a knock at the door.
We don’t get many callers at our house in Jersey; we’re relatively isolated. Mike, my partner, answered to find a distressed woman standing with a bicycle.
‘Have you got a black cat?’ she asked, probably not knowing if it was better if Mike said ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
‘I think it’s in trouble. There’s a black cat in the field and there’s a lot of blood!’
Mike shouted: ‘Grab a towel and come with me. It’s Oscar!’
The side of the road and the hedgerow were splattered with blood and, sure enough, there was Oscar lying at the edge of the field. It looked as if he had been trying to drag himself home but couldn’t quite manage it.
Mike rang New Era Veterinary Hospital and explained what had happened, then drove there with a meowing Oscar on the back seat. He raced into the building, barging through the double doors into reception.
‘They’re harvesting. I think Oscar must have been caught by the combine,’ Mike explained to the vet, Peter Haworth.
Soppy Oscar, the friendly headbutting cat. The most sweet-natured, cuddliest cat we had ever known. Oscar, who was loved by everyone who met him. We sat at home that night, numb to the core. We tried to come to terms with the fact that we would probably have to have him put to sleep, although sleep was the one thing we couldn’t do ourselves. Luckily for Oscar, not everyone was as pessimistic.
When we went to visit him, he was on a drip, but Peter had an idea. He knew of a colleague in England, Noel Fitzpatrick, who had used implants to replace missing limbs on dogs. He didn’t know if Noel would be interested, or indeed if it would be possible to do it. But suddenly we had a glimmer of hope. We knew it was a long shot, we knew it might be prohibitively expensive. We also knew we had to explore this option fully. It was all we had.
Peter contacted Noel, who seemed interested. Furthermore, because Oscar was only two years old, his chances of survival were higher. Peter sent X-rays and, over the course of the next few days, Noel built up a clear enough picture of Oscar’s condition to agree in principle to go ahead.
‘The thing is,’ he said in his matter-of-fact way, ‘if you don’t do it, you’ll have no cat anyway.’
He was right; this was Oscar’s only hope of survival. Oscar, meanwhile, was walking round on padded stumps. It was not pretty, or sustainable.
The implants Noel was going to put into Oscar’s legs involved fusing metal and bone. A small titanium rod, coated in hydroxyapatite (a component of bones and teeth that gives them their rigidity), would project through the skin, allowing prosthetics to be attached. The skin tissue then meshes around the rod to form a seal.
Fast mover: Oscar the bionic cat who got two new prosthetic hind legs after an accident in 2009
On November 13, 2009, Noel rang to say the operation had been a success. It had lasted three hours and had required the most delicate of touches as Noel cut into each ankle. The hole for the implant needed to be quite big but the ankle bone was tiny.
Noel agreed, reluctantly, that I could visit him in Godalming, even though Oscar was still recovering. He brought Oscar through in his arms and laid him on a furry rug on the examination table. I braced myself as instructed.
Oscar looked up and made a small mewing noise.
I could see why Noel had prepared me: it was not for the faint-hearted. Oscar’s hind legs had been shaved and I could see the metal of the implants protruding. It made me question my judgment. Surely it was one thing for a human to go through this sort of pro-cedure where they knew the outcome, but entirely different for an animal who had no say. For the first time I regretted what we’d done.
‘Oscar really wants to live. He’s got real fight in him,’ Noel said, guessing my concerns.
Oscar was the least likely cat to get into a fight, yet his determination was clear to see. He was as gentle as a little kitten but he had nerves of steel. And legs of titanium now.
Christmas came and went and we were hopeful that 2010 would be the year Oscar would return to something of a normal life. Noel reassured us he was doing well. He also advised us that Oscar would have to be an indoor cat now. This was a disappointment. When we embarked on this journey, we thought Oscar would get his life back to pretty much the same as before.
We saw Oscar again in April – recovery was a slow process – and as ever, he gave us a little meow when he saw us. We were amazed when he began to dart around the room. He had new blade-like feet and they seemed to allow him to walk almost normally. He was steady and could move at quite a pace.
It was not long before he was attracting a great deal of public interest, and even had his own pages on Wikipedia and Facebook. We have no idea who set them up.
Mike and I were very much an average family with an average income living in an average house. Oscar’s bills were covered by insurance for only the first £4,000 of his treatment. The cost of his operation, research and development of his implants and his rehabilitation were borne largely by people who were heavily involved in the process, in particular Noel’s practice, Fitzpatrick Referrals. No figure has been put on the actual cost but estimates vary from about £20,000 to £50,000. We could not have paid this ourselves and will be forever grateful.
We needed to make the house safe for Oscar’s return home. All essential wiring was neatly placed behind the relevant machine or appliance. The floors looked tidy for the first time in years. The only two places where there was still a preponderance of wires were behind the TV and the computer. Needless to say, these were the two places Oscar was most interested in exploring. Within five minutes of being back home, he was behind the television.Delicate work: Noel Fitzpatrick operating on Oscar to give him two bionic back feet
‘His feet, his feet will get tangled!’ I screeched.
‘Come out Oscar,’ I pleaded, as he sniffed the corner of the lounge.
I was astonished, though, as he nimbly climbed through the wires. If you did not know better you would think he had sensation in his feet. He lifted his back legs to just the right height when he clambered over the wires. Mike and I watched in wonder.
Oscar wandered through the lounge then ran up the stairs at great speed, to our surprise. After a short snooze, he was up again, exploring the house, sniffing out the food in the kitchen and familiarising himself with the enormous new litter box we had bought him.
It was after he had been back for a couple of days that I noticed he seemed to be hopping on three legs. To my great alarm one of his feet had fallen off. But with the help of a Phillips screwdriver, Mike reattached the foot without drama and Oscar was back to normal in no time.
After years of injuries and operations, his artificial parts included a new hip, the metal implants and two prosthetic feet. He really was a bionic cat, but personality-wise he was exactly the same as ever.
Oscar settled into a pretty normal life, with one big exception. He could not roam at will. It was so sad when we got home to see two huge eyes staring through the window on to a world that was no longer his.
Sometimes we let him out into our tiny garden. He had always been fascinated by a particular place at the bottom of the fence where he would sit for hours. What for, we had no idea. Whenever we let him outside it was the first place he raced to. Sometimes he would sit down there and his tail would sweep from side to side like a lion’s. Sometimes he would click his teeth together.
Eventually, all became clear when he caught a mouse, the first since he’d returned.
During the winter he was less inclined to want to go outside, preferring instead to spend his time on our bed or in the lounge. We bought a laser pointer and he had hours of fun chasing the red light around the room. He would pounce on it, then we’d turn the light off, but he was sure he had caught it, so he sat there not moving his paws. Carefully he would edge them away so he could look at his catch, only to be surprised to find it was not there. As soon as he heard the click of the pointer he knew it was time for fun. We played this game night after night until eventually the battery ran out. This used up plenty of his energy. He was still only five years old and in any other circumstances would probably be doing a lot more exercise so it was important that he kept his movement up to keep his weight down.
Pitter patter: Oscar the cat’s new white replaceable feet next to his old brown one
After this exhausting game a sleep was inevitably the order of the day and there was no better place to flake out than in front of the log fire. We put a cushion on the hearth rug so he could lie on it and get the full benefit of the heat. He did like to get really close. Our concern was not so much him overheating, but that his feet might melt. We checked them constantly. The last thing we wanted was for Noel to think we were bad parents because his feet had got third degree burns.
Oscar went from strength to strength. He grew big and muscular and charged around the house. You could hear him click-clicking as his back feet made contact with the stone floor in the hall and kitchen.
He was actually on his fourth or fifth set of feet since he had come back, so we did not think it was untoward when, last year, he lost another one. I went to pick it up.
Oscar’s foot, which was meant to be the detachable part, had come off along with the bottom part of the implant. The titanium rod had sheared off at the point where it exited his leg. We had just finished lunch when the phone rang. Mike answered it and I could tell by his face it wasn’t a good conversation.
‘That was Emily, the duty vet,’ he said. ‘Noel could cut the leg higher and put in another implant.
‘It would cost £10,500. The other option is to have Oscar put down.’
Furthermore, Mike explained, the company that made his particular implant no longer existed.
We didn’t care about the money. We knew there was no way we could put Oscar through such an operation again. As the days passed, we knew we had to decide what to do, but Mike and I have talked ourselves round in circles .
So how does it finish? When I started this story, there was a happy ending. Oscar was living as full a life as could be hoped.
His implants and prosthetic feet were working better than we could ever have imagined. He was healthy, happy and active. But this is real life and real life does not always end how we hope.
I honestly do not know what Oscar’s fate will be. But I know that when people say he must be the luckiest cat in the world, we think the truth of the matter is that we have been the luckiest owners.
Not only has Oscar been afforded the greatest veterinary care available both in Jersey and the UK, and arguably in the world, but he has also been the most endearing, charming, friendly little cat we have ever known.
We’ll never have one as special, ever again.