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Oscar gets bionic paws

June 2010

It is not often that a cat will suffer such horrific injuries as Oscar - and even rarer for there to be a happy ending afterwards. In October 2009 Oscar, a 2.5 year-old black tomcat, was enjoying a day out in the fields. The day ended with tragedy when both of Oscar's rear paws were cut off in an accident with a combine harvester.

Usually a cat cannot survive losing the use of its rear legs. There have been cases where dogs have had wheeled prosthetics which replaced their back legs, but for cats, which enjoy jumping and climbing this is not really an option. However Oscar's humans, Kate and Mike Nolan, were not ready to give up on their pet just yet.

After the emergency treatment, the couple had a discussion with the vet about possible options for Oscar's future. The vet suggested that the pair get in touch with Dr Neil Fitzpatrick. Dr Fitzpatrick is a a neuro-orthopedic surgeon in Eashing, UK whose surgery has given hope to other people with disabled cats.

For example he performed pioneering surgery by inserting an artificial knee into the leg of a cat named Missy. Missy was run over by a car, and the accident left her with one leg broken in eight places and another leg with a dislocated knee. The successful surgery saved Missy's life.

Dr Fitzpatrick rapidly decided that Oscar might be able to make a good recovery with prosthetics. He contacted biomedical engineers and worked with them to design Oscar's artificial paws. It was important that the artificial implants would fuse with the bone and skin to create a barrier against infection.

The implants which were chosen are known as intraosseous transcutaneous amputation prosthetics (ITAPs), and were developed by Gordon Blunn the head of University College London's Centre for Biomedical Engineering, and his colleagues. The prosthetics have a honeycomb structure, which enables skin to bond with the implant. Though these implants have been used successfully elsewhere, this was the first time that such a technique has been tried on a cat.

The veterinarians inserted the specially designed peg-like implants by drilling them into the ankle bones in Oscar's rear legs. The metal implants were attached to the bone at the site where Oscar lost his paws. They were coated with a substance that helps bone cells grow directly over them, and the cat's own skin then grew over the end of the peg, forming the natural seal so essential in preventing any infections.

Once the implant was in place, and the skin and bone had healed, prosthetic paws could be attached to the pegs. These paws were carefully designed to move slightly to adjust to sloping surfaces and the change in angle when Oscar tried to climb or jump. Then, after four months, came the moment of truth - would Oscar be able to walk on his new prosthetics? Within moments of waking from the anaesthetic to discover that his new paws were attached, Oscar was up and about, exploring the room. He was slightly wobbly at first but adapted fast.

You can see Oscar's first steps after the artificial pegs were attached on this video.

Oscar is now back at home and doing very well. These days he can run and jump with ease and without any pain. It is difficult to say how long the implants will last, since so far the implants are one of a kind. But we hope that they will be fine for years to come.

There is no doubt that Dr Fitzpatrick and his team saved Oscar's life. As Dr. Mark Johnston, a veterinarian and spokesman for the British Small Animal Veterinary Association points out: 'If a cat has two legs that are damaged beyond repair, it's very hard to keep him going. We would generally euthanize a cat in that situation'.

Oscar will be a star performer in the new series 'The Bionic Vet' by the BBC which started on the 30th of June 2010. 'The Bionic Vet' is a documentary series looking at the work of Noel Fitzpatrick, and his revolutionary surgical techniques to save and improve the lives of pets from all over the country.

Here is a short video of Oscar back at home from the footage of this new BBC program.


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