Written by Andrew Gardiner BSc (Hons) Physiotherapy MRes Clinical Research
PGDip Veterinary Physiotherapy (ACPAT - Cat A) Head Animal Physiotherapist
The physiotherapy department at SCVS recently had the pleasure of assessing and formulating a rehabilitation plan for a very endearing 26-week old cat that initially presented to the practice with a history of not being able to walk and use her back legs. Examination by a specialist neurologist and subsequent MRI revealed Villanelle’s lumbar spine to have been effected by a congenital developmental abnormality that limits the amount of nerve input that the muscles surrounding her hind limbs can receive resulting in weakness and a subsequent loss of voluntary movement.
Fortunately, some animals can learn how to walk in spite of such deficits provided they undergo a period of rehabilitation that involves the continuous repetition of certain exercises that target certain hind limb muscle groups and their associated patterns of movement. The term for this ability is often described as ‘spinal walking’ and is directly attributed to a reflex action that controls the stepping action of the limbs and is capable of operating without the need for further neurological input from the brain.
This reflex, often referred to in scientific literature as a ‘central pattern generator’, is controlled at the level of the spinal cord. In order to facilitate this activity for Villanelle, it is essential to help her maintain the range of movement she would normally have available in her hind limb joints by maintaining flexibility of their associated muscle groups. Passive range of movement exercises and massage were trialled and recommended on a frequent, regular basis in order to help her maintain the overall health of the surrounding muscle tissue. These exercises are performed by gently moving a joint for a particular limb through its normal range of available movement and can be enhanced by applying a gentle sustained stretch that helps to maintain the contractile length of the surrounding muscles.
Weight bearing exercises that involved Villanelle carrying out repetitive bouts of standing in combination with hind limb cycling exercises were also used to simulate the typical stepping pattern that Villanelle would otherwise have demonstrated in normal walking.
For such a young cat, Villanelle was a remarkably calm patient who took well to her initial physiotherapy assessment. In order to allow her some ability to independently weight bear and practice her own stepping action, a narrow walkway was also made up using a firm, solid matt held closely to a wall in order to create a passage way in which she could trial walking along whilst gaining support from the surrounding walls. Again, Villanelle was a very obliging patient who took well to all the exercises prescribed especially with the aid of tasty cat treats!
Future rehab sessions with Villanelle will look at trialling supported walking with the use of a treadmill to further her spinal walking ability. With continued practice, these therapies hope to enhance Villanelle’s already friendly and inquisitive nature and allow her a greater degree of independence as she moves into adult life.