One of our clients, Mrs. DeCarlo, shared this story about her cat that had surgery on both of his hips. There’s very little information on the recovery expectations from this procedure (called a bilateral femoral head ostectomy), so Mrs. DeCarlo documented her experiences in the hope that other pet owners would find it useful and helpful.


Many people sleep well, zonking out after the eleven o’clock news into seven or eight hours of uninterrupted oblivion. I am not among them. I wake up in the middle of the night, every night, so it wasn’t unusual for me to be heading toward the kitchen at 2 a.m. What was unusual was seeing Buddy, our two-year-old grey male cat, lying next to the litter box on the back porch. He greeted me with his usual meow but made no effort to slip through the pet door to join me. Even the treats I put nearby didn’t spur him to action.

A few hours ago he’d been chasing a laser pointer. Now he didn’t, or maybe couldn’t, move. Something was very wrong.

I called Park Avenue Animal Hospital early the next morning. In the meantime, Buddy had managed to make his way into the litter box, but he was limping, trembling and obviously in pain. X-rays showed his right hip was severed. Dr. Rick said the cause was a genetic defect, and his left hip was headed down the same path.

He explained: The short bone on each side of Buddy’s body connecting the femur to the hip was much thinner than in a normal cat. And since these bones were so thin and fragile, breakage was inevitable. The X’ray showed this bone had severed in Buddy’s left hip. When this connecting bone is broken or compromised, the fix, believe it or not, is to remove it entirely. Yes, this does mean the leg bone is no longer connected to the hip bone, but despite the apparent illogic of this approach, we were assured Buddy’s muscles and tendons would eventually take over. The cat would learn to walk again, and life would return to normal.

Even though Buddy was only compromised on his right side, given the prognosis, my husband and I felt it would be cruel to put the cat through this type of surgery twice. At Dr. Rick’s recommendation, we agreed to have the defective bone removed on each side. When we went to pick up our beloved cat the following day, everyone assured us he’d come through fine. We were given various meds, advised which to administer and when, and told we should see some attempt at movement in about a week. Total recovery time would take about a month.

We took Buddy home, laid him on a soft bed we’d constructed for the purpose, and administered his meds as directed. It didn’t take long to realize how little we actually knew and how ill-equipped we were to deal with the reality of the recovery process. Each day it felt as if we were groping our way through a long, dark tunnel. We were very grateful for the Park Avenue’s ongoing support, and Buddy eventually recovered, but there is much we learned along the way we wished we’d known ahead of time.

Hopefully, your cat will never have to undergo this procedure, but if he or she does, some of the lessons we learned may make the process easier for feline and humans alike.

Homecoming: Buddy’s surgery took place on a Monday afternoon, and we brought him home about lunchtime on the following day.

  • Lesson 1: Pad your pet carrier with an old bed pillow, multiply layers of towels, a foam pad, or some other soft material for the ride home. The cat will be in some degree of pain, so lying on a hard surface and/or feeling the slightest bump in the road can cause significant discomfort.
  • Lesson 2: Pain medication doesn’t totally eliminate the pain.

In preparation for Buddy’s homecoming, we made a bed from a 26″ x 24″ box, cutting down three sides to a height of about 6″ and removing the front side entirely. We lined the box with several towels and placed it in the master bedroom. We covered the floor surrounding the box with newspapers and placed an old broiler pan nearby as a litter box. (We figured a normal litter box would be way too high.)

  • Lesson 3: A cat beginning his recovery process from double hip surgery isn’t going to be capable of using any litter box. Initially, this won’t be a concern; his system will be non-functional. The first thing to return will be the urge to pee, but he won’t be able to get into the litter. Attempting to put him in the box will be very painful for all involved and, besides, he won’t be able to stand. Bottom line, he’ll go in his bed.
  • Lesson 4: Purchase training pads in the dog section of your local pet store. Place one under the top towel of the bed and use a few others to replace the newspapers around the bed. The cat will eventually roll or drag himself out of the bed to pee, so protection for the floor is a good idea. Be prepared to wash towels for a few days.

It was such a relief to see Buddy eat as soon as he was situated in his makeshift bed. We don’t feed our cats dry food, which was a good thing. Wet food is 70 percent water, and it’s easy to mix in even more water—a real plus for keeping a post-surgical cat hydrated.

If your cat normally eats only dry food, you may want to consider substituting wet food for all or some of his diet during the recovery process. Dry food is a convenience for humans, but it’s a nutritional void for carnivorous pets. Would we feed a lion or a coyote mostly grain mixed with meat by-products (beaks, feet, whatever)? Yet we’re doing exactly that when we feed dry food containing mostly grain to our cats and dogs.

  • Lesson 5: The cat will not be able to move to reach food or water. You have to place it in front of him and remove it when he’s finished eating. The removal part is really important. When the cat adjusts his position or attempts to stand, he has no control. The last thing you want is for him to land in his food. Yuk! If the cat isn’t anxious to eat, put your finger in the juice of the wet food and rub it on his gums. Sometimes just that little taste is enough to get him going.
  • Lesson 6: Someone will need to be with the animal—pretty much 24/7—during the first few weeks after surgery. From day one, it was obvious Buddy could not be left unattended. Someone had to feed him and help with his litter-box needs until he gained control of his hind quarters. Fortunately, I work from home and my husband has the flexibility to do the same, if needed. If your circumstances are different, you may want to arrange for a series of pet-sitters who can help until the cat becomes more self-sufficient.

Forty-eight Hours Post-Surgery: Buddy remained fairly immobile for the first couple of days; any attempt to move him was met with much resistance. About forty-eight hours after surgery, he started to adjust his position, apparently without pain. The real surprise came when he began to clean his belly, lifting a hind leg to clean it, as well.

Day Four: By Friday, day four after surgery, Buddy was propping himself up and attempting, though unsuccessfully, to stand. It was hard to watch but a very good sign. Once the pain subsided, Dr. Rick had assured us, the cat would begin a regimen of self-imposed physical therapy, learning to walk again.

Another good thing happened that Friday afternoon. Since Buddy was now able to sit up with some success, we decided to try a very deep litter box. Our plan was to add an inch-thick layer of litter, place the cat in the box when it became obvious he needed to go, and help steady him as required.

When I suspected he needed to go, I moved the litter box close to him and tilted it so he could see the litter. If he reached his front paw into the box and started to scratch, my suspicions were confirmed. I then gently lifted him into the litter, where the sides of the box supported him as he banged around for a few seconds. He still couldn’t stand, but he was able to prop himself up with his hind legs laying to one side, lift his tail, and pee. Surprisingly, this position kept him clean and dry. When he was done, I placed him back in his bed. Success!

Okay, it was great Buddy could pee, but he hadn’t moved his bowels since the day before surgery—five days now. “Don’t worry about it,” said Dr. Rick, “as long as the cat is eating.” It was like asking me not to breath.

  • Lesson 7: A carpeted room is best for the cat’s rehabilitation. Why take the risk of further injury from falling on a hard floor as the cat makes his initial, spastic attempts at walking.
  • Lesson 8: A stool softener may be needed. Because the cat is not likely to eat very much during the first few days, it can take longer for his bowels to start up again. Ask the vet what dosage of Miralax per day will keep the stool soft without inducing diarrhea. (This advice is particularly important if you feed your cat dry food. If a pet doesn’t get adequate water, the body will pull all of the water from the stool, making it hard.) Even though Buddy was on a totally wet-food diet, adding Miralax provided us with peace of mind.
  • Lesson 9: When the cat starts to prop himself up and is pain-free when attempting to stand, a deep litter box can be very helpful. Initially you’ll have to lift him into it, but the tall sides can provide needed support as he tries to find his balance. Also, remember that the normal crouching position is not possible for some weeks into the healing process. A tall-sided litter box prevents a standing cat from peeing over the side. Also, when the cat leans or props himself up or adopts some other position to pee, the tall sides keep him from toppling over and out. To increase stability, we initially limited the amount of litter in the box to an inch. By day eight, we’d increased it to the normal depth.

Day Five: Day five began with a breakthrough. When I lifted Buddy into the litter box, he was able to find his balance and stood to do his business! I held him around the belly just to keep him steady and he urinated and finally moved his bowels. He then proceeded to eat a very big breakfast. I don’t know who was more relieved, the cat or us.

Day Six: We stopped the main pain medication on day six and Buddy showed no signs of further discomfort. We began transferring him and his make-shift bed to the great room during the day and back to the bedroom at night. He seemed to enjoy spending the day in the hub of the house.

Day Seven: At about 1 a.m. on day seven, Buddy decided it was time to try out his new legs. This result was like having a drunken cat staggering about the room. Was this going to be the pattern for the next few weeks? If so, at least I’d have some company on my nightly forays into insomnia.

Day Eight: The morning of day eight brought good and bad news. We discovered a large lump under one of Buddy’s incisions. He hissed at me when I touched it gently, so we put him back on his pain meds and called Park Avenue. “Bring him in,” Dr. John advised and warned us the lump might need to be drained.

As we were scurrying around, getting ready to leave for the vet, the cat started walking from the great room through the kitchen. It was way too soon for the meds to have taken effect, but he showed no signs of pain. We couldn’t believe it. He was on his way to his familiar litter box on the back porch, and he seemed determined to get there no matter what. He hadn’t moved his bowels in three days, but when he reached the porch and we helped him into the box, he did his business without difficulty. Later I measured the distance he’d walked: 40 feet!

Because Buddy did not have a temperature, was eating, and was still on antibiotics, Dr. John believed the lump under his incision was a buildup of liquid rather than a puss-filled infection. This type of swelling, called a seroma, can come on very quickly, we were told, and it was likely to grow before it would start to dissipate. Then it might take two to four weeks for the cat’s body to absorb it. Whew! Nothing to worry about. Even better, after putting Buddy on the floor and watching him walk, Dr. John said he was very pleased with our little boy’s progress.

Day Fourteen: Two weeks post-surgery, Buddy began to crouch to pee. He could almost use the litter box on his own, though he still needed steadying for the longer time required to empty his bowels. Walking continued to be very difficult. He had no control over the lateral movement of either back leg. When he picked up a leg to take a step, it swayed back and forth to the point that putting it back down with any degree of accuracy was impossible. He had to rest every few feet, but it didn’t stop him from trying. And his nightly explorations had pretty much become the norm.

Meanwhile, the seroma started to ooze small amounts of a fairly clear liquid when the cat lay on that side. The swelling had been stable for a few days, however, and the Dr. Rick didn’t think there was cause for concern.

  • Lesson 10: Your cat won’t be able to scratch his ears for a few weeks. (This is one of those “obvious-with-hindsight” revelations that had never occurred to us.) Starting about two weeks post-surgery, Buddy began to shake his head and position an itchy ear oddly, letting me know he could use a hand. If you’ve ever had to put drops in your cat’s ears and then massage the ear to incorporate the drops throughout the canal, you know how to scratch the cat’s ears. Just use the same procedure. If you’re not familiar with this process, the vet can show you what to do.

Day Seventeen: After seventeen days Buddy decided he was no longer an invalid. He would have nothing to do with his bed or even the great room where he’d been spending his days. He insisted on going out the pet door—another first—using the litter box without help, and walking onto the pool deck. Any efforts to help him were met with hissing. Later the same day, he attempted to climb the stairs to the second floor. Here I drew the line. Coming down could have had disastrous results.

His walking was improving. We kept an eye on him when he journeyed to the pool deck, but otherwise he was free to roam the house during the day. We continued to keep him in the bedroom with us at night. The seroma was still as large as ever.

One day we found him in one of the swivel chairs in our home office. How in the world did he get up there? We put a small, two-step stool in front of the chair to ease his way down, but we don’t know if he used it. The next day the cat wouldn’t let us touch him. He was in pain and had obviously overdone it. It took several days for him to become active again. “This type of setback is not unusual,” said Dr. Rick. “Give it time.”

Five Weeks Post-Surgery: Five weeks to the day after surgery, Dr. Rick declared the seroma officially gone! Even better, Buddy began acting like his old self. It was as if someone had flipped a switch! He spent much more of the day out and about instead of sleeping, and he walked with his tail held high. We could see the old devious look in his eye once more. He wanted to play.

Beyond Five Weeks: Over the next few weeks he started running and harassing our two other, much older cats. The seniors had enjoyed a few weeks’ reprieve, but their vacation was over. He also began to look longingly at the beds and his favorite chair. Like many felines, Buddy preferred higher spots for his daily naps, but Dr. Rick explained that it was going to take quite some time for the proper muscles to strengthen so the cat could jump. In the meantime, Buddy took advantage of the small stools or sturdy cardboard boxes we placed beside each bed and in front of his favorite office chair. Finding him contentedly curled up in a favorite spot meant something monumental had occurred. Life was back to normal.

The recovery process was longer than we ever anticipated. Not knowing what to expect and wondering how disconnected legs and hips could possibly function together (despite Dr. Rick’s assurances that they could), seemed to lengthen the days.

Today Buddy is fully recovered. He greets each day with a spring in his step and a zest for life; he even dashes up and down stairs and jumps into chairs. It was a long haul, but we can say, without hesitation, it was worth every second.

© Copyright Tracy DeCarlo 2011

Tracy DeCarlo is a freelance writer, author of The Difference is in the Details: The Homeowner’s Planning Guide for Building a Functional Home (www.differenceinthedetails.com), and owner of One Stop Green Home Certification (www.onestopgreenhome.com).