Lucky St Patrick’s Day Kitten Thriving After ‘Swimmer Syndrome’ Diagnosis
The pandemic has created a variety of challenges for animal organizations, but COVID-19 has not stopped countless cats and dogs from requiring medical treatment and needing to find forever homes.
When Robin A.F. Olson, president/founder of Kitten Associates in Sandy Hook, received word from a past adopter that there was a newborn kitten named Benny Brightwater with something wrong with his legs, she did not hesitate to get to the bottom of the quandary.
Olson was sent photos of the kitten, who was born on St Patrick’s Day, and she could immediately see that he did not have normal presentation of his limbs.
“I took a look and saw the kitten and thought, ‘Oh boy,’” she said. “You can’t diagnose something through a photograph, you need a veterinarian to confirm it, but from what it looked like, this little kitten had [a disability] called Swimmer Syndrome.”
Its technical name is flexor tendon contracture, which can occur during the kitten’s development in the womb when there is not enough space.
Olson noted that Benny’s mother was only 7 or 8 months old when she became pregnant. In addition to being very young, the mother was also very small.
Benny was born with two brothers who developed normally. It is believed Benny was unable to move in the womb, causing his muscles to weaken and twist. His tendons also tightened and did not relax like they should.
Kitten Associates has experience caring for cats with similar ailments, including Flapjack, whose journey was as documented in The Newtown Bee’s August 2019 article, “Flapjack The Kitten Hoping To Flip His Luck,” then in February 2020 with “Flapjack Flips His Luck: Disabled Cat Finds ‘Fur-Ever’ Home” when he was adopted by Rachael and Chris DeMaida, of Waterbury.
“What made [Benny] a little bit more unique is that not only that, but he is a polydactyl, which means he has lots of extra toes,” Olson said.
His brothers and mom are also polydactyls.
Even though Benny was only two days old at the time Olson found out about him, she knew from her experience caring for Flapjack that Benny would need to begin physical therapy right away.
“We told the family we will take the kitten for evaluation with our physical therapist… because she’ll know what to do and she’ll do some physical therapy,” Olson said.
While at the appointment, it was confirmed that Benny did have Swimmer Syndrome.
It also became clear that his back right leg was completely twisted behind him and curled. As he moved, the leg flopped around and dragged behind him. The leg did not seem to have any strength in it, and there were concerns that it might need to be amputated in the future. One of his front legs did not appear to be okay either.
Olson recalled how the physical therapist made “the most delicate, tiny little changes in this kitten’s legs to help the kitten start training his tendons to stretch out and to grow in normal direction.”
To document the necessary movements needed for Benny’s physical therapy treatment, Olson took a video and sent it to the family to review.
However, Olson said, “The family decided that they didn’t feel they could take on the physical therapy, which I totally understand. I didn’t feel I could take it on either, but I decided to reach out to Rachael, who is Flapjack’s mom, and I asked her if she would consider fostering this whole family for us and be in charge of physical therapy.”
The entire family would need to remain together because of how young Benny and his siblings were.
“He wouldn’t survive without his mother, and it wouldn’t be fair for his development to rob him of contact with his mother and siblings,” Olson explained.
The Perfect Foster
Rachael made the perfect foster, because she is still taking Flapjack to physical therapy once a month and understands how vital it is to be consistent with treatment.
“She really gets it,” Olson said. “It’s almost a magical dedication to not only doing [physical therapy], but she figured out a brace that has a tiny little hinge in it, so it helps straighten the leg and helps it move. She was the person to ask, and she was so gracious and said of course she’d be happy to.”
So, at just four days old, Benny — as well as his two brothers and his mother — entered Kitten Associates’ care, where they were financially provided for, and began living with the DeMaida family.
From there Rachael and Chris took turns taking Benny to physical therapy twice a week, along with doing their own work with him multiple times a day.
“We really could not wait on this. With something like this, you have the wonderful aspect that the kitten is growing, and as long as you keep him nice and healthy and you work on those legs, you can correct some of the deficiencies that he was experiencing,” Olson said.
Throughout the months that followed, Benny’s mobility dramatically improved. His front legs were no longer a concern, and even his back right leg, which they had assumed would need to be amputated at some point to keep Benny comfortable, was getting better.
In addition to the physical therapy, Olson cites having Benny be with his brothers and mother as a reason for his success. The family unit encourages him to get up, play, and be a fun-loving kitten.
“He doesn’t know that he has a disability and that’s how all these cats are. They don’t know they’re different. We know they are, but they don’t, and they are still going to act like a kitten — he may just fall over a lot, because of that back right leg,” she said.
Thanks to Rachael creating Benny’s leg splint with hinges and continuing to have him wear it for short periods of time, a few weeks ago he made a huge turnaround for the best.
Olson explained, “He would wear them for short periods of time while he ran around to help him understand how to place his paw on the ground properly. Prior to that, he was placing his paw really on the knuckle part on the top part of his foot, not the bottom part of his foot, so she spent a long time training him to flip his paw in the correct position.”
She continued, “We do this because if he feels his paw on the floor, the nerves will tell his brain this is the right way to go and he would keep doing that. That was our goal: to keep correcting until his body was able to make the proper connection that, yes, this is good. And now Benny is running around on four legs.”
Benny can even put weight on his back right leg and enjoys running, climbing up cat trees, rebelliously jumping on the counter, and doing all kinds of typical cat shenanigans.
Olson says it is “fabulous and exciting and thrilling” to see Benny’s mobility improve so drastically and to see he has a new lease on life. She is happy she took him into Kitten Associates’ care and that all the money that has gone into the physical therapy, veterinary visits, and specialists has been worthwhile.
“It’s worth all that to see him running around,” she said.
Olson also gives credit to Benny’s physical therapist and to his fosters, Rachael and Chris, for their dedication and compassion.
“They are in it to win it. We could not have made this progress without them — no way,” Olson said.
While Benny’s back leg is still a bit wobbly, Olson says that he is not done growing and they are purposely not neutering him yet, so that his hormones can help him get stronger and build good muscle tone.
“These are things we are doing consciously to make sure that he gets the best opportunity to have the best physical condition he can possibly have,” Olson said.
On Thursday, July 8, Olson received the good news that Benny has made such remarkable improvements that he will no longer need to continue physical therapy for his legs.
While on the outside Benny has been making leaps and bounds (literally) with his health, it was confirmed last month by two veterinarians that he has a Grade 3 heart murmur.
Kitten Associates posted to its Facebook page on June 16 stating, “It was first detected when he was very little. We hoped he would grow out of it, which can happen, but our vet told us that Benny needs to see a cardiologist and have an echocardiogram done. Because Benny has visible birth defects, we know he may also have other abnormalities that we have yet to discover.”
At the thought of Benny needing heart surgery, Olson said, “I don’t want to think about that, because he’s made such impressive progress. He’s such a sunny, sweet kitten and because he’s been handled so much, he’s just a puddle when you pick him up. He lays there with his belly up in the air.”
On Monday, July 12, Benny went to his cardiologist appointment at Newtown Veterinary Specialists (NVS) with Dr Nikki Gaudette, where Olson received the news he has a supracristal ventricular septal defect.
“The good news is, it’s likely very small,” Olson said. “While he may be too old to grow out of the hole in his heart, there’s still a chance it may be less of a problem as he gets a bit older. We’re to do another echocardiogram in six months.”
The prognosis means that Benny will not need surgery and can be safely neutered in the future.
“All in all, things are okay, but we’ll still keep a close eye on him and hope he will not have any issues,” she said.
Future Adoptions, Fundraising
With Benny’s special circumstances and him drawing strength from being around his brothers and mother, Olson has decided to hold off on putting the cats up for adoption until early August.
“What we typically do with our kittens is try to adopt them out in pairs. It’s better for them socially,” Olson said.
With that in mind, mom cat Luna Balloona will be up for adoption with her son Cornelius Crumbpickle, and Benny will be up for adoption with his brother Ellington Cuddlesmythe.
“They’ve become so bonded that Benny cries if El isn’t with him,” Olson explained.
Kitten Associates is a 501(c)3 nonprofit that depends on donations to continue to help cats in need. A tax-deductible gift can be made through Venmo @kittenassociates or by mailing a check to Kitten Associates, PO Box 354, Newtown CT 06470-0354 and note “For Benny” on the gift.
Olson hopes there will be a happy ending and forever home for this young polydactyl kitten overcoming Swimmer Syndrome and a heart murmur.
“For Benny, after all this work, he deserves the best,” she said.
For more information about Kitten Associates or to make a donation online, visit kittenassociates.org.
Reporter Alissa Silber can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.