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Engineering a New Life for Thumper

thumper the cat in wheel cart
Thumper's new wheels. Photo by John Joyner/NC State Veterinary Medicine

They found Thumper just in time.

When Pender County Animal Services located the sweet-natured rescue cat, they saw that her legs had been bound together with electrical tape.

One of Thumper’s front paws had atrophied so badly it had actually fallen off. Her other paw was almost as badly damaged.

Thumper had been deserted, left to die alone in one of the cruelest ways possible. Then she found her way to the NC State Veterinary Hospital.

Following a medical evaluation and immediate treatment at the Furever Friends Animal Rescue of Brunswick County in nearby Leland for medical evaluation and treatment, Thumper was seen by Valery Scharf, clinical assistant professor of small animal soft tissue surgery at the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine.

Amputation was necessary. The first surgery was simply to save as much of the cat’s legs and skin as possible in the hope of being able to fit her with prosthetics.

Photo by John Joyner/NC State Veterinary Medicine

Thumper’s case was challenging; getting the skin to heal over the amputation area was problematic. Additional surgeries eventually included further shortening of Thumper’s legs.

Kyle Mathews, professor of soft tissue and oncologic surgery, and Denis Marcellin-Little, professor of orthopedic surgery, became involved with the case. Mathews performed one of the additional surgeries and Marcellin-Little added his expertise in the area of prosthetics.

Then there was a question: Would prosthetic limbs even be viable?

As awareness of Thumper’s situation spread, a donor wishing to remain anonymous who was dubbed “Thumper’s Guardian Angel” stepped in to cover the mounting expenses. Not long afterward, Sharon Smith, operations director of Furever Friends, wrote an article that appeared in the Wilmington Star-News telling Thumper’s story.

The little rescued cat that had been been so terribly mistreated was becoming something of a celebrity. But the story was far from over. Thumper needed continuous special care, someone to prevent her from removing the bandages and helping her adjust to the loss of her limbs.

What Thumper really needed was a foster pet parent.

NC State veterinary technician Jenna Stowell knew that it wouldn’t be easy or simple. She was already working as part of the team assigned to Thumper’s case. But she has a soft spot for rescue animals.

Kyle Mathews and Jenna Stowell. Photo by John Joyner/NC State Veterinary Medicine

She saw that despite everything she was going through, Thumper remained remarkably calm and affectionate, even playful.

“If I had been through all that I couldn’t imagine letting a human touch me,” Stowell said. “My co-workers know I love a needy case.”

Jenna took the little cat home. It was supposed to be temporary — at least that was the plan.

Meanwhile, it had become clear that Thumper wasn’t going to be able to be fitted with prosthetics — not enough healthy tissue remained to make that viable. Stowell raised the idea of fitting Thumper with a wheelchair as an alternative.

Replacing rear legs with wheelchair devices is increasingly common in companion animals, but doing so with the delicate front legs of cats is particularly difficult.

Chris Grinnell with Eddie’s Wheels and Denis Marcellin-Little assist Thumper into her new wheelchair. Photo by John Joyner/ NC State Veterinary Medicine

After some investigation by Jenna, Eddie’s Wheels, a company in Massachusetts specializing in pet mobility solutions, took on the job. The company has grown as the field expands, but had never made a device to replace the front legs of a cat.

The wheelchair would have to be lightweight, sturdy and secure, carefully fitted to the body. Working from measurements provided by Marcellin-Little, the company crafted a customized wheelchair. Chris Grinnell, the daughter of the founders and owners of Eddie’s Wheels and a key member of the company, flew from Massachusetts to North Carolina with the finished device.

She wanted to be there when Thumper was first fitted.

The big day was May 24, nearly six months since Thumper was rescued. Stowell, members of the Veterinary Hospital medical team and Grinnell watched as Thumper tried out the wheelchair for the first time. Although learning how to change direction will take practice, the first test went well.

And there was more good news for Thumper — a new home. Stowell has adopted her permanently.

~Steve Volstad/NC State Veterinary Medicine