Caring For A Kitten Born With A Twisted Leg

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PandEcats.com and ShowCatsOnline.com first published an article titled, Born With A Twisted Leg, in July, 2000. The article discussed a condition that can affect the front or hind legs and/or feet of a newborn kitten, making it appear deformed at birth. The legs appear twisted—a condition that is the result of Contracted Tendons.


Kitten with bilaterally twisted hind legs

Contracted tendons are not genetic but are most likely the result of poor positioning of the fetus inside the amniotic sac and crowding in the uterus. As the kitten grew inside its pregnant mother, there was not enough room for the legs to lay normally or to move, so the legs twisted as they grew and became stiff because they were unable to move and flex.

When we first published the article about twisted legs the response was beyond our expectations. We began to receive reports and photos of kittens born with twisted legs from around the globe. Kittens were born this way in all breeds—from show cats to feral cats—in small litters and huge litters. We were amazed.

We decided to follow the progress of individual cases. This led to more follow-up articles including:

With a wide variety of individual cases observed and a broader perspective, we have some suggestions to make regarding the general care of a kitten born with this affliction.

Contracted tendons is a condition, not a deformity.
Left untreated, it can develop into a permanent deformity, however.

First Things First

  • If you have a kitten born with twisted legs, don't panic.
  • Make sure the kitten can pull itself into position to nurse. Occasionally the twisted legs prevent a kitten from competing with its littermates to reach and attach to the mother's nipple. If the kitten is having problems nursing, you may need to hold the kitten in position so it can suckle without being pushed aside by its littermates. You may even need to supplement it with hand feeding.
  • Once you know the kitten is nursing well, you can turn your attention to helping the leg "untwist". To do this, you will need to give the kitten Stretching & Flexing Physiotherapy as described below.

Evaluating The Contracted Tendons

Before you begin the Stretching & Flexing Physiotherapy, take a close look at the kitten and determine exactly how the leg is twisted. Does it twist from the left? The right? Forward? Back? To help you evaluate the leg, we have collected images in the article Photos Of Kittens Born With Twisted Legs. Use the photos for comparison.

If you have a longhaired kitten, it may be difficult to tell exactly how the leg is twisted. Wet the hair and you will be able to see the structure of the leg more easily.

Variations In Appearance Of Legs With Contracted Tendons

There is great variation in how contracted tendons affect the leg of a newborn, however common conditions seen include:

Front or Hind Legs:

  • Straight, over-extended leg. The joints are stiff and will not bend. There is no twisting.
  • Normal, flexible leg with curled under paws that will not bend into a normal position.
  • Stiff leg with curled under paws that will not bend.

Front Legs:

  • The leg is bent under at the wrist and twisted inwards.
  • The degree of bending and twisting may be slight or the front leg may be twisted almost 180 degrees.

Hind Legs:

  • The hind leg is bent backwards from the point of the hock.
  • The hind leg turns inwards from the point of the hock so that it crosses underneath the kitten's belly. The degree of the turn inward can be mild or so severe that the hind foot is twisted upside down.
  • The entire lower hind leg is twisted inwards in a semicircular fashion from the hock down. The twisting may be slight or may turn up to almost 180 degrees so that the hocks face forward rather than back and the leg gives the appearance of being put on backwards.

Begin Therapy Immediately Following Birth

As soon as you notice the newborn kitten has twisted legs, begin the Stretching & Flexing Exercises described below. Newborn kittens are growing very fast so the opportunity to stretch the shorted tendon and correct the leg's position is the most favorable in the first few weeks of life.


Newborn with severely contracted front legs

Step One: Warming And Massage

Before beginning the kitten's stretching & flexing exercises, it helps to warm the muscles and tendons of the affected limb. Warming helps prepare the tendon to be stretched, and eases the muscles that have locked the leg into the wrong position.

There are several ways of warming the leg:

  • Apply a heating pad.
  • Use a hair dryer set on medium or hot temperature and low volume to direct warm air on the leg.
  • You can use a warm compress by heating a moistened cloth in the microwave and wrapping it around the leg. This will lose heat fairly quickly so have a second cloth ready and keep replacing it with a warm one.
  • You can even immerse the leg into water as hot as you can stand it for a few minutes. The stretching & flexing exercises can be performed with the kitten still in the hot water or remove the kitten from the water and blow hot air on the leg until dry.
  • Once the leg has been warmed, begin a gentle massage up and down its length. This combined with the warming will prepare the leg for the most important stage of the therapy — stretching and flexing.


The kittens legs are wrapped in a heating pad before beginning the stretching & flexing exercises

Step Two: Stretching & Flexing — The Most Critical Part Of The Treatment

REPEATED STRETCHING AND FLEXING IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF CORRECTING A TWISTED LEG.

  • Before starting to stretch the twisted part of the leg, stabilize the leg above the joint where the twist begins:
    • If only the paw is curled under, support the leg just above the paw.
    • If the front leg twists from the "wrist" hold the leg still between the cat's body and the wrist.
    • If the hind leg is twisted from the hock, stabilize the leg by holding it firmly over the stifle joint between the body and the point of the hock.
  • With the normal part of the leg now stabilized, use your other hand to stretch the twisted part of the leg as far towards the normal position as you can, untwisting it as you go if necessary.
  • The leg will resist the movement but you need to keep pushing it past where it wants to stop.
  • When the leg is stretched as far as you can get it to go—hold it for a few beats—then let the leg relax.
  • Continue to repeat the stretching & flexing routine for about 5 minutes per session.
  • Conduct 3-10 sessions per day, every day. The more often you do the exercise, the better.
  • Stretching and flexing the limb towards a normal position helps the short tendons lengthen and become more pliable. If exercising the limb in this manner is working, you should see improvement in the leg's alignment and flexibility within a day or two and then progress after that should be fairly quick.

Stretching the tendon hurts. The kitten will cry and resist, but you have to ignore it.
A bit of discomfort is a small price to pay for being normal and healthy in a few weeks.

If the mother cat is upset by the kitten's cries,
take the kitten into another room to perform its physiotherapy.

Prognosis

  • If treatment is started within a day or two of birth, there is an excellent chance that the condition can be rectified with the physiotherapy alone before the kitten begins to walk around 5 weeks.
  • Once the kitten begins walking, if the leg cannot bear the kitten's weight without collapsing, it will need to be braced.
  • If you don't see improvement within a few days of starting treatment, you need to increase the intensity and number of times/day that you are doing the warming-massage-stretching-flexing exercises. Push harder!
  • If you still don't see improvement, you may need to brace the leg in addition to performing the stretching-flexing physiotherapy.

The longer the elapsed time between birth and treatment of a twisted leg,
the less likely it is that the kitten will fully recover fully due to atrophy of nerves and muscles.


This seven week old kitten had received no treatment for severely twisted hind legs.
The kitten's right leg twisted inwards while the left leg is twisted backwards.
He is shown in the photo walking on the front of his stifles (often referred to as knees)
but after he was fitted with braces his legs eventually straightened and he walked normally.

An older kitten with contracted tendons that have been left untreated
may still have its legs successfully corrected with surgery.

Bracing The Leg

  • If the kitten's leg is severely twisted, you may have to brace it in between the stretching exercises in order to help it straighten.
  • If the kitten needs to have the legs braced, do not delay. The longer you wait, the longer the leg will need to be braced and the less likely the chance of 100% success.
  • Kittens grow VERY fast so bracing will need to be replaced every day or two or it will become too tight around the leg. A sign of being too tight is swelling in the toes because the circulation is being cut off.
  • The best options for bracing materials include tongue depressors, plastic cutlery cut to fit, human metal finger splints or Vetwrap.


A human finger splint makes an ideal brace—in this case for a back leg

Final Note

Many veterinarians are not familiar with a kitten being born with twisted legs. If the owner takes a kitten born this way to a veterinarian, it is not unusual for the veterinarian to assume the kitten is permanently deformed and recommend euthanasia. Please tell your veterinarian about this condition and that is usually corrects with simple stretching and flexing exercises. By informing your vet about this problem, you may be saving a kitten's life!

Not all kittens born with twisted legs have contracted tendons. Some birth deformities appear similar to a twisted leg but are NOT due to contracted tendons. These conditions can usually be identified by an x-ray but cannot be 100% rectified by physical therapy or splinting.
If you have a kitten born with twisted legs, please Contact Us with details and sharp photos of the kitten and we will try to help you with a treatment plan.

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