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She’s purrfect now: Meet the adorable kitty that became the first cat in South Africa to have a partial knee replacement

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Theophylline injured her paw when she fell from the second story of the family's home. (Photo: Supplied)
Theophylline injured her paw when she fell from the second story of the family's home. (Photo: Supplied)

When it comes to perseverance, there’s nothing anyone can teach this snuggly furball.

Little Theophylline has already gone through a few of her nine lives: she spent the first few weeks of her life in a drain, struggled to find a forever home and had to undergo several operations after falling from a second-floor window.

But while she may look a little timid, she’s as tough as nails – and she’s made history by becoming the first cat in SA to have complicated hi-tech knee surgery.

Three weeks have passed since the op and Theophylline – or Theo, as her owner Tayla Marcel calls her – is slowly on her way to recovery.

“It’s been really hard for both of us because she has to be in strict confinement,” Tayla, a vet student at the University of Pretoria, tells YOU.

“She’s not allowed to move around. I haven’t had to do any physiotherapy yet but her vet said might need it in the future if she doesn’t learn to walk on her new leg soon.”

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Theophylline has been recovering at home since her surgery three weeks ago. (Photo: Supplied)

Tayla (23) adopted the kitty at the end of 2019 after the pair quickly developed a close bond. She called her pet Theophylline – a medication taken by both humans and animals to treat respiratory diseases like asthma – because “the name gives you a breath of fresh air”.

Theo was part of a litter of stray kittens who lived in a drain at the Wonderboom Junction Shopping Centre in Pretoria.

Tayla and her classmates at the university noticed the animals when they went on fieldwork and Theo, she says, was the indication the rest of the kittens were still alive.

“She was the one we saw moving,” Tayla says.

In order to trap the kittens and get them to safety, Tayla and her friends contacted an animal rescue NGO that gave them some cat cages.

“We’d go to the shopping centre, put KFC in the cages and sit behind a bush while we waited for the kittens to walk into the traps.”

After each of the kittens were caught, they were put up for adoption. Each one found a home except Theo, and Tayla eventually decided to adopt the kitten.

Theo was settling well into her life with Tayla when disaster struck. When she was six months old, she fell from a window on the second story of Tayla’s family home in Johannesburg.

“I found her limping and crying outside,” Tayla recalls.

She rushed Theo to the vet where they discovered she’d fractured her distal femur, the area of the leg just above the knee joint.

The first surgery the cat had was to insert numerous pins at various angles in her leg to ensure the alignment and length of the femur was salvaged.

But after the bone healed, Theo developed a lateral patella luxation, which is where the kneecap moves out of the groove of the knee joint.

“A second surgery was performed and involved cutting the tibia, moving its position and securing it in the new location with pins and wire,” Dr Elge Bester, who performed the various surgeries explains.

“It also involved a procedure to deepen the groove in which the kneecap sits. Subsequently this was done to help this brave kitten to bend her leg without the kneecap moving out of position.”

Still the procedure didn’t help and Dr Bester, along with Dr Adriaan Kitshoff, had to find an alternative treatment.

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Dr Elge Bester and Dr Adriaan Kitshoff performing the dissection for the new patella groove implant. (Photo: Supplied)

“We concluded that a complex procedure called patellar groove replacement could potentially be used,” Dr Bester says.

“This procedure has been prescribed in dogs with severe osteoarthritis involving the kneecap and the joint surface underneath it.”

But because Theo was so tiny, the vets struggled to find implants that would fit into her knee.

They used radiographs to measure her knees and then created a 3D printed patella groove implant from medical grade high-density polyethylene.

The implant was placed into Theo’s right femur to allow for a new groove and snug fit for the kneecap to run in again.

“This procedure allowed her to finally flex and extend her knee without pain,” Dr Bester adds.

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Theophylline walking on the leg the morning after the surgery. (Photo: Supplied)

For Tayla, the procedure was both daunting and exciting.

“I was nervous because you don’t know what the outcome will be,” she says.

“I didn’t know at first that it had never been done before. But when they told me, as a vet student I was interested and excited for what it could do for the future of veterinary science.”

She’s grateful to have her furry friend back on all fours and on the mend.

“Because she’s not allowed to jump, I removed all my furniture from my room, removed the base of my bed and just put the mattress on the floor so that we can sleep together.”

It’s been a very long road, Tayla says, but hopefully this is the last hurdle Theo will need to overcome. In fact, she needs to catch a break right meow.

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