FELINE MEDICAL CURIOSITIES: CONJOINED KITTENS
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See Facial Deformities
Just as there are conjoined twins ("Siamese twins") in the human world, there are conjoined kittens in the feline world. The twin-faced or two-headed kittens are one example. There are many other types. Most abnormal kittens die early on in the pregnancy and the mother reabsorbs the body. Those which reach full term are either stillborn or die soon after birth.. Very few survive to adulthood. Others have extra legs or two or more kittens appear to share the same leg(s).
In 1750, a conjoined cat was reported and depicted in an engraving. It had 2 front legs and 4 hind legs. In 1935, Dr F Cathelin presented a conjoined cat to the French Society for Comparative Pathology; again it had two front legs and four hind legs. A few months later, a similar case was presented to the Academy of Sciences by Professor Richet. Dr Cathelin, evidently an authority on the subject, emphasized that it is almost impossible to find viable (i.e. survive beyond birth) conjoined animals and knew of only 9 cases, of which 2 were the aforementioned conjoined cats. Many lesser degrees of deformity were probably unreported (e.g. a fifth leg, double tail) or the kittens - if they were born live - were simply drowned at birth by superstitious owners.
A rather implausible case was reported on Wednesday July 12th 1865 in the "Bedford Independent" (Lawrence County, Indiana, USA). The paper reported that a cat, in Springville, had given birth to four kittens, which were joined together at the back and sides. They were joined in such a manner, that when two of them were walking, the other two must lie on their backs with their feet in the air. The owner of these curious kittens was offered a corner lot in Woodville for his kittens, which he scornfully refused, fixing his price at 37 1/2 cents in Confederate scrip.Another early (undated) example of a double-bodied kitten is this stuffed, mounted specimen labelled "kitten with 8 legs and 2 tails". It has a single head, which appears to be misshapen with an abnormally broad domed skull, but is double bodied. Two forelegs - one belonging to each body - point upwards due to the fused chest. If you look at the markings, you can see that the spine is skewed where the kittens have a fused ribcage, although this skew may be a product of taxidermy. From the chest backwards, the bodies are not fused and have correctly oriented hind limbs and tails. It would probably have died within hours of being born. The specimen is shown standing, though it is more likely to have been oriented belly-to-belly in life (very young kittens cannot stand up).
There is also a report from Kansas (undated) of conjoined kittens born in a colony of farm cats. The kittens were attached at the leg (no details as to whether it was a foreleg or hind leg). The farmer's wife apparently successfully separated them (details not provided), leaving each kitten with three legs and naming them both "Stumpy". Stumpy and Stumpy both survived the operation and lived long, happy lives with three legs each. In the way of farm cats, they finally succumbed either to an accident or to a bobcat.
The Birmingham Suburban Times, 1st September 1888 reported “A NATURAL PHENOMENA. A wonderful freak of nature was born at Stirchley-street last week. It is a kitten with two perfect bodies, two tails, eight legs, but only one head. The little animal is pure white, and the limbs are splendidly formed. This peculiar little creature has caused quite a sensation in the district, and has been secured by Mr. R.C. Coburn, hairdresser, King’s Heath, where it may be seen by any one interested.”
There was a report entitled “A Strange Cat” in the Dutch newspaper De Grondwet, 27th May, 1890: “The cleverest cat of late will not appear at the cat show in Amsterdam because she recently died in Putnam, Connecticut. The animal had seven legs and two tails and was actually one cat at the front and two cats at the back. That strange deformity enabled her to perform extraordinary feats: she could turn a corner without turning round, and she walked upwards between two adjacent perpendicular walls as easily as she walked on the flat ground. Her favourite "sport" was to climb up to the roof against a zinc gutter. She was interred in a triangular box amidst much interest from the villagers.”
From 1903, there is this news article from the Democrat and Chronicle (27th October, 1903): May Be Tammany Cat. August Kuehler Owns Kitten With Plenty Of Extras. August Kuehler, a saloonkeeper of No. 391 Lyell avenue, came into possession of a blue-blooded freak of nature in the shape of a deformed cat last Friday night. The monstrosity lived only long enough to emit a faint “meow,” and was afterwards placed in a jar filled with alcohol. The jar occupies a prominent position on the whisky shelf in the saloon of Kuehler and its effect on business can only be conjectured. To be sure it will be a relief to an animal trainer to find that what he thought was a pink elephant is only an ordinary, everyday, two-headed, three- eared, eight-legged, two-tailed, common kitten, but the shock will be powerful while it lasts. On last Friday night “Nelly Bly,” a blue-blooded tortoiseshell feline, whit has taken many prizes at cat shows, walked proudly into the bar room with the kitten in its mouth and dropped it on the floor. One of the chair warmers, when he saw the mass of legs and tails creeping, apparently in all directions at once, emitted a prolonged ‘yoop’ and fled the place. He had not returned up to yesterday. Kuehler picked up the thing and examined it. He found that by some freak of nature the bodies of two kittens had been joined together, producing a monstrosity. In the front of the body where cat’s head is usually supposed to be there were two. There are two ordinary legs in the front of the body. The back continues perfectly normal up the middle. At that point the other body starts. Two legs are crossed on the hack. Joined to the body in the rear are four leg and two tails, making a total of eight legs on the animal in place of the usual four, two tails in place of one and three ears in place of two. The extra ear is just back of the left ear on the left side of the bodies.
In 1946 in Sydney, Australia, a litter of 8 kittens was born, 5 of which were joined together. They died soon after birth. Also in 1946 an English cat had 6 kittens, 4 of which shared one thickened leg. The 4 affected kittens were euthanised but the remaining 2 kittens in the litter were normal and thrived.
Photo by Erik Hagen (Fredriksstad Blad)
The Gainsborough News (UK) of 4th April 1947, mentioned an article it had run on 31st March 1922; this being a report of a kitten born with 8 legs and 2 heads. The kitten had lived for only an hour.
In 2001, I received an email detailing a conjoined kitten which was born in Østfold, Norway in April. Unlike the 1750 six-legged cat which was only doubled from the "waist" down, the Norwegian kitten was doubled from the neck down. It had eight paws, two tails and two chins and was part of a litter of six. The other 5 kittens were normal. The conjoined kitten died shortly after birth, which is not unusual for such grossly malformed offspring. The image indicates two tortoiseshell and white female kittens (incompletely separated twins) which were joined at the belly and which would have shared most of their internal organs. Had such a severely deformed kitten survived, such a gross deformity would have severely compromised its lifestyle and mobility. Even with corrective surgery it would not have been normal due to internal malformation and deformity of the skeleton. The misshapen head (two chins, wide brow, widely separated eyes) indicates skull deformities and probable brain damage. Such deformities are relatively rare in cats since a severely deformed kitten normally dies in the womb. If it dies early in the pregnancy, its soft tissues are reabsorbed by the mother and a "mummified kitten" (bundle of fur and skeletal parts) would be produced when the other kittens were born. The kittens died shortly after birth and the body sent to a veterinary college in Oslo for research purposes.
Octopussy, the "Amazing Eight-Legged Cat" is owned by Shawn Clemons (Wheeling, USA) and though Octopussy died shortly after birth in 2001, its preserved body is exhibited by Clemons as a curiosity when he travels on business; it has also become the logo of his business "Eight Legged Cat Enterprises". The kitten has one torso, but nearly every other physical feature is duplicated. It has four ears, two tails and eight legs. Clemons was house-sitting for friends when their pet cat gave birth to several healthy kittens plus a black kitten twice the size of its littermates. It suffocated during birth, but Clemons was permitted to preserve the kitten in a bottle. Some people find the preserved kitten fascinating, others find it disgusting and call for it to be buried.
These 5 photographs of conjoined kittens born in 2004 are used by kind permission of Yolande Zandvliet, L'Hibou Maine Coons, Leiden, The Netherlands ( L'Hibou Conjoined Kittens). "The birthing process began normally. Bailey is a very good and experienced mother; this being her 7th-and -last- litter. First the 2 sisters came: normal red kittens. (the weight resp: 108 and 96 gram; the twins together 116 gr) Then, Bailey refused to continue labor in the birthing box. Whatever I tried - nothing worked, she REFUSED to be with her girls, and continually jumped out of the birthing box. THAT was VERY strange behavior for her, because she always gave birth to her kittens in that particular box. Finally I gave her a cat-basket and then her contractions continued. They seemed very, VERY hard on her - I had already started to massage her belly, trying to relieve her pain at that moment. After half an hour, I saw a little face sticking out of her vagina and it looked dead. When it was a bit further, I helped with pulling the kitten out during another contraction. When it was out, I saw that I was right, it was dead. A friend of mine, who was with me, took the kitten out of my hands and began to resuscitate. She suddenly felt something and said to me: This kitten is deformed, I'm not going to work on it any more. I took the kitten and went to the kitchen to take a better look and then I saw: 2 tails, 4 hind legs and 4 front legs ... and 1 head with 4 ears. Looking better I saw that there were two kittens joined to each other above the belly button, and the head of one kitten had totally disappeared into the other kitten, except for the ears - they stick out of the head. I still have them conserved in a bottle. My vet was perplexed that Bailey could have birthed those twins the natural way. He had never seen this before, but would imagine that most females would have needed a caesarion section." There were 2 umbilical cords, but a single placenta. Yolande has called her unusual twins "The Children of Love - Together Forever" and they have been preserved in a bottle.
In March 2005, I received reports and images of a six-legged cat in the USA. The adult male bicolour stray had a duplicated foreleg on its left side and a a vestigial paw, comprising toes only, attached above the usual paw of its right side. X-rays indicated that the right foreleg contained additional bones showing that the vestigial paw was part of a duplicated foreleg and was not a polydactyl thumb. The left duplicate foreleg was positioned above the normal foreleg and though complete did not appear to be under voluntary control (i.e. could not be moved independently of the normal foreleg but did appear to mirror some of the normal leg's back and forth movement, probably due to muscle attachments at the shoulder blade). At rest, the duplicate foreleg pointed foreward, horizontal with the shoulder. Because a largely inert duplicate leg would pose a hazard to an active cat (it could easily become caught if the cat climbed), veterinarians planned to amputate it. This cat also had three testicles. The duplication of forelimbs could be due to conjoined twinning or due to disruption of development of the limb bud resulting in duplicate limb buds.
In April 2006, a 6-legged ginger tabby called Willoughby was being cared for at the private Hervey Foundation for Cats shelter in Edmonton, Canada. Shelter founder and president Marjorie Hervey collected Willoughby from Edmonton's Animal Control dept after he was found straying in a south Edmonton neighborhood. Although he appears to be a well cared for pet, no-one collected the distinctive cat during his week with Animal Control. At an estimated age of 1 year, the cat has 4 front legs. On one side, the two front legs are fused together from shoulder to paw. On the other side, the 2 front limbs are much shorter and will probably be amputated as the cat can move them, but not walk on them. The cat mainly walks using the fused forelegs of the other side. Surgery is expected to cost $2000.
MISTAKEN DIAGNOSIS OF CONJOINED KITTENS
In July 2002, I received information about "Siamese sextuplets". The six apparently conjoined kittens were born to a cat in Pusan, 281 miles (450 km) south of Seoul, South Korea. There were 3 ginger and 3 black kittens. Their bodies were joined to each other. The mother cat was named "Nabi" (Butterfly). The kittens were two males and four females. Local vets blamed genetic defects or external environmental factors. A genetic defect is unlikely; conjoined kittens are due to incomplete separation of an egg or, in lesser cases, to duplication of body parts.
It is unlikely that the mother could give birth to six fused kittens - her birth canal simply could not accommodate them. Conjoined individuals originate from a single egg. This means the kittens should have been identical sextuplets and all the same colour and same gender. I therefore find it unlikely that they were born conjoined. It is more likely that they became stuck together after birth. Similar things have been seen in so-called "rat kings" or "squirrel kings" where the newborns become glued together by blood, amniotic fluid, tangled umbilical cords, excrement etc, or by tangled tails. Tangled kittens not unknown where the mother cat is inexperienced or cannot cope (or has given birth in wet, dirty surroundings).
In October 2004, the Daily Times (Pakistan) reported that a doctor had separated "Siamese kittens". A veterinary surgeon in Tandlianwala on Tuesday successfully separated three kittens joined at the navel. Muhammad Afzal's pet cat had apparently given birth to the three conjoined kittens, which were separated by Dr Ejaz Iqbal with help of a veterinary student from the University of Agriculture. The kittens were reported to be recovering and in good health. This does not seem to be a case of true conjoined kittens, but one of tangled umbilical cords (a not uncommon occurrence). It would not have been possible for the mother cat to give birth to 3 kittens joined at the navel without undergoing caesarian section.
Note:The term "Siamese kittens" should never be used to described conjoined kittens. "Siamese kittens" has one meaning only - kittens of the Siamese breed. The term "Siamese twins" is also discouraged. The correct term is "conjoined".
CAUSES OF CONJOINED TWINS
Conjoining is classed as a congenital (developmental) defect, however, genes are involved in controlling development and when these malfunction, development goes wrong. Development can also be disrupted by drugs and chemicals that seem to confuse the embryo, perhaps by mimicking substances that control embryo development. Studies in flatworms suggest that an organism's electrical field also plays a part - deliberately alter its polarity and it forgets which end is which and makes the wrong structures.
Put very simply, the organisation of a developing embryo, from a ball of undifferentiated cells into a body, is controlled by a particular embryonic ridge (nicknamed the "organiser") and by instructor molecules produced as a result of that region. Instructor molecules include Retinoic Acid implicated in lower limb deformities and cranio-facial deformities (including twin heads). Another substance is "Sonic hedgehog" - too much of this will cause extra structures to be formed; depending on where the excess occurs, these may be extra limbs or extra noses. For example, too much Sonic hedgehog at a early limb bud means several limbs grow instead of just one. Some drugs and chemicals mimic instructor molecules while others block instructor molecules, this is why certain substances must be avoided during pregnancy.
In embryos, similar cells stick together, for example head cells bond to other head cells. If this didn't happen, the embryo wouldn't develop a body structure, it would just be a ball of mixed up cells. If an embryo splits into twins, sometimes the cells bond to the corresponding cells of the opposite twin, causing the embryos to be fused. The question of whether conjoined twins are due to an embryo that doesn't split completely in two or are caused by two embryos that fuse together has never been conclusively answered. There is evidence for both scenarios, while cases of fused or duplicated body parts may be due to instructor substances not working properly.
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BOOKS ABOUT ANOMALIES
If you are interested in medical curiosities, books worth reading are "Mutants: on the Form, Varieties and Errors of the Human Body" by Armand Marie Leroi and "Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine Vols 1 and 2" by George M. Gould & Walter L. Pyle. The Gould & Pyle books were published in 1896 and are in the public domain. You can download text-only versions of Gould & Pyle from several websites so don't waste money on text-only versions of the book; but if you want the versions with photos, consider the Kessinger editions. The Leroi book explains why and how some deformities and anomalies happen - the mechanism is the same in cats as it is in humans.
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