When Philadelphia cat rescuer Holly Dixon went to get a tiny 2-month-old gray kitten from animal control, she immediately noticed the fluffy feline was missing a front leg. But then she realized something much more startling; when she placed her hand under her to pick her up, she felt the kitten's heart beating against her fingers.

"Immediately it was like boom boom, there was her heart in my hand," Dixon says. "It was amazing and terrifying at the same time."

The vet at animal control thought the cat had a diaphragmatic hernia, so she was marked for euthanasia. But Dixon contacted the Philly Kitty Rescue — a no-kill, volunteer-run cat rescue — and they agreed to take in the kitten and Dixon offered to foster her.

Dixon took the kitten, who she named Olive, to an emergency vet for X-rays. They found that instead of a hernia, she was missing most of her sternum and her ribs. Her heart is only covered by a layer of skin and fur.

"Her sternum only grew at the very top. She only has a little piece keeping her ribs together, but the part that covered the heart never developed," Dixon says. "If I flip her on her back, I can watch her heart beat."

Too wiggly for protection

Olive rescue kitten wearing protection for exposed heart Dixon crafted some protection for Olive out of a sock, some foam and hard plastic. (Photo: Holly Dixon)

Early on, Dixon tried fashioning a type of protection for the rambunctious kitten, worried that she would injure herself while bouncing all over the house. "She's so active and has no idea there's anything wrong with her," she says. "That's what's so awesome about animals. They don't care that they're different."

Dixon wrapped foam around Olive's body, added a hard piece of plastic and wrapped her in a colorful sock, crafting a bit of temporary body armor.

"If she had two front legs it would've been easier to fit her and keep something on her," she says. "But she was able to wiggle out of everything."

A rowdy, little kitten

Olive rescue kitty with exposed heart Olive is playful just like any other kitten. (Photo: One by One Photography)

Because there's a good chance the active kitten could seriously injure or kill herself if she lands on her exposed heart, Dixon can't let her play with the other cats in her home. She watches Olive closely while she plays and keeps her playing with toys instead of jumping and pouncing.

"She's such a rowdy little kitten. She's so into anything," Dixon says.

The vets think surgery will give Olive the best chance for a full life. They hope to be able to repair Olive's sternum defect by wiring her ribs together to cover her heart while she's young and her bones are still pliable, Dixon explains.

"They hope her bones will fuse because she's still growing and she's young enough that her body can still fix itself."

Dixon is raising funds for Olive's vet bills and surgery. Once she's recovered, the kitten will be up for adoption.

"I think she will do really well in a home where there's someone who will be there to play with her all the time," Dixon says.

Olive rescue kitten with exposed heart The vets believe Olive has the best chance of a normal, healthy life with surgery. (Photo: One by One Photography)

Mary Jo DiLonardo writes about everything from health to parenting — and anything that helps explain why her dog does what he does.