I have been quiet this week because I have been sick. Unfortunately, I’ve not been quite sick enough to justify staying home lying in bed and re-watching episodes of Rome (compelling storytelling of the finest quality) and Robin Hood (terrible and yet delicious, the Chicken McNuggets of UK television). Rather, it is the kind of sick where I’m quite capable of going to work and getting things done, I just make a lot of upper-respiratory noise in the process.
So because I am not feeling especially articulate, this is a post about my cats.
A year ago, following the loss of our much-beloved elderkitty, Bean, to heart disease, we adopted two bonded cats from the Northeast Animal Shelter in Salem, MA. We call them Rufus and Penny. When I first met them at the shelter, it was Penny, in the moment outgoing and meow-y, who caught my attention, but it would turn out that Rufus, sleeping in the back of the cage, was the star of the show. Rufus eventually drew a lot of attention, as it was around this time that I was doing a series of interviews that would ultimately take shape as a profile in the Boston Globe. I mentioned Rufus in the course of the interviews because he was (and is, though now slightly less so) very, very fat. 26 pounds’ worth. This earned a mention in the profile — I guess for its quirky appeal — and once the piece was published I was inundated with angry emails from people accusing me of animal abuse and threatening to call the pet police on me.
Apparently the fact, acknowledged in the article, that Rufus was already hugely fat when we adopted him was not important. Nor was the fact that he and his sister Penny, who were abandoned at the shelter, showed signs of extreme neglect. For example, Rufus, prevented from thoroughly grooming himself by his prodigious belly, was so covered in mats that his whole back had to be shaved. You know what can happen when a cat gets shaved in a shelter environment? The shaving can cause tiny nicks in the skin, and the stress of the shelter can suppress the cat’s immune system, and they can then get ringworm. Epic, horrifying, full-body ringworm, requiring months of confinement and hundreds and hundreds of dollars’ worth of vet visits and various treatments (only the most expensive of which finally worked, of course), not to mention the insanity of twice-weekly lime-sulfur dips, which smell even more grotesque than you’d expect by their name. For six months, Rufus was basically a flaky, scabby, sad-eyed mess confined to one room and don’t even ask what the final cost of fixing him was because I don’t want to think about it. His skin issues happened in concert with a serious hepatic illness in our 14-year-old eldercat Oberon (who has just this week been diagnosed as hyperthyroid, poor lamb — I am not looking forward to twice-daily pills for him), so that during those six months we were regular fixtures at our local animal hospital.
I can’t even tell you how many times we heard amazement from disbelieving folks, that we were doing all this for a cat we had just adopted and had no pre-existing relationship with. As a result, the email threats I received just made me laugh and think, man, if you send the MSPCA to our house, they will shake our hands and thank us for being such outstanding and committed pet parents to a cat with such dramatic issues straight out of the gate. Many folks would have delivered him right back to the shelter, and understandably so, as ringworm, once introduced to a home, can persist in a dormant state for literal years, and not only is treating the cat prohibitively expensive, but decontaminating a space can involve removing carpet and burning or otherwise destroying all porous material, as it may contain ringworm spores.
The people who were surprised at our commitment to Rufus were mostly people who’d never met him, though. Everyone remembers Rufus. People who’ve met him in real life always ask about him, and even readers will occasionally send me emails inquiring how Rufus is doing. A year on, Rufus is marvelous, and his skin issues are a hazy memory. Here he is sleeping. Here he is with a marshmallow on his head. Penny, always a bit harder to pin down, as she has the typical calico-crazy, is likewise well. Here she is in her frightened persona. Here she is looking like a Bond villain.
Oberon, with whom I have shared the past thirteen years, continues to be lordly and magnanimous in his willingness to share his house with me and my husband and the other two cats, as ever.
Dealing with Rufus’ skin problems was an unexpected challenge for me, not just insofar as they applied to him individually, but because I had this voice in my head repeating, damn, if only he could groom himself like a normal cat, I bet his skin would be fine! In retrospect, this thinking was along the lines of the doctor who prescribes weight loss for everything from a sore throat to a repetitive stress injury. It continues to be sobering that I found myself thinking this way. Rufus’ health is excellent, today, even though he’s still a fatass, holding steady at 23 pounds (despite a strictly-measured and damned expensive all-natural grain-free high-protein diet) and nearly spherical. But for as long as we’ve had him, Rufus hasn’t developed a single mat on his back, because in our house he’s regularly brushed and petted. It turned out it wasn’t so much his fatness that was to blame for those problems, as it was his being neglected and stressed out. In a loving environment that accepts and accommodates him, he has thrived.
Not that this is a metaphor for fat humans. No. This is a post about my cats.