Adopting a Shelter Cat? Here's What You Should Know
Editor's Note: Rebecca Jane Stokes is a writer for Catster's sister SAY Media site, xojane.com. This article first ran on xoJane.com, but we're rerunning it (with permission!) so you readers can comment on it. Please note that the opinions expressed below are just the author's and not necessarily Catster's.
If any living creatures deserve to be having an Internet moment, it’s rescue animals. When Mandy wrote earlier this week about her amazing experience of adopting Samsung, I got all teary and made sure that I passed her story on to the myriad of Pit Bull adopters I know. For a brief period of time my Facebook wall was a Staffordshire love-fest of epic proportions, and I hearted it.
But poor little Pibbles weren’t the only rescue pups making an appearance via social media this week. If you spend any small amount of time on the web, you’ve probably seen the article -- with accompanying video -- about Billy, a dog from North Carolina, rescued from a puppy mill by the Humane Society.
Billy, if you aren’t familiar, was discovered in a cage that he’d been occupying for so long that the hinges had rusted shut. While he had access to water, it wasn’t potable, and the vet techs present said that, physically, he ranked at the lowest possible end of the spectrum, being extremely malnourished and missing his lower jaw.
It turns out Billy had been a stud dog at the puppy mill where he was found, put to one side when his services were no longer required. Puppy mills, for those who don’t know, are unregulated facilities where dogs are bred solely for profit. Puppy mills aren’t illegal, unless evidence can be provided that the dogs living there are being neglected. While that’s something, it’s not nearly enough.
Billy is one of the lucky ones. His rescuer, Adam Parascandola, became his adopter. Parascandola felt an immediate connection and sense of responsibility for the pup the moment the little guy rested his head on his shoulder. (Shut up! I’m not crying! I’m chopping onions and also I have a duct disorder!) Billy was adopted and received all the care he needed to live out his days happily.
His story elicits the usual feelings we get when we hear about animals saved from this sort of peril. It’s heartrending and wonderful and awful all at once. Heartrending because no animal should have to live that way, wonderful because that one dog made it out, and awful that there are who knows how many other dogs being born into these sorts of conditions.
While I do hope it convinces everyone who watches it to support the Humane Society and to seriously consider adopting their next pet from a shelter, the thing no one is saying is how difficult it can be to raise a shelter pet, or a pet that is the product of an abusive previous home life. My cat Rumi is the best cat on the planet, but I'd be lying if I said there were times when I didn't wonder what I'd gotten into.
The thing that Parascandola makes pretty clear -- with an assist from Billy’s easily appreciable awesomeness -- is that this dog’s problems were mostly physical. Whatever psychological problems that could have been brewing and then made manifest through behavioral disorders seem to have mostly left the affable little weirdo unscathed.
While this is undeniably great news (unless you are a terrible monster), it’s also not always the case. My best friend’s stepmother owned a dog rescued from a puppy mill who would only run in small contained circles and needed to be carried everywhere after years of living in a cage, and a former co-worker spent years resocializing a dog who had been rescued from a dogfighting ring. Ask around and you’re sure to find among your circle of friends at least one person with a story about the mental havoc wrought upon a dog adopted from an abusive environment.
If you’re thinking about adopting in a similar fashion -- get all the facts. I don’t say this to dissuade anyone from doing such a good thing, but to go in with realistic expectations, which will better serve you and your pet.
I adopted my cat, Rumi -- named after the poet, which I have to explain more than I would like to assure people just hearing his name and not reading it that I have not named him “roomie” -- through Petfinder. I had been living in New York for two years, had a job, friends and an income that would support caring for a pet. Also, I love cats, had been raised with two rescue cats, including one ol’ Persian named Mister Pookums. (Unrelated: He would go on to be eaten by a coyote while still in his prime.)
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the breed other than calling it “the fluffy angry lookin’ one,” Persians are awesome. They are mellow as hell, very curious, enjoy being cuddled and having their bellies rubbed, and weirdly cannot meow effectively. What I’m saying is that they are Ewoks. They also require more maintenance than your average cat.
Their long coats need daily brushing, their eyes and ears need cleaning, they eat special food, they demand monthly burnt offerings, and so on. Because I had experience with Persians, and because I had a soft spot for them, when one was in need of immediate re-homing only a couple of miles from my then-home in Queens, I leapt at the chance.
I was told by his former owner that she had to get rid of him to accommodate her new boyfriend’s allergies, and I could tell by her tears how sad she was to part with him. But the door hadn’t closed behind her when I realized that the story I had been given probably wasn’t the truth.
It’s normal for a cat being introduced to a home to run and hide -- Rumi has never been normal. He explored the house -- and me -- with vigor. But when a male friend of mine walked into the room, Rumi froze at the sound of this guy’s voice. He stopped in the middle of the room and peed -- then he began shaking.
It was strange, but I didn’t immediately chalk it up to abuse. There were a lot of little things that pushed me toward that conclusion. In addition to be terrified of dudes, he was equally frightened if you walked by him while wearing shoes. If you raised your voice he hid and began to wail -- WHICH WAS HEARTBREAKING. He had to eat his food locked away by himself; if there was anyone in the room with him, he’d sit by the bowl looking around in a panic.
While he loved being petted and brushed and coddled, he flinched without fail every time you raised a hand -- he required a lot of sweet talking and even then you couldn’t be sure he wouldn’t bite you, or pee, when you put him on your lap. But sweet-talking and the quiet gentle touch were all it took -- the moment he realized nothing bad was going to happen, he was a different cat.
When I took him to the vet for the first time, after about a month of his former owner not returning my emails about getting the paperwork, she assured me he had all of his shots and blood work. And then my burgeoning fears were confirmed. The vet told me that the reason he snorted as much as he did when he breathed was down to more than being your average flat-faced cat -- he had suffered a major contusion to his muzzle. He had also, by the vet’s calculations, two broken ribs, and scarring on his skin indicated that he had been kicked around with some frequency.
While those things could be treated, something that would never change was the nervous stomach he’d developed -- making it impossible for him to eat most foods without pooping blood. (PS: there is nothing so terrifying as waking up to your cat’s bloody anus being bandied in your face.)
With a lot of treatment, and a lot of squeezing (gentle squeezing), Rumi turned a corner, and before long I realized I was living with maybe the weirdest, most hilarious, Wilfred Brimley-looking kitty in creation. That’s not to say there weren’t bumps in the road. (Ask me about the time I thought he could handle the subway and then a Mariachi band got on -- NEVER ASK ME.) Now my two brothers are some of his favorite people, and the little guy who would run and hide at the sound of the door opening is the first to greet you with a silent meow and a leg rub.
I would never, ever tell anyone not to adopt a rescue animal, because this dude is seriously the best, and everything Mandy said about rediscovering a sense of play and unconditional love is absolutely true -- but it’s not always an easy road. That said, it’s one of the more rewarding ones.