Feline AIDS Isn't a Death Sentence: How Adopting a FIV+ Kitty Brought Me Happiness
We were on our honeymoon when my sister called us. "You know, there's a really nice orange cat that's been sleeping in that car with the open window across the street. Well, we got him to the vet and are getting him neutered. When you get home he'll be up for adoption!"
We had a fair idea of who this cat might be, a very sweet and gentle big-headed skinny boy cat with a little meow and a terrible coat. We had met him twice, and fed him, and had talked of finding him a home. But he had been quick to eat and disappear, fading into the early summer evenings. Apparently he was hanging out at our neighbor's house ... well, her yard, anyway, where one of her tenants parked his car. This enterprising cat had found himself a room -- a truck with lots of padding, which looked as though it hadn't been cleaned out in ages.
When we returned from our honeymoon, we were in for a surprise. The vet had come back with a verdict of FIV-positive (feline immunodeficiency virus) for the little orange guy. The rescue said that made this cat a no go, as "he can't be around other cats."
I had worked at a small rescue before this one, and did my best to explain that being FIV+ did not mean you automatically pass on the virus -- it could only be caught by blood-to-blood contact, and this was a mellow and gentle fellow who didn't seem likely to bite anyone. Besides which, the cats were in their own cages. However, the rescue staff were adamant until I reminded them that we had made a donation to his care, and for them to take him. They somewhat reluctantly agreed that we could bring him on weekends to show him for adoption.
My mom was less than pleased for us to keep the kitty when he wasn't being shown. She shared a house with me and my husband, my sister, and five other cats. Four of them my sister had rescued, and I had rescued one, Bella. My mom simply didn't want another cat in the house. As we had to keep the cat somewhere, my sister suggested the glassed-in back porch. It was not heated, but it was protected from the elements, and we hoped he would find a home before it got too cold.
We started to talk about what to call the cat. The rescue had hung the name Milo on him, but we felt that he wasn't a Milo. He was no small kitten, but a cat with solid bulk and large paws. It was obvious that he'd not eaten well or often before us, as he was always hungry.
One day, as my husband fed the cat, he looked up at us. "If you don't mind, I'd like to call him Orange Ruffy. There is a fish down South called orange roughy, and he's sort of a rough character. It suits him, don't you think?"
And so Ruffy found his name. And in the beginning, he was rough. His coat was coarse and sticky, and the vet who neutered him said he probably had a form of malnutrition. He also said that Ruffy had a punctured eardrum, and we soon learned he was petrified of loud noises such as vacuums or blenders.
Ruffy was up for adoption for months, and though people came to see him and admire him, he found no takers. We began to really dislike bringing him there. He would look up at us as we were leaving with large, sad eyes, as though asking why we were doing this. I tried to explain that we wanted him to have a home of his own, one where he'd be able to sleep on a couch or bed and have his own people.
Some months later, my husband scored a great job in his home state of Alabama. It had been his dream for us to move back, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. It was also the perfect opportunity to spring Ruffy and get him out of back-porch limbo. It was cold there now, despite portable heaters.
And so, one chilly day in early January, my husband -- with our car piled high with household goods, and Ruffy in his carrier in the seat beside him -- took off for Alabama. The agreement was that he'd come up every month for a few days until I could join him in three months, when his health benefits kicked in.
But fate never works as planned. A few days after he left, my mom became very ill. What kept me going during this difficult time was hearing stories of Ruffy -- Ruffy eating Cajun catfish my husband bought home from the restaurant he was working in, Ruffy sleeping on the suitcase still filled with clothing, Ruffy playing with a child who had come to visit.
My husband managed to fly up once, for a quick visit, and it was a scary one. My mom was hospitalized. She hung on, but passed away three days before my husband's job went belly up. It appeared the restaurant owner was not paying bills and owed many people money. He disappeared, leaving everyone high and dry.
My husband tried to look for more work in Alabama, but things were tight. After two weeks, he packed the car and returned to us in New York. He said that during the trip, Ruffy lay comfortingly close, a low purr rumbling from his chest.
After they came home, Ruffy was no longer put out on the porch. After a few months, we rented a small apartment and took Ruffy and Bella home. They were joined by Smokieboo, a rescued Russian Blue who had been dumped by a woman on our old street. We had to use a humane trap to get him, because he had been so betrayed by people. He and Ruffy, after testing each other, soon became friends. A few days later, after Smokie's tests came back, we found out that he also was FIV+.
Ruffy is our "Baboo" Kitty, for we call Bella our "Kitty Boo Boo," after a little hot spot on her tummy that took so long to heal.
Ruffy has filled out. He's the skinny stray no more, and his large eyes appear to gaze out into some space between time. Gentle and mellow, he is my "magickal" cat, the cat who has always accepted other cats into the clowder with curious indifference. So long as Ruffy has his food -- and access to everyone else's -- he couldn't care less.
Since Ruffy joined us, we have added Smokie, Princess (also FIV+), Natalie the Natcat (rescued from the rescue that let us show Ruffy on weekends), and our littlest rescue from South Carolina, CK. Despite a small apartment, we have wonderful energy, and so many purrs. As I watch Ruffy stretch and yawn on the back of the couch, I idly reach up and stroke his coat, watching him stretch. And I whisper into his fur, "I'm so glad that you came in from the cold."
Debra Hoffmann Knowles is kitty mom to six cats. She lives with them and husband Jim in Kew Gardens, New York.
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