It was already dark at 6 p.m. as my 13-year old son and I headed off to the candlelight service at church on Christmas Eve. My youngest two kids chose to stay home with visiting family, so this year it was just the two of us.

I had all the kids’ presents wrapped and hidden by now, pleased that I was able to get them everything they had asked for. Well, almost everything. My 4-year-old daughter had begged for a kitten for months and hoped to finally get one for Christmas. While I usually tried to consider most of my kids’ requests, I just couldn’t handle any more responsibility.

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Paige, Ryan, Jennifer, and David, days before Christmas and (unknowingly) before a six-day hospital stay.

Ryan and I quietly sneaked into church and took a seat at the back, glad to be out of the bitter cold. Once again it was a beautiful service, and afterward we lingered with a few friends for so long that we were the last to leave.

We raced to our car, coats up around our ears as we braced against the cold, and quickly jumped in and slammed the doors against the wind. All of a sudden we saw a kitten run from the bushes and around the corner of the church. Poor thing, we thought. It was so cold outside we couldn’t help but feel horrible for the little guy.

As we waited for the car to warm up, I turned to Ryan with a certain look on my face, and he instantly rolled his eyes. After all these years he knew what was coming.

“Ryan,” I said, “it’s an omen.”

Yes, I’m one of those people who find hidden meaning in everything. Everything’s an omen or a sign, some secret message always hidden in the most innocent occasion.

“Ryan,” I repeated, “Paige has been asking for a kitten for months now. And here we are, Christmas Eve for Pete’s sake, and what’s right there before our very eyes? A kitten who obviously needs a home.”

Back out of the warm car we went, creeping around the back of the church in the dark, talking baby talk to this abandoned kitten — he looked to be about 6 months old — naively thinking he would just jump into our arms and we’d all live happily ever after.

Obviously, that was not going to happen.

We spent about 15 minutes freezing our keisters off chasing this little cat around the church. Then I told Ryan I would dash up to the gas station and buy a couple of cans of cat food.

“Don’t let him out of your sight,” I shouted as I dashed back to car.

I returned with enough cat food to feed an army, and naturally this caught the cat’s attention, but of course the minute we got close he retreated to the safety of the bushes and we’d start over.

Finally, after the cat could no longer resist the temptation, he came close enough to take a few bites. My son reached out to pick him up, but faster than a speeding bullet this timid, innocent kitty turned into the Tasmanian Devil, nothing but a blur of fur and claws and teeth, emitting a shriek loud enough to raise the dead.

This obviously was NOT an omen. I told Ryan forget it, get in the car, and I opened the rest of the cans of food and left them on the sidewalk for the cat to return to once we were gone.

We weren’t on the road 5 minutes when Ryan said, “Mom, I don’t feel good. Something’s wrong. I think I’m going to be sick.” He pushed back his sleeves and the scratches on his arms had turned to welts, hot and raised, and the feeling of nausea, chills and severe pain escalated so quickly that I immediately made a U-turn and headed toward the hospital.

We arrived at the emergency room where Ryan was hooked up to all sorts of tubes and machines and admitted to a private room. He was diagnosed with a severe case of cat scratch fever and remained in the hospital for six days. How had this happened so quickly?

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Hospital patient by Shutterstock

Needless to say, I never forgave myself for encouraging my son to catch a feral cat, not realizing the danger I was putting him in and unaware that rescuing a cat could be such an important and complex endeavor.

After retelling this story recently, I contacted Felines & Friends Foundation in Derby Line, Vermont, and asked what a person not familiar with rescuing feral cats should do. The response was much more complicated than I would have guessed, but something I wouldn’t hesitate to do should I ever been in this situation again. Bonnie Geisler, president of Felines & Friends, shared the following:

Contrary to what some say, if you see a cat in need, PLEASE don’t hesitate to help it.  Cats are not wild animals, they are animals that we domesticated, and in most parts of the country need human help to survive. If your pet was lost, you would hope a stranger would help.  Depending on what part of the country you live, finding a home for a friendly cat is normally fairly easy through word of mouth or a local animal shelter.

When approaching a stray cat, err on the side of caution. Even the most docile house cat may panic if a stranger tries to pick her up or put her in a crate. Start with providing a small amount of food, no more than half a cup, and some water. Then come back with a large carrier or dog crate and place another small amount of food inside the front the carrier. Over several days, move the food to the back of the carrier and ultimately you’ll be able to close the drop and safely transport the cat to a local shelter for further advice on how to proceed in finding the cat’s owner or rehoming the cat.

If the cat is feral, you will need a humane trap.  Once spayed/neutered and vaccinated, a feral cat makes a great outdoor pet that just requires some simple shelter and daily food and water.

For more information about rescuing a stray or feral cat, visit the Felines & Friends website or the group’s Facebook page.

About the author: Jennifer Slater, author of En Route Baby: What To Do When Baby Arrives Before Help Does, found herself in an empty nest when her last child moved off to college, and now spends her time spoiling, overprotecting and writing about her German Shepherd and three fluffy (and appreciative) kitties. She and her family live in the Boston area.