Sunday, November 22, 2009


I am convinced that when you fall in love with cats they start showing up everywhere. Within weeks of adopting Natasha, cats and kittens seemed to materialize where ever I turned. I saw them under bushes and behind trees along the path where I walk my two collies. I caught glimpses of them in the parking lot of my local deli, and, frightenly, along the edges of busy highways and turnpikes. I was able to confirm ownership in the first two instances, but, sadly, not the last.

One morning, in October, my friend Helaine and I were walking a local pedestrian rail trail when we came upon a large, long-haired white and beige cat. He was perched on a log, Cheshire style, under a Japanese Barberry, calmly observing the occasional passersby. He had a pedigree look--Persian, probably, and he allowed us to get within several feet before he turned and limped out of arm's reach. The limp was only slight, but one ear drooped flat liked a beagle's, and his fur was matted and soiled. At the time I knew nothing about the habits of feral cats and their fastidiousness, so I had no idea that the unkempt look of this cat divulged an illness.

Helaine and I asked a few people who lived close to the trail entrance if they knew anything about the white cat. Strangely, everyone we asked had seen the cat but had no idea of who owned it or where it had come from. One woman said she had been leaving food along the trail for several months, but had no idea if anyone owned it, or if it was a 'stray.'

Several days later Helaine called to say she had been out walking and had seen the cat again. I did not need much prodding, as I had not been able to get the image of the white and beige Persian out of my mind, so I went back to the trail to look for him. This time the weather was cold and gray, and I found the cat sitting under the same log in a drizzling rain. I could readily see mucus oozing from his eyes and nostrils. I thought about Natasha, sleeping peacefully in her warm and cozy cat bed, and I knew that I could not turn my back on this sorrowful looking guy.

But what to do with him? After pacing in circles for ten minutes I decided to go someplace nearby (out of the rain) where I could think this through. So, where does a self-respecting suburban woman go to figure out how to trap a homeless cat? Why, to the local spa and salon for a quick manicure, of course. While my nails were drying, I began telling my cat story to proprietor JoAnn, aka 'Jo.'

I had barely gotten halfway through my story when Jo disappeared into a treatment room and reappeared with two tiny kittens in her arms. She had caught the kittens in the parking lot behind the salon and was trying to find homes for them. She too had seen the white cat and was concerned about his welfare, especially with winter coming.

“How do we catch him?”

“With a trap,” Jo said smiling.

Jo met me the next morning and “Snow,” as he came to be known, simply walked into our 'Have a Heart' trap ( and sat down. He not only had mucus oozing from his nose, there were also traces of blood. If it is possible to ‘read’ an animal’s expression then Snow’s said he had had enough of surviving on his own. He was tired of shivering through freezing nights with an empty belly. For Snow, it was time to come in out of the cold.

As we walked toward the trap to cover it, (cats feel safer and calm down when covered), we heard a faint ‘meow,’ but it was not coming from Snow. Suddenly a small and dainty gray tabby with a white nose appeared. Unafraid, she immediately approached the trap and touched noses with Snow. She circled the trap two or three times, meowing in a sad, plaintiff tone, before she disappeared back into the bushes.

Jo and I were so pleased to have snared the long-haired white cat that we did not spend much time contemplating why he was so docile, or why he had blood and mucus dripping from his nose. Snow was the first cat I had ever trapped, and my biggest concern was what to do next. Jo had taken other ferals to her local veterinarian who was accommodating. (I was soon to learn that many vets do not want to handle feral cats.) It was Sunday afternoon, so Jo offered to take Snow home with her overnight and then to her vet first thing in the morning.

When Jo called me the following afternoon she was clearly upset. The good news was that Snow had tested negative for Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV); a.k.a. feline AIDS, but the bad news was that our beautiful Persian’s “SNAP” test for leukemia (FeLV) was positive. If you are unfamiliar with these insidious cat diseases, here is a quick run through:


Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) and Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) can be diagnosed with a single blood test commonly referred to as the SNAP.. Without getting into the pros and cons of SNAP, (such as false-positives), let it suffice to say that many vets believe a cat should be at least six months old to obtain a conclusive test result. (A positive test result for kittens under six months should not be considered valid.) Where results are questionable additional diagnostic tests, including the Western Blot and the IFA may be administered.

Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) is becoming more prevalent around the globe and has clearly affected cats in the US. This feline virus spreads primarily through nasty bite wounds that result from fighting or rough play. Un-neutered males that love to bare claws and teeth are especially at risk. Neutering reduces hormones and the desire to spar for females or territory. The good news is that cats with FIV can live a normal life. In fact, they many never show symptoms of the illness, or not for many years. While it would be best to have FIV kitties live indoors either solo or with other FIV positives, many colony caregivers allow these cats to remain with their colony. My experience has been that if you have one FIV in the colony there are probably more.
Unfortunately, the Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) is another kettle of fish, especially for feral cats. A positive test result means that the cat has an active case of leukemia. It is possible for a cat to fight off the virus and, over time, obtain a negative test result. Veterinarians usually want to wait at least one month or more to retest. This is fine if the cat is a house pet, but if the cat is feral it may be difficult, if not impossible, to retain the animal for a month or more to retest. Another difficulty with FeLV is the relatively casual manner in which it is transmitted. The virus is secreted through a cat’s saliva, urine, feces, and blood, so it can be easily passed through food and water bowls to other colony members. FeLV cats that can not fight off the disease may become sickly and die. So….a high level of contagiousness, coupled with a short and possibly poor quality of life means that tough decisions need to be made. I, and most of the other caregivers I know feel that a FeLV adult feral should, for the welfare of the rest of the colony, be euthanized. This decision is never an easy one to make, and is almost never made without a good cry. (Please note that a house cat with FeLV and the luxury of receiving consistent veterinary care is a different matter.)

Finally, if you are interested in cat rescue and TNR work rest assured that neither FIV nor FeLV are contagious across species.

“What should we do?” I did not even know what FIV and FeLV were, much less what to do with a cat that had one of these illnesses.

“The vet says Snow can’t go back outdoors because he’s contagious to other cats, and with winter coming he’ll never survive the cold.” Jo’s voice faltered. “He recommends putting him to sleep.”

I’m not certain if it was out of personal selfishness at not wanting my very first “rescued” cat deemed a helpless case, or if it was naiveté and a lack of understanding, but I found myself completely disregarding the vet’s advice. Jo seemed to be on the same page, so we immediately thought about alternatives. Because Jo had several other cats and kittens and I had Natasha we agreed to try to find someone or group willing to take in Snow.

I contacted the local animal shelter and they gave me a list of a cat rescuers. I was thrilled! I had no idea that a network of rescuers existed in my county. I immediately began calling each one. I soon discovered that trying to find a home for a FIV/FeLV feral was like arranging a play date for a kid with a full blown case of swine flu. It wasn’t happening. Although everyone I spoke with was empathetic, I got the same response each time: ‘Sorry, we’re overwhelmed with fall kittens and have no room for a FeLV.' I called Jo with the bad news.

“I suspected as much,” she said. “I’ve already made a spot for him in my spare bedroom, away from my other cats. Besides, he’s so sweet. All he wants is to cuddle and purr,” she went on. “Who knows, he may even get better and beat the leukemia. Besides, this is no feral. Snow was once somebody’s pet.”

For me, one of the saddest things I have learned while caring for a colony and doing rescue work is that many feral cats may have been, a mere generation or two back, family pets. Pets that were never spayed or neutered and were allowed to roam at will. Snow’s case was particularly sad and puzzling because he had clearly started life out as someone's pet, and had probably gotten lost or, as sometimes happens, hitched a ride on the back of a delivery truck or moving van. (Snow’s colony is in close proximity to several trucking operations.)

With a warm bed to sleep on and regular meals Snow began to show improvement and grow stronger. He even enjoyed playing with his little cat toys. Jo described how everyday when she got home from work Snow would jump up on her lap and nestle into her arms and purr for as long as she held him. It was as if he had been on a long journey and had now returned to the life he had once been accustomed to. We were both hopeful.

Then, one evening, about six weeks after we found him, Jo arrived home to find that Snow had crawled into the back of her closet. When she picked him up he immediately began purring as usual. Yet she noticed that he felt strangely cold and limp. She held him close and talked to him as his purring grew fainter and fainter, and then he was gone. It was as if Snow had held on, waiting for Jo to come home, so he could thank her one last time for making his final days like the home he had started his life in as a little kitten.

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