The Cat That Came For Christmas

An abandoned cat finds a new home, and brings her own gifts…

The Cat That Came For Christmas
The cat, sitting next to my laptop as I write about her

An abandoned cat finds a new home, and brings her own gifts…

The evenings had drawn in so much by mid-December that our Sunday walk in the forest was ending in darkness, with nobody else around. Mud was caked around our walking boots, and the only sound was the squelching of each step.

Arriving home, we stopped by the shed to get some firewood — and it was then that we heard another sound.

A distinctly plaintive meow.

We paused, and heard it again, and again. Through the darkness, a timid young tabby cat tentatively approached. She was shaking, and nervously looking behind her between each few steps towards us. When she reached us, she wove herself between our legs, rubbing her head against our jeans.

Still she kept looking anxiously back towards the forest.

What had made her so scared that she ran towards strangers for safety? Why was she so nervous about what was back there in the forest? Maybe she’d been chased by a fox, or had simply got very lost for the first time. Still, it was odd that she didn’t have any mud on her paws considering how caked in the stuff our boots were, and how spattered our jeans had become.

We stroked her awhile, waiting for her to get bored of humans and be on her way — but she stuck right by us.

Eventually we headed inside, expecting her to be on her way, but she trotted alongside — eagerly pushing through the gap in the door as we opened it. Oh well, she can calm down here for a bit. We left the door ajar so she could get out as soon as she was ready. But she didn’t go near it, choosing instead to explore the flat and then find a warm lap to sit and have a wash on.

I’ll just check online for any postings about lost cats… Erm, excuse me…

We searched on Google, lost-pet sites, and social media to see if there were any postings from someone looking for a lost cat in the area — but didn’t find any that matched.

Eventually we figured she wasn’t making any move for the door herself, so we’d have to be a bit more proactive.

Cats never stray too far, and there are only a few streets here, surrounded by forest. If we took her out and walked the neighbourhood, it wouldn’t take long to find somewhere she’d recognise and want to go her own way.

We picked her up and carried her outside.

She became instantly terrified once we got beyond the front door, shaking and meowing plaintively again. Her head darted around trying to take in the sights and sounds and threats. We’d look after her, though, and she’d feel better when we got her home. We pressed on.

But nowhere seemed to spark a sense of familiarity in her, and she didn’t want to dart off into any of the gardens or houses. We even knocked on a few of the doors that had cat flaps, but all felines were present and correct.

So once more we ended up home, with the cat. She finally relaxed again, found a spot to wash in, and then curled up to sleep in my lap.

The cat, anxiously looking for home

It was getting late now, and we realised we were going to have a guest for the night. My girlfriend nipped out to buy some cat food and litter, while I continued the search online, designed a ‘found cat’ poster to print out the next day, and put up ‘found cat’ notices on the online message boards.

The cat used the litter eagerly, and then devoured the food. Finally it was bedtime for all.

Maybe it’s time for another nap?

We woke in the morning to find the cat curled up on the bed by our feet, looking like she always slept there. We hesitantly explored the flat — but there were no claw marks down the sofa, and no presents around the carpet. Relief.

In fact, she seemed to be an incredibly easy cat. Quiet, calm, friendly — and house-trained.

She seemed very healthy too.

She must have a home where people were missing her. But again on Monday, searching lost pet sites (when the cat would get out of the way of my laptop) brought up no matches, and there were no lost cat posters in the neighbourhood.

We put up our ‘found cat’ posters, posted on some more message boards, and called the local organiser of the Cats Protection League for advice. She was fantastically helpful about ways to spread the word, and how to take care of this sleepy (very sleepy) bundle of fur.

On her advice, I did something I never thought I would do in my life: I joined a cat-lovers group on Facebook. People turned out to be both normal, lovely, and very helpful! The whole group was activated to spread the word and help get the cat home, and we got lots of advice in the meantime.

While all this was going on, it seemed the cat had settled right into her temporary home. She was eating well, sleeping well, and seemed to lack any nervousness or shyness. The only thing that seemed to scare her was any movement outside, particularly someone coming to the front-door.

We tried getting her to play, for some exercise — as we’d been advised not to let her outside for now. She would participate a little, but really didn’t seem to have any stalking or hunting skills or be used to playing much. Then after a few minutes she’d just want to rest again.

The more we got to know her, the more we began to think she was an indoor-only pet who had never been outside.

In between searching lost pet sites, putting up found cat notices and calling Cats Protection, the cat managed to fit in yet another nap.

By the end of Monday we’d had no luck in finding any sign of where this cat had come from. The Cats Protection League advised that in this case the best thing to do was to take her to the nearest vets who could check if she had a microchip, and track her owners down that way.

When I’d had cats as a child microchips hadn’t been a thing, so I researched them online, and found that you might be able to tell by feeling for a tiny capsule under the flesh between the shoulder-blades. Sure enough, I could.

It looked like we’d be able to get her home.

We borrowed a cat basket from a kind member of the Facebook group, bundled the cat in and set off. She started meowing in a heartbreaking way as soon as we were outside the front door again. It wouldn’t be far to the vets though and maybe she could be home tonight.

As we got a short distance from the end of our road, I suddenly realised something and pointed out to my girlfriend: “Look, the part of the forest she came out of is where the car park is, rather than in the direction of the houses.”

But why would that be?

Once at the vets we were seen quickly by a nurse, and told her the story. She waved the magic wand over the back of the cats neck.

“Yes, she has a chip. I’ll just go check the details on the computer.”

She stepped out of the room and we waited, with the cat looking out of the basket at us and meowing.

When the nurse returned she told us that she’d got the owners details, and the surprise was that she lived some distance away. More than would seem likely for a cat to have travelled on its own. The nurse had phoned her, and the owner simply said “I can’t deal with this right now. I’ll call tomorrow”.

“That’s odd,” I said, “If it’s inconvenient for her to collect the cat, we could deliver her this evening.”

“No, there’s no need for that,” she said dismissively. “Do you want to say your goodbyes?”

“Goodbyes? Surely it sounds like we need to keep looking after the cat for another night?”

“No, she is the legal property of someone else and, now she has been handed in, we have a legal requirement to keep her safe. I need to take her away now.”

“So, you’ll put her in a cage?” I asked. “She’s had a bit of a traumatic experience and has seemed very settled in our flat. I think it’d be best for her to stay there until the owners can collect or we can deliver her home.”

“I’m not allowed to release her to anyone except the legal owner.”

We asked her to phone the owner and offer that we’d take care of the cat at home until she could be collected and would happily deliver her home. She reluctantly agreed but went and phoned out of our earshot and came back saying the owner had said no, she wanted the cat to stay at the vets.

And with that the cat was whisked away from us, and placed in a cage in a backroom. We felt like we’d been treated as cat-kidnappers that the vet had fortunately rescued her from.

I phoned the vet the next day, Tuesday: “Yes, the owner phoned again, and is coming to collect the cat tonight,” they said.

And on Wednesday I called, again, but managed to get to speak to someone who was much more kind and helpful, and became our main contact from then on (and did a great job): “The owner didn’t come to collect her last night. She says that actually she’d given the cat away to her sister. She’ll talk to her sister and get her to phone us. She wouldn’t give us the sister’s details. We’re beginning to be concerned that the owner doesn’t want the cat.”

No update on Thursday as our contact at the vets was on a day off.

On Friday: “The owner has stopped answering her phone or returning calls.”

So, the evidence was building to suggest the cat had been abandoned. Apparently abandonment is fairly common when cats grow out of the kitten stage, and an increasing problem now that there are some tough economic times, and people face the costs of food and vets bills.

The picture emerged that she’d probably been driven to the public car park in the forest, walked a little way in, and then abandoned. There is a back path to our small apartment building that leads out to the forest just there, and that’s where she’d emerged from, meowing at us. The owners had either not known about the microchip being put in, or had forgotten about it (the cat is three years old), and so had probably been surprised when they got the vet’s call. The cat seems to be used to wearing a collar, but didn’t have one on when found, so that had probably been removed.

Meanwhile, the cat had been kept in a cage all week. We tried to get the vet to release her to us until the situation with the owner could be resolved, but they had to follow a procedure: They would write to the owner, who would then have seven days to claim the cat, before she would be passed to an animal charity.

Saturday, Sunday: No progress. Monday: same.

It was on Tuesday 20th December — just over a week after we’d taken her to the vets — that the breakthrough finally came. The vet received a call from the owner saying that she didn’t want the cat anymore and “it can be put down”. The vet got her to sign the necessary paperwork to put the cat in the legal charge of a cat charity associated with the veterinary practice. The charity, overrun as they all are by abandoned pets before Christmas, asked us to be a foster home for a couple of months.

Once again, the members of the local cat group on Facebook stepped up and gave us lots of advice and encouragement to prepare us for looking after her for a while longer.

At the vets, we were led to the backroom. The cat was in a small cage, big enough for a cat basket, which she was curled up sleeping on top of, and next to that a litter tray, but that was it. She seemed to lack energy or interest. It was easy to get her into the basket.

The vets had given her a health check up, vaccinations, and our contact there also kindly supplied us with some food, and then we were on our way. She had been really lovely and helpful to us, ever since we managed to get to speak with her.

Once home, the cat livened up again. She wandered around the flat, tail high, brushing her cheek against any surface she could find. Re-exploring the place and wanting lots of attention and stroking.

After a while of active exploration, she climbed up into my lap, wanted to be stroked for a while longer, and then slept.

It’s now two months since the cat found us, and she’s settled in well. She came with us to my parents house for Christmas, and made herself at home there too.

In between an obsessive amount of sleeping, she now plays a lot — and her hunting skills have developed well. She runs, jumps, rolls and leaps high in the air. When she first arrived she might play for a few minutes at a time, but now she can be rolling around and jumping for twenty or thirty minutes.

She’s still rubbish at stalking though. We waggle some pretend prey on the end of a string, she fixes it in her sights, crouches low, wiggles her bum a few times in a comical way — and darts forward towards the prey. But then she stops just short, right in front of it, sniffs it a bit and prods it tentatively with a paw, before wandering off.

And she has such a lovely disposition. Our neighbour has a one year old daughter, and brought her round to see the cat. The cat was completely unfazed by this wobbly, un-coordinated small human-being with limbs that might lunge in her direction at unpredictable times. The cat just sat calmly next to her and let a small hand pat her on the head like a dog, and wave little fingers in front of her mouth without incident.

That disposition seems to extend to her interactions with us too. 2016 ended with a difficult health diagnosis for me, and I’ve had some nights recently when my health has made it uncomfortable and difficult to sleep. Whereas the cat sleeps most nights on the sofa or the spare bed, she seems to know those nights when I can’t sleep, comes to find me, jump up onto the bed and curls up in my lap. There’s something very comforting about that, almost meditative. The next thing I know, it’s the morning and I’m waking up after having slept through the night — and the cat is still in exactly the same position in my lap.

But we have a difficult decision to make now. Cats aren’t just for Christmas.

It’s early February, and as I write this, snow is gently blowing against the window of my study.

When we offered to provide a foster home for her, it was discussed as being until the end of this month. We’re beginning to get messages from the cat charity to find out if we’re considering adopting the cat full time, or whether they should start advertising for a new home for her.

We’d never planned to get a cat. We both work hard (though my work is mostly work from home, which is handy). We want to travel a lot.

But the cat kind of fits in, and it feels like she has made a home here.

We have to decide in the next week or so what we’ll do. And either way, it’ll be an incredibly tough decision. We’ve got a lot of thinking and talking to do.

Whatever the long term decision, we feel lucky to have been found by the cat, and able to give her a good home for Christmas, and we’re very grateful for all the gifts she brought for us.

Are you still talking about me?

Notes: I’ve omitted the cats name and any mention of our location, as I don’t want to do anything that might make the former owners identifiable. We’ve no idea what circumstances they faced in making the decision they did, so we can’t criticise. The vets did a great job (though I wasn’t too happy with the approach of junior nurse who checked us in or the system they have to work within). The Cats Protection League local representative, and the local Facebook cat group members were all extremely helpful, and supportive. Thanks to everyone that’s been part of taking care of the cat.