The crazy cat that helped me cope with cancer: The life-affirming story of a woman saved in her darkest hour by the love of a daft – and VERY timid – rescue moggy

|

UPDATED:

00:41 GMT, 9 July 2012

No two ways about it: I was looking at a very odd-looking cat. Her stringy coat was an unappealing muddy brown and her eyes were a frog-like green.

As for her face, it had a distinct line down the nose, separating the right black half from the left tortoiseshell half.

She wasn’t just odd-looking, she was also one of the most frightened cats I’d ever come across. The photograph I’d just taken showed her cowering in a cat pen, her ears flat on her skull and her eyes dilated with terror. Her hair stood out in spikes, like a cartoon cat.

A rescue cat in so many ways: Tilly the cat with owner Celia Haddon

A rescue cat in so many ways: Tilly the cat with owner Celia Haddon

Little wonder that no one had wanted to adopt Tilly in the 18 months she’d been with my local branch of Cats Protection, where – as a lifelong cat-lover, I had been a volunteer for several years. Who wants an ugly cat who shrinks away from humans

Like a bed-blocker in a hospital, Tilly had been taking up space for too long – indeed, some rescue organisations would have had her put down.

So, in June 2010, I decided to make her my project. I’d just finished a science degree in applied animal behaviour and was keen to practise my new skills. I doubted I’d learn to love such an unlovable cat – but I was keen to work on her behaviour in a detached, scientific way.

If I could teach her to like humans, she might then stand a chance of finding a new home to adopt her. At least, that was the idea – but major problems lay ahead.

One was my 84-year-old husband, who was in hospital with a number of complaints, including prostate cancer.

Ronnie is the love of my life and we’d been together for more than 40 years. I hated seeing him in hospital, particularly a geriatric ward. In my eyes, he was still the dashing Fleet Street war correspondent I first met, not an old man. Was I mad, I asked myself, to take on a difficult cat when my husband was so ill

As it was, I was so worried about Ronnie I couldn’t sleep at night – and Tilly was likely to make things worse.

Once I got her home, she instantly raced under the bed in the spare room and froze against the wall. For the next two days, her food and litter tray remained untouched.

This little brown cat was clearly very disturbed. Fortunately, by the third day she’d eaten her food and used the tray. She’d been holding back out of sheer terror.

Tilly was adopted by owner Celia after 18 months in the local branch of pet home Cats Protection

Tilly was adopted by owner Celia after 18 months in the local branch of pet home Cats Protection

Maybe the poor little thing was feral. All I knew was she’d been rescued aged four months, sick and flea-infested, from a barn where she lived with numerous other cats.

On day four, I lay on my stomach and peered under the bed: she was still crouched motionless. Rolling a few cat treats towards her just made her shrink more tightly against the wall.

The following day, the treats were still there. In her mind, they’d been contaminated by the touch of this frightening human.

It was time to change tack: I decided to stop all attempts to build a relationship. I didn’t look at her. I didn’t try to make nice little noises. I didn’t roll any more cat treats. Thus began a long time of cat invisibility. I knew of people who had tamed adult feral cats, but it had taken three or four years. Did I have the patience

Tilly was still invisible when Ronnie came home from hospital and moved into a bedroom downstairs, because he could no longer manage the stairs. I had a sick husband downstairs and a crazy cat upstairs.

A week or two later, we began to notice that shredded pieces of newspaper were appearing in different rooms, and wastebins were being overturned.

‘She’s like a vampire,’ said Ronnie. ‘She only comes out at night. I’d better get myself a crucifix in case she goes for my throat.’

A few nights later, I woke with a start at 3am, with a powerful and unpleasant feeling of being watched. It was like a horror movie when the eerie music plays.

I couldn’t see my stalker, but I knew she was there.

Of course, I should have felt delighted that Tilly was on the move – but I felt a waft of fear. What if she sprang on the bed and attacked me

Night after night, the silent watcher returned. It was like having a ghost in the house – unseen, but always there. Then the noises started, in the dead of night. The scamper of paws down the stairs. The rustle of paper. The occasional thump.

The invisible cat was audible.

So I left little balls of newspaper around to see if they’d attract her interest. When I found them in the morning, they would be in a different area of the room. She’d been playing! This frightened and lonely cat was enjoying herself, albeit at a time when no humans were awake.

Rescue: Celia says Tilly saved her from the fear of fighting cancer - and from the legacy of a cruel father

Rescue: Celia says Tilly saved her from the fear of fighting cancer – and from the legacy of a cruel father

One night I was in bed reading when I saw her. She was sitting in the doorway. After about two minutes, during which I hardly dared breathe, she retreated to her room.

The following night, Ronnie felt his toes being softly tickled. ‘I sat up gingerly and saw a small brown furry face with George Bush eyes staring back at me. Then she went scuttering off,’ he reported.

Tilly, not I, was setting the agenda. She may have been a scruffy, scared little cat, but she had that innate feeling of superiority to humans found in all felines.

More than two months passed and she was still only semi-visible, though she’d started emerging during the day. If I so much as glanced at her, she responded with terror. I was on the edge of giving up.

Then it happened: the moment that changed everything. I was again in bed reading when she suddenly appeared 6ft away. But this time, she rolled over on to her side.

She was performing what cat scientists call ‘the social roll’ – a signal to come and play. I didn’t dare get up or move towards her, and she soon walked away. However, I had a glimmer of hope.

The next stage in her rehab was to try to lure her nearer by giving her treats. When I saw her standing at her safe distance (about 10ft), I’d throw a couple of cat biscuits towards her.

Unfortunately, the mere movement of my arms was so frightening that she’d run away immediately. Sometimes, she’d disappeared before the biscuits had left my hand. I began to wonder if people had thrown stones at her in her previous life.

To make myself seem less threatening, I decided to lie down on the floor and roll the treats towards her. That didn’t work either. I was 66 years old, so getting down to floor level took too long. /07/08/article-2170689-13C84B5F000005DC-787_634x389.jpg” width=”634″ height=”389″ alt=”Celia, pictured in her Oxfordshire cottage with Tilly, who was terrified of her owner when they first met” class=”blkBorder” />

Celia, pictured in her Oxfordshire cottage with Tilly, who was terrified of her owner when they first met

Cats are meant to be completely carnivorous, but I seemed to own one who was hooked on carbs.

Once, I cooked a fillet steak for Ronnie and offered what he couldn’t manage to Tilly. She wouldn’t touch it. Clearly she’d survived as a kitten on bread and potatoes.

Meanwhile, she was rewarding me with presents from the garden. The first was a tiny, quick-moving shrew, followed by one live mouse a week.

But while Tilly flourished, I was becoming more and more exhausted. Ronnie’s advanced cancer was in remission, but he was undergoing a series of health crises, emerging from each a little weaker.

Celia Haddon. To order a copy for 7.49 (including P&P), call 0843 382 0000.