Saturday, March 19, 2011

Barn Cats

My passion for horses goes back to early childhood, but my first and most enduring animal love was and still is the cat.   Some families are dog families but mine was a cat family.  Throughout my childhood we always had at least one feline in our home and to this day, every member of my immediate family has one or more cats sharing their lives.  I have five.

Now if five cats seems a little excessive to you and makes you wonder if I’m one of those crazy cat ladies, put your concerns to rest.  Considering we live on 5 acres, that’s only an average of one cat per acre!  And only three of our purring pals live inside the house with us (each adopted from the local humane society) while the other two are barn cats.  Well, sort of.  Put it this way, the two outdoor cats don’t actually live in the house with us, and they do catch mice in my barn, but they aren’t what you might think of as traditional barn cats.  In fact, they spend much of their day sprawled on a comfy chair in my heated mudroom and are more social and affectionate than your average Golden Retriever.  So let me tell you how this came to be.

Several summers ago, the mouse population in my barn reached an alarming number.  They were chewing through the Rubbermaid bins where we kept grain, building nests in bales of hay and helping themselves to the snacks that kids in my summer horse camps brought with them and stored in lunch bags on shelves in the barn.  I had just built a tack room addition onto the barn which could be used as a safe place to keep a barn cat in at night so it wouldn’t become a coyote meal, and I convinced my husband that if I got a barn cat, it would indeed stay outdoors.  Of course, it would need company, so we would need to get two. 

I located a litter of kittens in need of homes on a nearby farm, and one beautiful early June day, surprised my daughters with an outing to go pick out two of them to bring back to the farm.  I let each girl pick out and name a kitten and soon we were headed home with a pair of tabby brothers, one silver and one yellow, they named Dusty and Rusty.  We set them up with a cozy bed, food and water in the tack room and lavished them with love and affection.  A few days after their arrival, we began our first of four summer horse camps, and so the kittens were handled and adored by kids right from the get go.  As a result, they are two of the friendliest felines ever known.  In fact, when I took them to get neutered around 4 months of age, the vet commented that she had never seen such relaxed and easy going cats and that they had actually purred through the entire procedure!

As Dusty and Rusty grew, they became wonderful hunters and my mouse population declined significantly.  When the fall nights started getting chillier, we added a heating pad to their bed to keep them warm at night, and our process of rounding them up at dusk and closing them in the tack room for the night seemed to be working well.  All was going according to plan until one late fall day when we noticed that Dusty’s left eye didn’t look quite right.  That pupil seemed more dilated than the other and the whole eye seemed larger and almost bulging.  A trip to the vet’s office confirmed that the pressure was high in that eye and he was diagnosed with glaucoma – rare in cats and even more unusual in a young kitten.  We were referred to an animal eye specialist (can you say Ca-ching$?) and it was determined that he was blind in that eye and probably in a fair amount of pain.  We started him on a regimen of pills and eye drops to see if we could control the pressure, but after a couple of weeks with little or no change, we were advised that we should have the eye removed.

My first reaction to this news was one of alarm at the price tag.  When it was all said and done, this “free” barn cat was going to cost well over $1,000.  But I felt we had made a commitment to the kitty just as we had to all our animals to be their caretakers and providers, so I gulped and swallowed this bitter pill.  My next concern was that my daughter, Molly, whose kitten he was, would be upset by the prospect of her beloved Dusty soon having only one eye.  She was fairly upset and worried that he would look weird and that it would be hard for him to adjust, but I assured her that he’d adapt and that we’d all get used to it. 

The day of the operation in early December just happened to be the coldest day of the year up to that point, registering only about 5 degrees.  Dusty sailed through the procedure in his usual, easy-going manner, but when he got back to the farm for his convalescence, I just couldn’t imagine sticking him out if the frigid tack room while he was in such a state of vulnerability.  It was agreed that he would spend a couple of days recovering in our heated mudroom, and of course his brother Rusty would have to keep him company.

And so it was that my “barn” cats became “mudroom” cats.  Once they discovered the joy of being in a heated room attached to our house, where they could actually see us in the adjoining kitchen, they never spent another night in the tack room.  I’m happy to say that Dusty recovered fully and has had absolutely no trouble adapting to his one-eyed condition.  His brother, who has become quite the rolly polly fat cat, loves him just the same, and Molly even thinks he looks more distinctive and unique than before.  And they both enjoy and live up to their new nicknames, Winky and Twinky.

Life Lesson:  Animals and Kids are More Resilient Than You Might Expect

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