I am going to tell you a love story, it’s long and sappy, but it’s about a cat and more cats, and my family so I guess thats how it should be.
Meet Riff, short for Riff-Raff, a name we lovingly gave him based on his appearance when we first saw him about four years ago. He was scrawny, but big and tough; he had battle wounds all over, was missing tufts of fur and a chunk of his ear. He had the signature jowls of a big male Tom-cat, king of the neighborhood. I mean, his face was HUGE and he could hardly close his mouth because of the swelling in his cheeks. He was skiddish and would barely make eye contact with us, but he was always watching. Our neighborhood was full of strays, many of which we had fancy names for, and we left food and water out for them regularly, a little charity because we couldn’t adopt them all. We had two rescued cats already (exactly twice as many as we were allowed😬) we lived in a 450 square foot studio apartment, and I was a few months pregnant with our daughter. We simply couldn’t save any more cats, nope, not one. No way!
Well, as you may have guessed, things changed a bit. We were drawn to this mysterious black cat, and my boyfriend was determined to pet him. He would sit out there every evening talking to him as he would inch closer and closer to get to his food. I spent a lot of that time indoors away from the mosquitos during Zika times. It took months to build his trust enough to finally pat him on his big head. We fed him every day, gave him flea medicine, and he would wait for us at the back door every morning and night. Eventually, my boyfriend would just sit with him on the porch until 10:00 at night when he would have to leave him outside, and it just broke our hearts! But still, there was the one cat policy, verrry limited space, and a baby on the way. We just could-not-have-another-cat. (I laugh at this now) As the weather started getting colder, September-ish, we decided we would trap him and take him in for vaccines and to get fixed, and maybe bring him back to the neighborhood or try to find him a home somewhere. We were going on vacation for ten days, so we decided we would do it once we got back. We had our cat sitter feed him when they fed our indoor cats, as he was basically ours at this point. The day we got home he was there waiting. A couple days later, on our way to work, we are pretty sure we saw him chasing our car down the street, maybe afraid we were leaving him again 😥, then when we got home we didn’t see him for about two weeks. We were SO sad. We were so close! Did he know we were going to try to take him in? Did he think we ditched him or gave up on him? Did he give up on us? Did he get hit by a car, or stuck somewhere? It was eating us alive. We decided one day to go walk around the neighborhood, near some of the cat colonies to see if we could see him somewhere or he would see us. It felt really silly, but it was kind of a last ditch effort. I honestly thought we might find him in the road somewhere. We got all the way back to our apartment building, walked around back and eagerly glanced at our back door just wishing he would be there. Nope. I felt all the air leave our bodies, completely deflated. I looked away for a few seconds and the moment I looked back to our back steps ::POOF::, like pure fairy-movie magic, a giant black stray cat appeared, just sitting there like he was there the whole time. What in the witchcraft just happened? We couldn’t believe our eyes. And I think that’s the moment we decided we were never letting him get away from us again.
We spent the next couple weeks building his trust again and then finally took him in to the vet. I was home from work that day and my boyfriend drove him to the vet. We weren’t sure what we were going to do with him, but we were determined to help him out. I was an expecting mama, about 8 months along at that point, so I needed to know he was healthy before bringing him in to our circle or trying to find him a good home. An hour or so into the vet visit, I got a phone call from my tearful boyfriend explaining that Riff tested positive for FIV and they recommended having him euthanized or sending him to a local cat colony for FIV+ cats.. if they had room to take him. They couldn’t allow us to release him back into the neighborhood with his diagnosis. They gave us a number to call and we could just leave him at the vet and they would have him picked up, and if they had no room he may have been euthanized. Umm, what??? We were devastated. We had so many questions. We knew exactly nothing about FIV, and as it turns out that particular vet did not either. What we did know is that we were not going to let this cat die. The second I got off the phone I started Googling like a mad woman. I will try to find & site the resources I read that ultimately helped me decide it was safe to bring him home, but the jist of it was that FIV was only contagious to other cats through very deep puncture wounds from a bite. At that moment all I needed to know was that it could not spread to our other cats through being in the same room or sharing food, water or litter, which they wouldn’t for a long time anyway. I could research and deal with the rest later. I learned all of these basic facts in about 15 minutes, went online and ordered a cat condo fit for a king (it took up our entire studio apt “living room” space), and called my boyfriend back to have him schedule his neuter surgery. We would be ready for him when he came home, sans balls, and he would never spend another day of his life on the street. We never went back to that same vet, but as I write this I think maybe I should in order to help them learn what I know now about cats living with FIV.
I’m not sure when Riff’s story began, whether he ever had a loving home before living on the street, or how long he spent out there in the elements before he came to us. The vets estimated he was roughly two an a half when we captured him and took him in. That’s at least two harsh Michigan winters out in the freezing cold. Probably dozens of fights, and he sure has the battle scars to prove it. At some point, during one of those scuffles, he contracted FIV. We had a lot to learn, because this cat had a long life ahead of him.
Riff spent the first few days at home in his condo, which we called his time-share, because it was the only way to effectively keep our cats separated within our studio apartment in order to acclimate to each other, and for us to gauge whether anyone would be aggressive. We let him out when we were home and could watch the cats together, and would put him in the condo before we left the house. We quickly found out Riff, although sometimes pesky, did not have an aggressive bone in his body. I honestly have no idea how he survived on the street. He is a gigantic teddy bear. He just wanted to be loved. After a month or two we felt comfortable with the cats living communally. Our girl cat Linda and Riff still pester each other and bicker like brother and sister, but we are 100% confident he would never bite her. We bought a house when our daughter was a year old so now everyone has plenty of breathing room. Besides some respiratory issues here and there, you would never know Riff was any different than another cat..except, I am now convinced FIV+ are somehow more incredible than the rest. I’d love if someone could explain that to me! I feel like I can spot one when I meet them or see a photo and I fall in love with them all!
I love to tell my FIV+ love story any chance I get, because I know how desperately that is all I needed to hear when having to make a quick decision on Riff’s fate. What if I had read the wrong story? What if we had just listened to the vet? I can’t bare to think how many people are out there completely misinformed, and how many cats lives have been affected by it. If we can tame the roughest, toughest looking stray FIV+ Tom-cat, and incorporate him safely into our cat family of FIV- cats, in a 450 square foot crowded living space, anyone can make it happen if they think the cat is worth it.
I can’t bare to think what life would be like without our FIV+ gentle, +funny +sweet +lovable 20lb, duck footed, big needy boy, house panther Riff. He now spends his days either on my lap or sleeping next to me, getting big belly rubs, making sure no one closes any interior doors in the house without him (the horror!), trying to build the courage to lay with our wild-child daughter, befriending our guests after cautiously watching them from afar, playing with toys like an enormous kitten that never played before, and watching birds and squirrels outside (he’s afraid of the blue jays-I’d love to know the story behind that haha). I often wonder what his life was like before he found us, whether he remembers it, or where he would be if we hadn’t made the choice to take a risk that turned out to be no big risk at all.