By Kathy Mordini
In a room full of cats at an animal shelter, it’s the big personalities that tend to stand out. The cat that greets visitors at the door, carries toys in his or her mouth, or does something funny doesn’t have to wait as long to find a home.
For many cats, shelters are very scary. It’s not their home and there are too many other cats around. Shy or nervous cats tend to hide and don’t do the cute things that help their counterparts get adopted. So, they wait and wait to find a family.
What so many people don’t realize is that by overlooking the shy cat, they may be missing out on what I like to refer to as a bonus kitty—that great personality that just needs room to blossom. This is a shy or heartbroken cat just needs a chance to develop and come into his or her own.
We have a bonus kitty in our home: Ellie. When we first met her at the shelter, she was petrified. She was alone in a cage recovering from coccidia (an intestinal parasite) and she was curled into the tightest little stress ball she could manage. She wouldn’t look up, and definitely had no way to sell herself to any adopters.
It was Ellie’s good fortune that she was at Heartland Animal Shelter with her brother Max. He was also in a cage recovering from coccidia, but made sure to introduce himself by hitting my husband over the head with his massive paw. They connected and bonded. We were on the verge of adding just Max to the family when I looked at the Petfinder profile and saw that he was half of a bonded pair. The petrified calico in the neighboring cage—Ellie—was his other half.
The cat volunteers at the shelter said that the calico had been doing a little better while she was in the same cage as her brother. She’d gotten scared and stressed since they split them up while they recovered from their spay and neuter surgeries and infection. Since we were there adopting a kitty because half of our tightly bonded pair had died just months earlier, I didn’t have the heart to leave her behind.
When she moved into the house, she took up residence under the bed in our spare bedroom. She started to come out for food and gradually came out to play more frequently as she started to get used to us. When we finally let her out to explore in the house, she did what any shy cat would do—found another bed to hide under in another room.
Slowly, Ellie started to creep out from hiding. She would sit around the corner from the great room and watch how we interacted with our senior cat Scarlett. I would catch her, out of the corner of my eye, watching Scarlett and me during lap time, feeding time, and basic cuddling time. One night, out of the blue, Scarlett was curled on my lap while I was watching TV. Ellie quietly jumped on the couch and snuggled in next to me.
All was fine until she encroached a bit too much into Scarlett’s space. A quick kitty death glare from the queen of the house and Ellie backed off for at least the time being. Gradually, Scarlett started to accept Ellie. And soon, Ellie was just a few steps behind Scarlett during daily routines in the house.
Eventually, she was greeting me with Scarlett when I came home from work, meowing until she got her own cuddle time. She would ask for treats on her own. Ellie also got her timing down at lap time. She would wait for Scarlett to settle in before quietly jumping up next to me to snuggle without incurring the wrath of the queen.
Under the watchful eyes of Scarlett, Ellie blossomed into a very affectionate, friendly, and playful kitty. When company comes over, Max greets them at the door, while Ellie spies on them from the middle level of the cat condo. About an hour after visitors arrive, our beautiful longhaired calico cat just materializes into the middle of the action, like she’s been there all along.
Our shy girl was out of her shell. However, she didn’t take over as queen of the house until the day Scarlett abdicated her thrown at the ripe old age of 19 ½. On the day Scarlett died, this very affectionate cat—our Ellie—cuddled up and purred with us and refused to leave us alone as we dealt with our broken hearts.
In the two years since we said goodbye to our Scarlett, Ellie has channeled her inner calico. She is loving and very affectionate, but also very demanding. Ellie the Queen really shines first thing in the morning. She jumps onto the bed, climbs over me, and plops down next to my husband for her morning pet. Then, she returns to my side of the bed and cuddles next to me, tucking her head under my chin.
Before long, she is pacing at the foot of the bed demanding to be fed, meowing her short clipped, “Feed me now” meow. She follows me to the bathroom where I get my robe and slippers, dancing around my feet, meowing all the way. Her tail is straight up and just the top third wags back and forth in quick swishes.
She will meow until I pick her up. Then she’ll meow a few more times to remind me to move a bit faster as we head down the hall for gourmet food time. She’s back to offer her beauty tips as I continue to get ready for work in the morning. She cuddles next to me when I write, drags out toys for playtime, and is the grand champion beggar for treats.
When I see how deeply Ellie loves us, I understand the heartbreak she must have felt when she lost her original family. Her kitty heart was broken just like so many other abandoned kitties at the shelter. She lost the only home she knew, her family, her life. When we gave her a second chance, she truly blossomed by letting her guard down around us and deciding it was okay to love us that much too. I know our original bonus kitty played a big roll in helping her come around.
Our shy girl has come full circle and is truly in charge of the house. I just wish that more people would give the shy cat a chance the next time they add a cat to their home. You never know what personality is just waiting to shine through.
Kathy Mordini is a writer who loves to channel her inner Cat Woman when focusing on cat rescue. She made it her mission as a community outreach coordinator at a no-kill shelter to promote cat adoption – especially adults, bonded pairs and seniors. One of her cats Max is a certified therapy cat that loves visiting nursing homes and listening to kids read. She covers cat issues and animal rescue for Examiner.com.