Sunday, May 23, 2010

Like humans, cats suffer psychological traumas as well as physical ones. And like humans, these psychological injuries often are not as easily quantified as physical illnesses are. Tests reveal whether a cat has FIV or feline leukemia. High temperatures signal an infection. Bite wounds and broken bones are obvious.

But what do we know about the terrors a cat has faced on the streets? About his heartbreak and confusion at being dumped by owners he thought were his forever family? Or about how freezing temperatures and the constant struggle for food affect his spirit, even if his body survives?

Gabriel, a beautiful and gentle orange tabby, is physically healthy, despite his time as a stray. His eyes and ears are clear, his fur well groomed and chamois-soft, his appetite good. But his initial fearful posture, hypervigilance, and strong desire to hide told me that living on the streets was far from a neutral experience for him. Gabriel must have seen and heard many things from his broken window in the abandoned house where he was rescued. But few of them probably instructed him on the goodness of humans or the fairness of life.

No one, of course, can take away Gabriel's past traumas. But we who now know this special cat can help him heal and move on. We can replace negative past memories with new experiences, ones that reach that part of Gabriel's heart that once loved humans and wants to again. And that part of his heart is there, even though no medical test or instrument can measure it.

How do I know? I know because after days of avoiding me and shutting down from all physical touch, Gabriel bumped his head into my outstretched hand two mornings ago. "Give me a few rubs," his simple action said. "I'm beginning to remember how much enjoy that." And then he closed his eyes to savor the experience.

I know because after days of taking no interest in playing with me while I romped with his companion cat, Gabriel suddenly stood up from his corner, stretched his legs, and jumped down to join us. To see him transform from a huddled pile of orange fur to a bounding, pouncing, chirping bird chaser made my eyes fill with tears.

I knew then that his spirit remains intact. Which means that his willingness to love and trust will follow.