Inspired by kittens

Two kittens with a neurological condition called cerebellar hypoplasia help girl with cerebral palsy gain confidence and become an advocate for them.
By Christelle L. Del Prete

Popcorn and Cheddar are barely five months old but these kittens, who both have a neurological condition, have already been through quite a lot in their lives. They’ve gone from homeless and at risk of dying in a shelter to beloved family pets. But what’s really extraordinary is how they’ve transformed the life of a young girl.

Michele Clock of New Hampshire is a brain injury survivor, and her middle school-age daughter, Bayleigh, has cerebral palsy. Two years ago, Bayleigh lost her beloved adopted kitty. When Michele began looking for cats in need of homes, she learned about Popcorn and Cheddar.

Though Michele didn’t know it at the time, her decision to adopt the siblings would help her daughter in ways neither of them could have imagined.

Popcorn and Cheddar, kittens with cerebellar hypoplasia

Signs of neurological problems in cats

The little orange tabbies started showing signs of neurological problems shortly after they were born. A shelter vet determined that they have cerebellar hypoplasia (CH). The condition can range in severity from a minor wobble in a cat’s walk to extreme difficulty moving around.

Popcorn and Cheddar are independent and can get around on their own. Although eating and using the litter box can get a bit messy, they also manage that quite well. But they don’t move or walk like other kittens. Although they’ll likely get better at navigating their environment as they get bigger and stronger, it isn’t a condition they’ll outgrow.

Learn more about cerebellar hypoplasia in cats

Cheddar also has a visual condition that’s left her with poor depth perception. She is easily startled when fast-moving objects or toys appear suddenly in her peripheral vision. Meanwhile, her brother Popcorn has a slight head wobble that sometimes makes it look like he’s vibrating.

Popcorn and Cheddar, kittens with cerebellar hypoplasia, playing with an iPad

Kittens with cerebellar hypoplasia come to Best Friends

As adorable as they were, Popcorn and Cheddar had little chance of being adopted from a busy city shelter. Luckily, the shelter is a Best Friends No More Homeless Pets Network partner. They reached out for help, and the kittens came to the Sanctuary when they were two months old.

It didn’t take Popcorn and Cheddar long to come into their own in a loving Best Friends foster home. They needed small accommodations, such as a low-profile litter box for easy access and to be kept safe from hazards like stairs. Besides that, they acted like any other kittens, playing enthusiastically with toys and wrestling with each other. They also began developing distinct personalities.

"Popcorn really throws himself at the world," says Cat World caregiver Tina Sylvester, who fostered the kittens. As for Cheddar, "The second you start petting her, she starts purring."

Popcorn and Cheddar, kittens with cerebellar hypoplasia, playing in the grass

A special home for neurological kittens

Cheddar being carried in a bagAlthough they did well in their foster home, Popcorn and Cheddar still needed a forever home — one with people who could understand their physical challenges and give them all the love they deserve. The stars aligned when Popcorn and Cheddar went home with Michele and Bayleigh.

A lifelong animal lover, Bayleigh was excited about Popcorn and Cheddar’s arrival. That the kittens are fun and full of life was no surprise. They absolutely love cardboard boxes, and they never tire of the "jungle" of bells and feather toys strung for them under the tables by Michele and Bayleigh. They’ve learned to expertly and safely navigate the first floor of the Clocks’ home. They’re even being trained on leash and harness so they can go outside for walks and feel the grass beneath their feet while watching butterflies.

Having Popcorn and Cheddar around has been a joy for both mother and daughter. But neither of them could have guessed just how much insight into life’s challenges that a pair of kittens with cerebellar hypoplasia would provide to Bayleigh, as well empathy for other people with serious challenges.

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An advocate for Popcorn and Cheddar

When Bayleigh was born, the doctors didn’t think she would ever walk on her own. But she proved them wrong when she learned not only to walk, but to run. Her personal experience inspired Bayleigh to become an advocate for Popcorn and Cheddar. When people ask if the kittens will ever be able to walk the way other cats do, Bayleigh speaks right up and says, "You never know."

Michele says, "Bayleigh has been drawing similarities between her developmental milestones and how the kittens are developing. The kittens have given her an outlet to talk about her own feelings through her advocacy for their developmental journey. She is starting to talk about how it was hard for her to learn to walk and run, and how she has a hard time keeping up."

Through caring for the kittens, Bayleigh is also learning to have more patience with herself and with others, including with Michele, who has a visual impairment that is a lot like Cheddar's. "Teaching Bayleigh how to present visual information to Cheddar, such as new toys and food, has helped Bayleigh to understand my vision better. She is now being more patient with me," says Michele.

Cheddar the kitten playing in the grass

Kittens help young girl gain confidence

The kittens have also done wonders for Bayleigh in helping her overcome social anxieties. For years, Bayleigh was afraid to introduce herself, walk into new places or speak with people in public settings. But the "twins," as she and Michele call Popcorn and Cheddar, have made her braver. She recently shared their story with the New Hampshire Association for the Blind, as well as the New Hampshire Brain Injury Association.

Bayleigh’s progress means she is one step closer to her goal of getting a service dog to help her get around. Since the kittens came into their lives, she’s been proving to her mother that she’s getting braver in unfamiliar situations with new people.

"Popcorn and Cheddar have opened a new door for my daughter. It is a new level of acceptance and confidence for her. She is starting to live life on life's terms ... as much as any middle school girl can," Michele says.

Popcorn and Cheddar may never know how much joy, love, acceptance and patience they’ve brought to their new family. But it’s something that Michele and Bayleigh can never forget. Even when the siblings are just being typical, silly kittens — playing with toys and wrestling with each other — they are truly extraordinary to the people who love them the most.

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Cheddy snuggling with Bayleigh

Photos by Molly Wald and Michelle Clock