A shy but spicy cat and the family that adores him

Phoenix the cat, lying upside down with paws up, on a carpet
Phoenix went from wanting nothing to do with people (when he first came to Best Friends) to finding a home where all he has to do is be himself.
By Lindsay Hutton

Spicy. Enigma. These words describe the beautiful flame point cat who arrived at Best Friends in Northwest Arkansas from the Russellville Animal Shelter. The team at Best Friends named him Phoenix because of the distinctive, warm cinnamon-colored splotches that resemble flames on his nose, paws and ears.

The hope was that Phoenix would rise, like the immortal bird, into a new life where he was happy, comfortable and in a home. His past, whatever it was, had left him scared and unable to trust people. When he arrived, says Best Friends lifesaving and care specialist Sarah Lorenzen, he shot out of his crate across the room and into a little cubby, terrified.

While he was in a cat tower, the team completed his admissions procedures of microchipping and administering vaccinations, a few of the many steps taken to make Phoenix as comfortable as possible and try to win his trust. But after this initial examination, his attitude was something along the lines of “Nobody is touching me again.” Slinking around and withdrawn, he spent his days going from hidey place to hidey place.

[Shy cat finds her perfect match after months of medical ups and downs]

From that first examination, the team could see that Phoenix had been declawed, which caused them to wonder if he might be in pain. And although X-rays and a closer look by a veterinarian showed nothing of concern, from that point on Phoenix doubled down on freezing everyone out.

Shy cat makes progress

The team tried many things to help Phoenix feel comfortable. Early on, if there were any plans to move him, they made sure to utilize his tower as a makeshift crate because that’s where he fled when they came for him. He “crated” himself to avoid the extra stress of being handled. Over his tower they placed towels sprayed with Feliway, which mimics cat pheromones to reduce stress. In addition to trying to make the space more inviting, they worked to show Phoenix that people could be trusted.

Sarah tried petting Phoenix with a small comb attached to the end of a stick. He hated it. She tried catnip but that didn’t seem to have any effect on him. She tried treat tubes, a trust-building tool she usually has good luck with. Phoenix accepted the treat but only on his own terms. He wouldn’t lick the paste directly from the tube or from a gloved hand (like many frightened cats or kittens will). Instead, the paste had to be squeezed out and Sarah had to step back before he would come and gobble it up.

Any progress generally occurred on Phoenix’s terms. If it was quiet, he might wander into view and allow himself to be petted. But when he was done, Sarah says, he was done. He hissed. He dished out swats.

Sarah notes, however, that those moments of sweet before spicy were important. The first time Phoenix closed his eyes and bumped his head into her hand, she melted; however, she knew that the next time she tried to pet him, he might have nothing to do with her. But still, that positive head bump meant that he was more comfortable.

Helping other cats come out of their shells

Gradually, Phoenix warmed up. He could still be spicy, but he hid less. He hung out in full view on the top shelf of a tower. He had always been good with the other cats, but now he was the comforter-in-chief for the new, shy cats.

He allowed them into his hidey holes (and he knew all the best ones), cuddled with them and helped them settle in. “He was their protector until they felt welcome enough to go explore the cat room,” Sarah says. It seemed a contradiction that he wouldn’t come out of his own shell.

Sometimes, when snuggled up to another cat, he would briefly allow someone to touch him. And sometimes he would slow blink, all love and affection, and then the next second be poised to strike out. “He was definitely a handful and definitely an enigma,” Sarah says.

[Timid tuxedo cat finally opens up]

Sarah and the team were worried. Phoenix couldn’t be a barn cat because his declawing had taken away his defenses. And while there were signs that, with time, he might trust people more, he didn’t receive potential adopters well (and there were quite a few). He hadn’t warmed up to anyone.

Although they hoped that one day Phoenix would feel comfortable and safe enough to show his sweet side to new people, they weren’t sure he could. Then one day, after Phoenix had been at Best Friends for two months, the Merryman family came to see him.

Understanding adopters have the right touch

Buffie and Josh Merryman have two young children and two young dogs. Everyone except the dogs came to meet Phoenix. Sarah cautioned that Phoenix was particular about who he allowed to pet him, that he had a spicy streak and that he would likely never be a cuddly, social cat.

Undeterred, the Merrymans entered the cat room and took turns approaching Phoenix. And all four of them were able to touch Phoenix, who was suddenly acting very unlike the Phoenix everyone had known. He happily pushed into their hands. He accepted treats.

Putting Phoenix into a carrier to go home with the Merrymans, however, was a bit of an ordeal. He got upset — really upset. But it didn’t faze Buffie and Josh, who were committed to giving him time and love. They took him home and let him settle in however he felt most comfortable. While he was secluded and shy for the first month (mainly hiding underneath the bed in the master bedroom), Buffie wasn’t worried. She and Josh had previously known a cat a little like this.

Back before they were married, Buffie noticed a cat hanging around outside Josh’s house. The only thing to eat in the house at the time was pizza, so Buffie broke up some of the toppings and put them out in a bowl. The cat, eventually named Tex, accepted.

Tex was a spitfire, too. He didn’t start out cuddly and social but instead was more of a feisty cat who stood his ground. “It was really neat to see him calm down over the years and trust me (and the dogs) we had back then,” Buffie says. “He was with us when we had babies. It was neat to watch him over a lifetime.”

It’s been five years since they lost Tex. During Buffie’s home visits for work, she kept noticing cats. It made her think about adopting one. Josh was on board. So, she started looking on social media for adoption opportunities. When she saw Phoenix, she knew that he was the one. The post said something about him not being a cuddly cat. “I just had that feeling of if it’s not us, it might not be anybody,” Buffie says. “I had this feeling that he needed to be mine.”

Just like she wasn’t stingy with pizza toppings, Buffie isn’t stingy with her time. She didn’t expect an instant transformation. “I don’t care if it takes years,” she says. “We’re his family. This is his home.”

Baby steps for spicy cat make a big difference

Little by little, Phoenix has blossomed in his new home. He still hangs out a lot in the master bedroom but not just under the bed. The whole room is his and he sits by the window during the day. When Buffie’s not there, he sleeps on her side of the bed near the pillow. And when the kids come to visit, they bring his favorite snack. He may still hiss at the dogs a bit, but not at people.

[Shy kitty finds her happy place in a new home]

As Phoenix has begun to venture out into the rest of the house and feel more comfortable, the bond between him and Buffie has strengthened. As the weeks progress, there are new milestones of trust: when he started purring, when he first let Buffie pick him up and when he started playing with her ponytail holders (which she leaves all over for him to find and bat around). It seems Phoenix has, like the mythical bird, risen into a new and happy life.

“I’m just so happy for him,” Sarah says. “There’s a reason when cats are spicy. Something happened or didn’t happen that made them that way. But no matter how spicy they are, they’re all deserving.”

Photo courtesy of Buffie Merryman

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