Teenager adopts a cat who has just months to live

Selfie of Rikki-Lynn holding Van Gogh the cat
Rikki-Lynn fell in love with a senior, scruffy cat named Van Gogh, and her family gave him a home for the last months of his life.
By Sarah Thornton

Life for Van Gogh wasn’t always easy. That much was clear from his face. At 12 years old, he ended up in a Utah shelter, and its staff saw that he was missing most of his teeth, along with one of his ears. And the remaining ear wasn’t in great shape, either. His fur was scruffy, flew everywhere and was thinned out around his eyes. On top of that, he had a weakened immune system due to the feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV).

It was precisely his unique, however, that immediately endeared him to his foster family-to-be. And for however world-weary he may have looked on the outside, Van Gogh’s personality was as soft as they come. The Ganthers knew he would be part of their family from the moment they met him. And after his diagnosis of untreatable cancer told them their time together would be limited, they only loved him harder.

Finding the one

Sixteen-year-old Rikki-Lynn Ganther wanted to adopt a cat, and since she and her family lived in a town just south of Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, she knew right where to look. Scrolling through the Sanctuary’s adoptable cats on the Best Friends website, she spotted Van Gogh, and the rest was history.

Although Rikki-Lynn’s mother, Lacey, is a dog person, she made an exception for Van Gogh. Lacey says, “(Rikki-Lynn) saw Van Gogh, and from the beginning because he was missing an ear, she was like, ‘He’s the one I want.’”

The very next day, Lacey and Rikki-Lynn drove to the Sanctuary to meet Van Gogh, and they learned that the veterinary staff had just taken a biopsy from his ear for testing. Though his diagnosis was unknown, the Ganthers were already set on making Van Gogh part of their family, so they signed up to foster him.

[Adopter looks beyond cat’s FIV status and gives him a home]

It didn’t take long for the whole family to fall for Van Gogh. Lacey’s three younger children adored him, and Van Gogh loved every one of them, in turn.

“He was the sweetest cat. I petted him and I loved on him, and he loved on me,” Lacey says, adding with a laugh: “And he had fur everywhere.”

Van Gogh’s white fur was like a calling card he left behind wherever he went. When they picked him up that first day, the romper Rikki-Lynn wore was covered in white hair. In fact, the outfit was a symbol of Van Gogh’s happy time in their home. One of his hangout spots was on the dresser near Rikki-Lynn’s closet. “I still think there’s cat hair on that romper in my closet,” she says.

That was part of his charm, though, and Lacey and Rikki-Lynn talk about his constant shedding with smiles on their faces.

“He loved (her),” Lacey says, nodding to Rikki-Lynn. “And he was just always right there with her. He was just so calm, loving and sweet — so sweet.”

A lifetime of love

Only five days after they’d picked him up, they learned the results of Van Gogh’s biopsy: He had cancer. “They said he’s just going to have to live his life out,” recalls Lacey. “That’s all we could do because the type of cancer wasn’t treatable.”

Van Gogh’s ear was always itchy and, Lacey says, sometimes not the most pleasant smelling. But they always gave him a helping hand when he needed it. “[It was] worth it,” she says.

[Loving a special cat in hospice leads to adopting another]

For the next three months, the Ganthers filled Van Gogh’s life with all the love they could. When he wanted attention, it was his, and he nuzzled his fur all over his family. He took long naps and settled into a comfortable acquaintance with the family’s dog.

When the time came (all too soon) to say goodbye, Lacey, Rikki-Lynn and the rest of the children all joined Van Gogh at the Sanctuary clinic. “I thought that the kids were going to take it a lot worse,” Lacey says, “but they knew from basically the beginning what we were doing. We were just going to give him a loving home until it was time for him to go. And so, I think that made it easier for them. I know it (was) easier for (Rikki-Lynn).”

Van Gogh’s former caregivers were also there to see him off, and he made his rounds, making sure not to miss a single head scratch. “There was hair flying around that room — lots of hair,” Lacey recalls fondly.

“He inched his way up this way and this way, and then he came back,” Rikki-Lynn says. “He chose to lie on me. It was super peaceful and very calm, and he was just filled with so much love,” Lacey says, her voice shaking. “(He was) just the calmest cat I’ve ever seen.

“It was a good experience,” Lacey adds. “I’m glad that we were able to give him that loving life that he so deserved … He was getting the one-on-one attention that he needed and craved so much. I’m glad that we were able to give that to him.”

Life for Van Gogh was not always easy, but he made up for it in those last months by soaking up all the love his family had to give. And he gave that love right back — with every little white hair he left behind.

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