Blind cat with cleft palate gets care, gains confidence

Sylvia the one-eyed cat with her foster person Melissa
Sylvia was in rough shape when she arrived at the Sanctuary, but with TLC and a good haircut, she’s finally feeling feline-fine.
By Sarah Thornton

As Sylvia struts around the living room of her foster home, it’s easy to tell she’s feeling good. Her tail and head are raised high, her steps are light, and when she runs into someone’s lap, she’s immediately nuzzling up for some attention. And in her ever-expanding circular patrol, she does often “run into” someone; she can’t see them, after all. She’s exploring in circles because she’s blind and feeling the area out. But even though the living room is new territory, Sylvia is full of confidence. She doesn’t even startle when one of the household hounds barks in the other room.

This curious, confident, comfortable Sylvia is a far cry from the cat she was at the beginning of the year. When she’d landed at a rescue organization in Montana, Sylvia was in very, very rough shape. Her long, dusty gray fur was matted through and through. She’d recently become blind from head trauma, her right pupil fully dilated — just a thin line of blue visible around the edge of it — and her left eye a painful, cloudy pink orb. To top it off, she had a cleft palate, the roof of her mouth wide open into her sinuses.

Sylvia was uncomfortable in half a dozen ways, and she needed help. Best Friends’ goal is for all shelters to reach no-kill by 2025, and that means working together with other animal welfare organizations to save pets who need extra care or time — pets just like Sylvia. So not long after Sylvia arrived at the rescue organization, she was on the move again, all the way to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary just outside of Kanab, Utah.

Starting Sylvia on the road to recovery

As Sanctuary veterinary staff looked Sylvia over, it was clear she would be needing lots of medical attention. Her left eye was damaged beyond repair and causing some discomfort, so it would have to be removed. Her cleft palate would need mending, as well — and that was a more specialized surgery, requiring a trip to Las Vegas to remedy.

In the meantime, while those surgeries were scheduled and the countdown to them began, Sylvia was also dealing with an upper respiratory infection likely related to her cleft palate. Every day when caregivers went to clean her area, the walls were covered in sneezes, and her nose was pretty stuffy.

[Spunky kitten with cleft palate beats the odds]

She needed medication for the infection, as well as pain meds for everything else, but getting those into her proved a challenge. While she seemed bright and content in her space when left to her own devices, not being able to see meant she was on guard when anyone approached her. She’d hiss and swat if someone got too close too fast, and she vehemently declined the handling that would have been necessary to give her a pill.

Normally, if a cat at the Sanctuary avoids pills directly, the alternative is mixing the medicine into a bowl of yummy “special” wet food they don’t normally get for meals. But Sylvia couldn’t really have wet food due to her cleft palate; it wasn’t worth the risk of it ending up in her respiratory tract and causing aspiration pneumonia. There were injections and medications that could be applied to the skin though. It just meant going slow and steady to get Sylvia comfortable with being touched and held for them.

So, while waiting for Sylvia’s surgeries, that was what her caregivers worked on.

Helping a cat get comfortable

Talking gently and approaching her slowly, caregivers spent time just letting Sylvia get used to their presence. She was a sweet cat, just blind and scared. So when she did allow someone to pet her, she leaned right into a most welcome ear scratch. It didn’t take long before she let her most trusted human friends hold her and feel the rumble of her purrs.

Due to her matted fur, there were still parts of her body that were uncomfortable when touched. But soon, she had her own little brush for caregivers and volunteers to slowly work through the clumps of fur while giving her some extra attention.

Sylvia’s favorite thing, however, was spending time out in her room and sunning herself on the catio. Since she wasn’t yet ready to move out of Cat World’s clinic building, she relished the opportunity to get out of her clinic enclosure and stretch her legs every day. Her caregivers made it a point that she always got her free time and that there was always a soft towel in the sun for her to lounge on.

[Blind cat sees the good in everything]

As Sylvia relaxed into her new routine — and occasionally into the hands of her new human friends — things were looking up. Soon, the day of her eye surgery arrived. And when Sylvia returned to her room afterward, short one bothersome pink sphere, she was right back to enjoying her days like nothing had even happened. She needed time to recover, but she got all the TLC she needed to glide smoothly along until it was time for a trip to Las Vegas for her next surgery.

Sylvia’s cleft palate repair was another shining success. And with those big medical procedures behind her, it was finally time to move out of the Cat World clinic. She’d be getting a nice upgrade, too, heading into a foster home just a week later.

A haircut and a foster home

With Sylvia’s once-spicy reputation, along with being in a new space, her foster person and senior director of training and behavior at Dogtown, Melissa McCormic, says she thought at first Sylvia would be very hands-off. But that was not at all the case. “She crawled right into my lap and let me brush her the first day I brought her home,” Melissa says.

Her fur was still quite matted, despite all the attempts to brush it out, but there was a path along her back that Sylvia really enjoyed having brushed. “She was really cute,” recalls Melissa. “You know how cats will lean into it? She would take her paw and pull the brush to her face. It was so precious.”

Even with Sylvia’s love of the brush, those mats were the last thing still causing her discomfort, and they were stubborn. And really, what better way is there to celebrate a new chapter in life than a haircut? She already had an appointment at the Best Friends Animal Clinic for a checkup on how her palate was healing, so everyone decided to feed two birds with one scone, as it were, and give her a quick clip at the same time. They even threw in a little pet pedicure while they were at it.

“She was like a new woman after she came back shaved,” says Melissa. “She was like, ‘Oh my God, I need to rub on everything, please touch me.’”

A brush could get all the way to her skin, and she could rub and roll and get a good scratch all over her body.

Fur had grown in over the spot where Sylvia’s left eye used to be, the inside of her mouth was healing beautifully, and her skin was free of pinching, pulling mats. There was nothing holding her back anymore — not even her blindness.

The bathroom of Sylvia’s foster home is all hers, with a gate to seal it off from Melissa’s curious canines. She doesn’t mind a quick nose-to-nose with the dogs, and if one of them grumbles a little at her, Sylvia calmly steps away without a fuss. But most of the time, she sleeps in her little nest of blankets or wedged under the bathtub to soak up heat directly from the vent.

On Sylvia’s first venture into the living room, she didn’t hesitate for a second before she was off in her ever-widening circles, exploring as much of the space as she could. She checked behind the entertainment center, sniffed around the couches, and came running every time Melissa clicked her nails together and called for her. When she found herself on top of a couch, she turned her face to the window and looked for all the world like she was enjoying the view outside (though she’s just as happy staring at the wall the same way sometimes).

“She’s so content,” Melissa says with a smile. “She’s like one of those truly lazy house cats who just sleeps on her bed all day. … I feel like she would be a perfect little lap cat for someone.”

And now that Sylvia’s feeling fine, maybe that someone isn’t too far away.

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