When I first float the idea of adopting a three-legged cat with my friend Louie, he crinkles his nose at me over a beer and says, “Sure, if you want your aesthetic to be ‘a witch returning from war.’”
The next day I go to the Lost Dogs Home in North Melbourne, and an hour after that, I am sitting in the cab home, balancing a travel box on my lap. I text my friend Alex: I sort of thought someone would have stopped me by this point?
From the first moment I considered adopting a cat, an older or physically disabled animal seemed like a good fit for my situation. I live in an apartment with limited space, and on top of that, I’m cognisant by the environmental impact of cats who roam. Despite my nerves about taking responsibility for another life, this was a permission I could give myself—that my house might be small, but I could give a particular kind of animal a much-needed home. Plus, it felt like a good deed, and I kind of loved the idea of my aesthetic being a witch returning from war.
The term used is second chance cats, or less-adoptable cats. The category includes black cats, disabled cats, blind cats, older cats, and cats with chronic (but not pressing) health conditions like FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus) or feline leukaemia. Black cats are very prevalent in the shelter system, and more are surrendered, euthanised and adopted than cats of any other colour. Many older and disabled animals are destroyed before they’re even for adoption or fostering, or linger in shelters until they’re euthanised, or a volunteer takes them home. It’s a heartbreaking truth of the adoption system that some animals are considered less worthy than others. The generalisations made about special needs cats, have little to do with temperament, cost, or time commitment, and everything to do with ignorance. The two-year-old dork I meet at the Lost Dogs Home fits the bill twice over—he’s a black, three-legged boy with huge yellow eyes and the unflappability of an unrepentant sneak.
Maloo, the cat with the silliest name in the world, had been, until a fortnight before I met him, a lifelong stray with four legs. Within two weeks, he was attacked by a dog, had a hind leg amputated, moved between two shelters, and then moved into my house. The vet at the shelter removes his stitches, and hands him to me in a cardboard carry-box that shifts as he moves a little inside it. In the past fortnight he has gone from life as a loveable, four legged stray, to a three legged shelter cat, and now he is coming home to my tiny apartment. When we arrive home, I open the travel box like a Lovecraftian protagonist drawing back an eldritch curtain; but inside is just a completely unfazed cat. He spends one cautious hour scoping out my apartment, and then falls asleep in the crook of my arm. It becomes clear very quickly that unflappability is one of his defining traits.
One of the tangible benefits of adopting a disabled cat is that in the most practical sense, you will have a much clearer sense of their personality, and how they respond to stress. The vet at the adoption centre talks me through his medical history, how he responded to different painkillers, how the trauma—both physical and emotional—has affected or is affecting him. “No phantom pain,” she says, as we watch him roam around the small room lined with cat enclosures, “No sign of infection or complication, and he’s not off his food. He seems like a pretty relaxed guy.”
I’m not here to sledge kittens; like most of the internet, I’m a fan. But there are many more unknowns in terms of temperament and personality with a baby cat whose only life experience is the controlled environment of a cattery. When you adopt a cat who has experienced lifestyle change and trauma, you know the degree to which they can comfortably adapt. No amount of research into the hypothetical temperament of a particular breed can measure up to lived experience.
Speaking to the vet at the shelter, I expect a long run-down of needs and considerations I will need to meet to safely house my new cat. Instead, she tells me that the main difference between physically able and disabled cats is that the latter always need to be kept inside. This isn’t a concern for me; any cat I adopted would have to be an indoor cat. Plus, keeping a pet indoors is a lot safer, cheaper, and better for the environment than having a cat who roams the streets. You save money on vaccinations, flea and worming treatments, and you can feel assured both of their safety, and the safety of the native (and non-native) animals that make their homes near yours.
Maloo seems largely unfazed by his indoor lifestyle, and his new, three-legged body. A couple of times he’s tried to kick me and fallen over, but it certainly hasn’t stopped him scaling the curtains at 3am, or amputating a four metre tendril from my monstera vine as he falls off a bookshelf (RIP, to my greatest botanical achievement to date!) This is simply the situation of his life now, and it doesn’t seem to register, to him or to me, as a compromised one.
While it is very funny watching slow horror dawn on my idiot son’s face as he tries to disembowel a soft toy mouse and finds himself, in the absence of a supporting hind leg, sliding off the bed, he also stands as proof that even in the face of disaster, we do go on. He isn’t 75 percent of a cat, like I sometimes joke; he’s a newly distributed 100 percent.
Any new pet naturally becomes an organising factor of your life; adoption is never a decision to be taken lightly. If you’re not in a position to give an animal a home, consider donating to a no-kill shelter; there are plenty around, often volunteer-run, and drastically underfunded. But if you are considering adopting, I couldn’t recommend adopting a special needs animal more highly.