Sandra Lee Graczyk was looking for a quiet, gentle cat to fit into the Cheektowaga home she shares with her parents. Instead, the family twice adopted adult cats with complicated medical issues one the aftereffects of a dog attack, the other with challenging allergies. And Graczyk and her parents have been devoted to, and delighted by, both cats.
"If the animal has either a physical or emotional condition, they need a lot of attention, a lot of help, confidence-boosting and a lot of ingenuity to enable them to do the things that normal dogs and cats do," says Graczyk, a recent retiree from SUNY Brockport, where she was a professor and chair of the Department of Educational Administration, as well as coordinator of the School Business Administration Program. "In my opinion, the bond is far closer than you will get from a perfectly healthy animal. One reason is that the animal is dependent on his or her owner. My cat needed a human being for physical, emotional and mental interactions. She needed to be around her people."
The story of their two cats began in December 2000. The family had just lost their cat Lady at age 14 to kidney disease. Graczyk called the SPCA serving Erie County and spoke with a staffer about her interest in a quiet, gentle, even shy cat. The woman said, "I have a cat on my lap right now who is very shy, would do very well in a very quiet home," Graczyk said. But the gray and white tuxedo cat who would be called Gretchen had been through a lot. She had been mauled by a dog and fled into a tall tree in Cheektowaga, where she remained for three days and nights until she was rescued by SPCA personnel.
When Graczyk met Gretchen, most of the dog bites had healed. But Gretchen was so traumatized that when Graczyk brought her home, she fled to a small storage room in the basement.
For days, she crouched there, creeping up into the kitchen at night to eat. Graczyk joined her down there, speaking softly and encouraging her. First Gretchen became comfortable with Graczyk, then she gradually became more secure in the house. "She discovered treats and we discovered the power of treats," says Graczyk. "Every day she came a little farther with the treats we were offering. The first day she made it up the stairs, it was like a miracle."
But even as Gretchen settled in and became comfortable in the house, she still showed effects of the attack that nearly killed her. She needed plastic surgery to close a wound on her back. Nerve and muscle damage made it difficult for her to jump or do normal things with her tail. Possibly worst of all, though, "She had nightmares for maybe four years," says Graczyk. "Sometimes in the middle of the night she would give a terrified cry, and when I'd wake her up, her eyes would be filled with panic."
With the help of her family, as she learned to play and enjoy life, Gretchen grew protective. "Every day the mailman would come, every day she would sit on the windowsill and growl at the mailman and every day the mailman would go away, so that was positive reinforcement," says Graczyk, laughing. "She was like a little German shepherd."
After just six years with the Graczyk family, Gretchen was diagnosed with a fast-moving cancer. Because the vet assured Graczyk that she was not in any pain, Gretchen died at home with her family, almost six years to the day she had arrived.
It was again December when the family returned to the SPCA. After looking at the available cats, they were ready to leave when Graczyk's mother went back to look in a cage they had thought was empty. Inside was a sleek black cat with bright eyes.
"We took her out, and we just bonded with her and she bonded with us," says Graczyk. The new cat became Heidi.
About a year ago, Graczyk noticed that Heidi's lips were swollen -- "It looked like she'd had collagen injections." The family vet referred her to a local veterinary dermatologist, who began tests to diagnose Heidi's ailment. "She was so miserable being so itchy, it got to the point where she was just scratching all the time," says Graczyk.
Extensive testing revealed that Heidi is allergic to a variety of things, including ragweed, molds, dust, grass, birch trees, dog dander and human dander. That last finding "was the most surprising," says Graczyk. Following the vet's advice, "we hit on a course of action that seems to have worked. Heidi is doing much, much better now."
With injections every two weeks, "her hair is growing back and she's not scratching as much," says Graczyk.
Although Graczyk admits that caring for an animal with health problems can take more time, patience and energy and be more expensive, she suggests people keep their minds open adopting such an animal. "Absolutely, positively they should adopt a cat with health problems," she says, because working with Gretchen and Heidi to surmount their challenges strengthened the human-animal bond.
"You have so much interaction, you have to touch them so much and you do relieve their problems," she says. "I think they get much closer to you than a perfectly healthy cat. They almost get clingy, which I like in a cat. The time and the money is so worth it."