The first time Joanne Thongpheng of Manitoba, Canada, heard about cerebellar hypoplasia (CH), she had no idea how common the neurological condition was, nor that cats born with CH can live happy and active lives. Joanne first learned about the condition in July 2014 when she and her husband went to their local animal rescue to pick up two cats, brothers Connolly and Nealon, to foster, when they met a little kitten who was going to be put to sleep.
“There was a little kitten that was diagnosed with severe CH and they were bringing her in to have her euthanized due to the lack of quality of life she would have,” remembers Joanne, and she asked to cuddle the tiny cat. “As I held her, my heart started to break because she was so small and her life was going to be short-lived,” says Joanne. “I told her that I was sorry and gave her a kiss on her little head.”
Joanne and her husband left the rescue and returned to their home with their newest pair of foster cats, and shortly after they let the brothers out of their cage, they noticed that Nealon seemed to be a little wobbly. The couple contacted the rescue, and they learned that Nealon had mild CH, the same condition as the tiny kitten who had just been euthanized, and Joanne immediately started researching the neurological condition online.
“I read that a lot of kittens and cats with CH are never really given a fighting chance to live a normal life,” explains Joanne. “It made me think back to the little kitten that I held in her final hours. I felt horrible. I could have taken her home and tried giving her second chance.”
Cerebellar hypoplasia is a non-progressive neurological condition that usually occurs when a pregnant cat contracts the panleukopenia virus, causing her unborn kittens to have underdeveloped cerebellums. Because the cerebellum is related to balance and coordination, cats with CH tend to have head tremors and wobble when they walk, and those with the more severe form of the condition may have very limited mobility.
While Joanne wasn’t able to save the tiny kitten with severe CH, she decided that very day that she was going to find another cat with the condition and give them a loving home. “I got in touch with local rescues, the Humane Society, and veterinary hospitals to see if they had or knew of a kitten or cat with CH,” says Joanne, but at the time, no one had a kitty with a more severe form of the condition, and she and her husband ended up adopting Nealon and his brother Connolly, their foster kittens.
Years passed, when in July 2016, Joanne was browsing Kijiji, a classified ad website, when she spotted an ad for Smudge, a kitten with CH. While the special needs cat turned out not to be right for Joanne and her husband, Smudge’s owner thought one of her daughter’s kittens, a ginger and white cat with severe CH, might be the perfect pet for the couple.
“She sent me pictures,” remembers Joanne, “and I instantly teared up. He was the spitting image of my 18-year-old Beemer that we had to help cross the Rainbow Bridge earlier that year.” Joanne was smitten with the little kitten, who was named Fredrick at the time, and she agreed to adopt him, sight unseen, and arranged to meet the tiny wobbly cat in his home.
When Joanne saw the kitten for the first time, he was less than two months old, and she was surprised at how small and skinny he was, as well as how severe his CH appeared to be in comparison to Nealon, her cat with the mild form of the condition. “I admit the thought of ‘What did I get myself into?’ crossed my mind,” remembers Joanne, “but when he made his way to my lap, all of my doubt was washed away with one look from [him].”
That day, the little kitten became a part of Joanne’s family, and the couple — who already had two cats with Irish names — began searching for the perfect Celtic name for the wobbly kitty, eventually settling on Ronan. “The meaning behind the name Ronan is ‘little seal’ and since he does flip flop around a lot,” says Joanne, “I found it to be perfect and insanely adorable.”
Indeed, Ronan proved to move around much like a little seal, and it definitely took Joanne and her husband some time to adjust to caring for a cat with severe CH when they’d only had experience caring for kitties with more mild forms of the neurological condition. “He needed help going to the litter box,” says Joanne. “He needed help with eating and drinking.”
However, Joanne and her husband were dedicated to keeping Ronan, and over time they developed a routine that works well for everyone, and they’ve recently started doing exercises to help him improve his strength in his back legs. “Since then, Ronan has been super active and plays a lot more,” says Joanne. “With the help of my husband, Ronan makes the effort to ‘run’ when being called, which is adorable! The joy in his face when he runs is priceless.”
In addition to CH, Joanne discovered this adorable ginger and white cat has severe separation anxiety, which made it difficult for her and her husband to be away from Ronan for any length of time. “When left alone, Ronan would get into a lethargic state, refusing to eat, drink or go to the litter box,” explains Joanne. “He would also excessively drool all over himself.”
Thankfully, the solution to Ronan’s separation anxiety came in the form of Aurora, a tiny little kitten Joanne and her husband agreed to foster for their local rescue. “She has been Ronan’s saving grace,” says Joanne, “and they have been inseparable since the day she came through our doors.”
With the love and support of Aurora and his mom and dad, Ronan is now a happy and healthy cat who has an active life filled with lots of fun. When he’s not cuddling with parents or his dog and cat siblings, this adorable ginger and white kitty loves jumping into his tunnel, playing with his interactive butterfly toy, and chewing on foam balls.
Ronan also enjoys snoozing in his bed, soaking up the sun, and keeping an eye on the neighborhood from the window. “Another favorite activity of his — and definitely not mine — is going after toes!” says Joanne. “He got me a few times.”
While Ronan is like a typical cat in lots of different ways, he does require more care than the average kitty, although Joanne certainly doesn’t mind making the extra effort to help this adorable ginger and white feline have a happy life. “I find that the one of the biggest misconceptions that people have about cats with CH is that they cannot have a good quality of life and should not be given that second chance,” says Joanne.
However, Joanne — who was inspired to adopt Ronan after meeting a kitten who was going to be put to sleep simply for having severe CH — believes it’s important to always give special needs cats the opportunity to prove they’re capable of having happy lives. “May it be a few weeks, a few months, a few years, to give them that second chance,” says Joanne, “they will only know and remember the love shared between them and their owners.”
No one knows exactly how much time Joanne and her husband will have with Ronan — or for that matter, any of their pets — but there’s no doubt this adorable wobbly cat will have a life filled with endless love and affection, nor is their any doubt that he’ll show his appreciation to his parents by showering them with affection and teaching them some of the most important life lessons anyone can learn.
“Ronan means the world to me. He has taught me what compassion, diligence, commitment, responsibility, patience, and most of all, love, truly means,” says Joanne. “He makes my heart smile.”
To learn more about this adorable cat, you can follow Ronan on Instagram.