When Afton Hughes learned Cleo, a pregnant cat, had been dropped off at the feed mill she uses for The Pig Preserve, the animal sanctuary she runs in Jamestown, Tennessee, she began following the female feline and her pregnancy. “We planned to get her and the babies fixed as soon as it was safe,” explains Afton.
On August 10, 2018, Cleo gave birth to a litter of eight kittens, and three weeks later Afton received an alarming phone call from the staff at the feed mill. “Four of the kittens had died that day,” says Afton, so she went to get the surviving cats and their mom, planning to foster them until they were adopted. “When we got back to the sanctuary, we gave everyone a bath for their flea infestation and dewormer.”
Initially, the feline family seemed fairly healthy, but just a few hours later, the only black kitten in the litter rolled away from his mother and began having difficulty breathing. “He was as limp as a wet dishrag,” remembers Afton, prompting her to scoop up the listless kitten and rush him to her veterinarian. “The vet told me not to get attached. His prognosis was not good.”
The vet administered subcutaneous fluids to the three-week-old kitten, and she told Afton to bottle feed him and give him fluids overnight. Back home with the little black cat, who she named Calhoun after her grandfather, Afton made a promise to the fragile feline. “I told him if he could just make it, he could stay with me forever,” says Afton.
Calhoun made it through the night, causing Afton to assume he was a relatively healthy kitten who was just a bit weaker than his litter mates. However, as Calhoun grew, it became apparent he was fundamentally different from his siblings, and he was eventually diagnosed with hydrocephalus. “Hydrocephalus is an accumulation of fluid around the brain,” explains Afton. “It causes a bobble-head appearance.”
As a result of having hydrocephalus — which can cause blindness, seizures, and an abnormal gait — Calhoun’s skull plates failed to close completely, leaving his head soft and his brain vulnerable. Around the same time he began exhibiting symptoms of hydrocephalus, Calhoun also started showing signs of cerebellar hypoplasia (CH), a non-progressive neurological condition that affects balance and coordination.
“CH is when parts of the cerebellum aren’t fully formed,” says Afton, making it difficult for Calhoun to move around like a typical cat. “He could sit up on his own, but his mobility was compromised. He toppled over easily, and when startled would have eye tics and tremors and his limbs would draw up towards his torso.”
By the time he was four months old, the combination of hydrocephalus and cerebellar hypoplasia made it impossible for Calhoun to stand or walk unassisted. “We believe that the combination of the large, heavy head and the CH symptoms made mobility too difficult,” explains Afton.
However, with his mom’s help, Calhoun was still able to get a lot of enjoyment out of his life, prompting Afton to do everything in her power to help him live each day to the fullest. “While so many things were uncertain, I was sure he deserved a proper chance to thrive,” says Afton, but she knows Calhoun probably would have been euthanized if he’d ended up in a shelter.
Fortunately, this special cat found an equally special home, and approximately 18 months after meeting Afton for the first time, Calhoun is doing great! With the help of CBD oil, his neurological symptoms, such as eye tics and tremors, have disappeared, and Afton keeps Calhoun’s legs from atrophying by exercising them daily.
“I am blessed to work in a situation where Calhoun can be with me all the time,” says Afton. “He goes with me to work daily, and we’ve never spent a night apart.”
This constant closeness has enabled Calhoun and his mom to develop a routine and a method of communicating with one another, so when he’s thirsty or needs to use the litter box, all he has to do is meow and Afton is there to help him.
Despite needing more assistance than the typical cat, Calhoun has a great quality of life, and Afton makes sure he gets the enrichment required to keep him happy, stimulated, and engaged with the world. “Calhoun loves sitting up tall where he can observe,” says Afton. “He likes hiking, parties, attention, and watching the animals at the sanctuary. He likes to play with toys, he loves snacks, and he loves to be cuddled.”
While Calhoun is thriving today, getting him to this point hasn’t been without challenges, especially because it was difficult for Afton to speak with anyone who had experience caring for a cat with both hydrocephalus and cerebellar hypoplasia. “I reached out to multiple veterinarians and pet parents, but there was so little information,” says Afton. “Winging it is scary, but so far, we are doing well.”
Even though it’s obvious Calhoun is a very happy boy, not everyone believes a cat with such limited mobility can have a good quality of life. However, Afton — who has spent well over a year spending nearly every minute of every day with Calhoun — is confident it’s possible for special needs kitties to have wonderful, fulfilling lives. “They are different but not less,” explains Afton. “They deserve to have care, experiences, and love like everyone else.”
Thanks to his incredible mom, there’s no doubt the rest of Calhoun’s life will be filled with lots more adventure and affection. However, Afton is just as certain her life has been made far better through the relationship she and Calhoun share and the bond these two began building when they met that fateful day in 2018.
“Calhoun is a daily reminder to make the most of every day we are given; to find happiness and joy, even when things are hard; to love your life,” says Afton. “He has brought me so much happiness, and I feel very lucky to be his human mom.”
To learn more about this adorable cat, you can follow Calhoun on Instagram.