When Alyssa visited the animal shelter near her home — the Milwaukee Area Domestic Animal Control Commission (MADACC) — she wasn’t intending to adopt a cat that day in January 2016. “I’d stopped by the shelter after work one evening just to fill out an application, as I was planning to adopt a cat sometime in the future and wanted to have one on file,” explains Alyssa. “The shelter staff were great about helping me fill out an application, and they talked me into looking at a few cats while I was there.”
While Alyssa was intending to adopt a grey or black and white kitty, the third cat she was introduced to — a handsome brown tabby with beautiful green eyes — stole her heart. “As soon as a staff member handed him to me, he snuggled into my arms and I could feel him purring,” remembers Alyssa. “He wasn’t interested in playing with any toys or exploring the room, he just wanted to be held.”
The staff at MADACC knew very little about the friendly tabby cat other than that he was approximately three years old and had only recently arrived at the shelter. “The way the fur on his neck looked, their guess was that he’d been an indoor cat and worn a collar at some point,” says Alyssa. Even though the cat wasn’t the grey or tuxedo feline Alyssa had in mind when she decided to visit the shelter, her connection with the affectionate young cat was undeniable and she decided to adopt him that day.
“From the first time I held him, I felt like he was meant to be my cat,” explains Alyssa. “He’d been named Valor at the shelter, but that name didn’t really suit his personality.” After a days, Alyssa found the perfect name for the adorable feline, christening him Newt in honor of Newt Scamander from the Harry Potter universe. “After the Fantastic Beasts movie came out, I was amazed at how much the character Newt reminded me of cat Newt,” says Alyssa. “Very loving, but a little misunderstood at times.”
While Newt had a bit of cold when Alyssa brought him home — “He sneezed on quite a few of my friends and family members,” remembers Alyssa — he was an otherwise healthy young cat, and it didn’t take him long to settle into his new home and bond with his mom.
However, just a few months later in the fall of 2016, Newt’s skin began to ripple and twitch and he attacked his own tail, harming it so seriously that part of it had to be amputated. “Finding him injured was terrible, and after his initial trip to the emergency vet, it was a couple of days before any clinic in the area could schedule his actual surgery,” remembers Alyssa. “Keeping him calm and comfortable during that waiting period was very stressful, and I had to keep a close eye on him to make sure he wasn’t messing with his bandages.”
Following the surgery, Alyssa first focused on helping Newt heal and then she began searching for answers, determined to find an explanation for her beloved cat’s worrying behavior. “I ended up sending inquiries to numerous animal clinics in the area until I received an amazingly caring and thorough response from the vet that Newt now sees,” says Alyssa. Newt was eventually diagnosed with feline hyperesthesia syndrome (FHS), a disorder that causes cats to experience episodes of self-mutilation, agitation, and twitching skin.
While the exact cause of feline hyperesthesia syndrome is unknown, it is a relatively rare condition that can affect cats of all ages. “Cats with FHS usually start showing symptoms between the ages of one and five,” explains Alyssa. “At this point, the consensus is that it’s most likely either a type of obsessive compulsive disorder or a type of seizure disorder.”
After Newt was diagnosed with feline hyperesthesia syndrome, he tried a number of different medications to treat the condition until Alyssa and the vet eventually found one that worked for this handsome boy. “He currently takes 25mg of gabapentin every 12 hours,” says Alyssa. “For the rare occasions when he still gets slightly agitated, I keep an e-collar on hand for him to wear until the episode passes.”
Because Alyssa believes Newt’s episodes might be triggered by skin irritation, she keeps him on a grain-free diet and avoids taking him outside for walks on his harness when allergen levels are high. With the help of medication, as well as environmental and nutritional changes, Newt is doing extremely well today and he hasn’t needed more extreme measures like a full tail amputation.
“I’ve encountered a few people who assume that Newt is in constant pain or can’t live a normal life because he has FHS,” explains Alyssa. “I think that anyone who’s watched him run, jump, climb, and play can easily tell that 99% of the time, he’s feeling good and having fun just like any other cat.”
This energetic tabby is extremely happy and active, and he absolutely adores going for walks with his mom. “I keep a harness and leash in a box next to the door, and he’s always leading me to the box and meowing to go outside,” says Alyssa. “No matter which season it is and what the weather is actually like, if he sees the sun shining, he wants to be outside.”
When Newt can’t venture outdoors, Alyssa uses wand toys to keep him entertained, and he also enjoys playing with his cat cousin Finley. However, Newt is often content just spending time with his mom, following Alyssa around the house and keeping her company while she’s cooking, painting, or exercising. “He’s also a big fan of snuggling up on a heated blanket and watching Hulu or napping,” says Alyssa.
While Alyssa had no idea that Newt would begin exhibiting symptoms of feline hyperesthesia syndrome when she opened her home to him two years ago, she doesn’t regret adopting him in the slightest. “Had I known in advance that he would need a little extra care, I don’t think that would’ve had much of an impact on my decision,” says Alyssa. “He’s still a very happy, active, loving cat.”
Plus, Newt has brought so much to Alyssa’s life that giving him medication a couple of times a day or holding him when he starts to get agitated is a small price to pay for his companionship. “I struggle with anxiety, and I think part of the reason we’re so close is because we take care of each other,” says Alyssa. “I make sure he gets to do his favorite activities and takes his medication, and he’s always there to offer some comfort when I’m having a rough day and feeling anxious.”
By sharing Newt’s story, Alyssa hopes to raise awareness about feline hyperesthesia syndrome so that other cats with the condition won’t go undiagnosed, suffering its unpleasant symptoms when there are medications available to alleviate them. “The more aware people become of FHS, the easier it will become to get kitties diagnosed, figure out ideal treatments, and maybe even determine the root cause someday,” says Alyssa.
While she wasn’t looking to get a cat with feline hyperesthesia syndrome — or any other sort of medical or behavioral condition — when she went to MADACC, Alyssa is so glad she adopted Newt and she hopes other people will consider opening their homes to kitties who are often thought of as less adoptable. “I would definitely encourage anyone with the time and money to consider adopting a special needs cat,” says Alyssa. “They may require a little extra care, but they have so much love to give, just like any other kitty.”
It’s been approximately two and half years since the day Alyssa met Newt for the first time, that evening in January 2016 when she held him in her arms as he purred with contentment, and while they’ve been through a lot since then, each challenge has only strengthened and deepened their bond. “There’s something so special about having a pet waiting at the door to greet you whenever you come home, and Newt is always right there begging to be picked up,” says Alyssa. “Newt is such a unique cat, and he definitely means the world to me.”
To learn more about this handsome cat, you can follow Newt on Instagram.