Honoring Riff Raff

By: Varina Heilman, The Cat Hospital of Durham and Chapel Hill

Riff Raff the deaf cat

I found an advertisement for a deaf cat in the local free paper when I lived in San Diego. Another person had rescued him from off the street, but couldn't keep him. I had a soft spot for rescue animals, and was looking for another cat. I wanted to take him because I thought that special needs cats were probably harder to find homes for. He turned out to be a most interesting and wonderful little guy.

When I got him, he was a mess. He was skinny, had sparse, dry fur, and a raging urinary tract infection. He also had a broken canine tooth, and small tears in the edges of his ears from getting attacked by other cats. He was NOT surviving well as an outside cat, and would not have likely lived much longer. I took him to the veterinarian to be tested, vaccinated, dewormed, and to get antibiotics for him. Due to being thrown out on the streets, somehow the name Riff Raff fit him perfectly.

He was terrified when I brought him home. Poor little guy – he hid under my futon bed for a whole week. I pushed food and water under the bed for him, and set a litter box right beside it. Once I turned off the lights, he would creep out and explore the apartment little by little. My other cat at the time, Thin Lizzye, would lay next to the futon bed on the floor, and roll around and reach her paws out to him. It looked very much like she was telling him that he would be okay, and beseeching him to come out and play with her. They would become very close buddies. Finally, after a week, he came out one night and let me pet him! He started purring quite loudly, and became one the cuddliest and friendliest cats I have ever known.

Just looking at him, you would never know Riff Raff was deaf. Like many animals missing one sense, his other senses seemed to be heightened. He could not hear, but he could feel changes in air currents, and the vibrations of someone walking across the floor. For this reason, my friends were quite surprised they could not sneak up on him. He was LOUD though. He meowed and yowled just like a cat who couldn't hear how loud he was. It was very distinctive, and one of his favorite things was to run up and down the stairs with one of my socks in his mouth, yowling at the top of his lungs.

Of course, he was very visual. When I first had him, he would literally sit or lie in the exact same position as my other cat, and then look over at her to check to make sure he was "doing it right". It was pretty funny. We did develop a sort of kitty sign language. For example, he would be up on the kitchen counter where he knows he shouldn't be, and since I could not ask him to get down, I would wave my arms in the air to get his attention. Then, when he looked up at me, I would point to him, then point to the floor. Believe it or not, this actually worked, and he would jump down!

He loved to play with and chase toys like any other cat. And when I got out the laser pointer? Get out of the way! That was by far his all-time favorite. He was completely focused on it, not having to filter out any sounds that might distract him. He chased and attacked that little red light like a total maniac.

I do think because of his deafness, he was the most truly comfortable and relaxed when he was curled up sleeping next to another cat, dog, or a person. I felt that he did this because whoever he was sleeping against would wake him up if they detected something he couldn't. This may sound strange, but it did seem like he knew he was different, and had to be more careful.

He was a super sweet lap kitty, and didn’t have a mean bone in his body. He liked nothing more than climbing into just about anyone's lap purring away, and then you couldn't pry him out of it with a crow bar.

He had a quirky, silly personality, and got along well with every other cat and dog he met. He had two cat buddies, Thin Lizzye (gray and white) and Thai-foo (Siamese), and two dog buddies, Italy and Geppetto, Italian Greyhounds. When Italy got older, she became blind, and it became quite fun to tell people I had a deaf cat and a blind dog that were good friends! Italy also adapted to her ‘disability’ – it’s truly amazing how incredibly well animals adapt to these sorts of life changes and remain wonderful companions.

My sweet Riff Raff passed away a few years ago from cancer. I miss my little Riffy, he was a charming and funny cat. I have never met another one quite like him. Riff Raff was unique and wonderful, and I miss him dearly.