What Happens When You Surprise Someone with a Pet?

For my husband’s 30th birthday, we surprised him with a cat. Animal lovers: don’t freak out! I am NOT a fan of people who choose an animal, tie a bow on its collar, and present this living creature. People should choose their own pets – or rather, people should let their pets choose them, which is exactly what we did.

On the Saturday of Gene’s “birthday weekend,” we blindfolded him and got in the car (yes, he was in the passenger seat). We drove to the local animal shelter and instructed him to remove the blindfold. “Surprise!” the kids and I shouted. “Let’s go in and find a cat!”

Gene was thrilled. So were the kids, of course; there’s little more festive than coming home with a new pet.

After a bit of walking around, Bonnie chose Gene. Bonnie was a smoke-gray Persian with a dog’s temperament – loving, cuddly, and an all-around friendly kitty. First, though, we had to leap the first hurdle – a well-meaning, if challenging, volunteer.

The shelter staff told us it would be about an hour for them to finish the paperwork, complete the CIA background check, etc. During that time, we dashed to the pet store to buy $2500 (I’m exaggerating, slightly) worth of cat supplies. We arrived back at the shelter to pick up Bonnie and were met with a set of grim faces.

“Not Qualified”

“I’m afraid,” said the staff member in a clipped tone, “that you will be unable to adopt Bonnie.”

“Why not???” I demanded, seeing the crestfallen look on Birthday Boy’s face. “Well,” she replied, “one of our volunteers was walking behind you and she heard one of your children say that your dog would eat the cat, and that you’ll have to keep the cat locked in a bedroom.”

This should have been a sign – a sign that we needed to visit a different shelter, since the fact that a volunteer overheard a six-year-old making up some fanciful story about a cat who would be “locked in a tower” was grounds for disqualification. As was often the case back then, however, we ignored the flashing red “ALERT!” signs that the universe was sending and dug in our heels. We demanded to see the manager, engaged in the appropriate amount of groveling, and were soon en route home with Bonnie.

Things were great for about a week when Bonnie decided to stop eating. As we learned from our wonderful veterinarian, it turns out that some cats get into a “suicidal mindset,” where they decide that life simply isn’t worth living and they starve themselves to death.

Sorry, Gene

All I could think to myself was, “Sorry, Gene; Here’s your birthday gift: a dying cat that you weren’t qualified to own anyway.”

We felt terrible. The kids were appalled. What to do?

We did as the vet suggested and left her in his care for about a week. He was force feeding her and keeping her hydrated. Here’s another fun fact: Cats who decide not to eat can go into liver failure quickly – like, REALLY quickly. Sometimes it only takes a couple of days.

So, there we were, one week and $700 (!!!) later, back in the vet’s office. “Look,” he said. “I can keep feeding her this way forever. But it’s not fair to her, and it’s not fair to you. And for what it’s worth, I’ve called the shelter and told them that you are incredibly good people and that I don’t care about their ‘no-return’ policy. If you decide that further treatment is too much for you financially, I have told them that they will, in fact, take Bonnie back, and allow you to adopt a different cat. You tried to do a good thing, and you shouldn’t be bankrupted for it. In the meantime, you can try taking her home and seeing if you can get her to eat. I’d say you’ve got 72 hours to turn her around.”

The birthday story had now turned into “Sorry, Gene; Here’s your birthday gift: a dying cat that you weren’t qualified to own anyway and that has now cost us $700 just in vet bills.”

We Drove Home with Bonnie

She was painfully thin. And for the next two days, we did everything we could think of – we force-fed her. Cooked liver for her. Made a special tuna meal. Bonnie would have none of it. We braced for the worst.

On the evening of the second day, I was on the phone with a friend who, unbeknownst to me, had a reputation of being an animal whisperer. “Can I come over?” she asked. “I might be able to bring her around.”

Well, of course you can! Our friend arrived, and we all watched, nervously expectant, afraid to hope for much of anything. She spoke quietly to Bonnie for a moment or two, lifted her onto our kitchen counter, and opened a container of the cheapest, driest cat food I’ve ever seen.

As we stood around the counter, almost afraid to breathe, we watched Bonnie look around, mosey over to the cat food, and…eat it all. Every.single.morsel.

It was amazing

From that day on, Bonnie ate and drank with gusto. Apparently, she’d decided that we were worth living for. But for the unfortunate clipper incident, I’m sure she believed she made the right choice.

We waited a couple of days, to be sure that her new attitude had “taken,” and called the vet. “Wow!” he said. “This is absolutely incredible. I really thought you were going to say something very different.”

So did we, Doctor. And thanks to you, and the animal whisperers among us, for saving Bonnie. But my advice to you is this: Unless you’ve got a strong constitution, a decent chunk of money lying around, and a friend who can talk your potentially suicidal cat off the ledge, don’t try this at home. Since then, I’ve stuck to more conventional “birthday surprises” that don’t involve blindfolds or animals.⧉

What about you? Have you surprised someone with a birthday gift that didn’t turn out the way you expected? Or do you have a great pet adoption story? Let me know in the comments!

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6 thoughts on “What Happens When You Surprise Someone with a Pet?”

    1. Hi Pauline, thanks for commenting! And yes, it was a heartbreaking time, and we were so thrilled to have such a happy ending for an event that seemed to be headed for disaster.

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