Cat Sanctuary

Big Birthdays for Small Seniors


Onyx (MW)

It’s very often impossible to tell the age of a cat when it comes to us. A vet will make an assessment based on a number of factors – size and shape, dental formation, eyes, activity – but for each factor, there may be counter-indications. With teeth, for instance, some cats suffer from stomatitis – an inflammation of the mouth that is often best dealt with by extracting most of the teeth – so missing teeth may not be a sign of age. 

Onyx and Topaz

Onyx & her sister Topaz (KN)

We do have good assessments of the age of some of our cats, though, because they have spent most of their lives with us, and even a good approximation in the early days can help us mark some significant milestones with better accuracy. So we’re pretty sure that both Sara Lee and Onyx have celebrated their 20th birthdays, and are chugging along just fine!

Onyx is one of the last of our “Donni cats”, coming to us from a hoarding situation many years ago. She and her “sister” Topaz were usually found together; neither was particularly comfortable with being handled, but they were OK being around people. Their usual hangout was in the laundry room – preferably in the tiny room with the water-heater. In finer weather, they would emerge and sun themselves together in the courtyard. Topaz crossed the Rainbow Bridge last year, but Onyx is still hanging in there.

Onyx in the sun

Onyx enjoying the sun, last fal (KN)

The water-heater room is no longer accessible to her (too many pee incidents in bedding storage!), but despite her age, Onyx makes her way up the shelves to her favourite corner high up in the laundry room. Volunteers have to be careful about leaving a clear path for her – we don’t want her landing on a surface without secure footing, and falling – and she’s definitely a bit slower about getting up and down, but she’s very determined and makes the climb several times each day.

Onyx asking for handout

Hoping for a handout (KN)

She’s not really a people-cat – but she does love people who bring soft treats (she’s one of the cats with minimal teeth), and when chicken is being offered her radar alerts her to join the begging crowd in the courtyard. She has no hesitation in standing up to the pushy felines – Pumpkin and Walker and Nyx can give shyer cats like Sylar a hard time, but Onyx stands her ground, and there’s nothing wrong with her chicken appetite!

Sara Lee's Eyes

In some lights, Sara Lee’s eyes clearly show their different colours (KN)

Sara Lee is another laundry-room girl, but unlike Onyx, she loves human attention. Her hearing is beginning to fail, and as it does, her voice gets louder, demanding that someone come pet her / feed her / turn on a tap… She doesn’t choose to climb to Onyx’s level, preferring to be within reach; her usual nesting place is on either the washer or the dryer, where warmth comforts and vibrations seem to soothe.

Onyx's smile

Contented smile (LP)

Being on the drier also has the advantage of being by the sink at mealtimes. Catfood cans are soaked in hot water for ten minutes or so, to make the food softer and more palatable, and Sara Lee like to be where she can get the first taste of warm gravy. She does quality control for every single common plate, just to make sure she gets the best.

She trained little Barbara, before she was adopted out, and her usual sampling partner these days is big Cole – though it’s less a shared experience than of two single-minded cats ignoring one another. Sara Lee is quite social – she was a regular visitor to Spike and Princess’s cuddle-sessions, and she can often be found snuggled up with other buddies in the laundry room.

Sara Lee with Barbara

Sara Lee sharing with Barbara (BC)

Sharing a bed with Cinnamon Bun Lincoln (LBF)

Once the weather improves, and staff/volunteers are able to enjoy break-time sitting in the open air, Sara Lee will be one of the first to join them. She may be tiny and old, but she is an experienced and enthusiastic lap-sitter (though not a relaxed one – she stands in laps rather than sitting in them), and likes to navigate around the table to visit all her human friends.  If there is chicken on offer, so much the better!  The only thing that she doesn’t like about laps is that the humans will try to groom her, a process she doesn’t enjoy very much. One of the features of an aging cat is that often they will not groom themselves properly, and Sara Lee’s smoky fur (black on top and white underneath) is more matted than we like to see.

Just as we’ve recently been celebrating Betty White’s almost 100-year-old life, so we need to celebrate Onyx and Sara Lee’s 20 years – a significant achievement for a couple of cats who came to us from feral beginnings. We know that there are cats that live longer lives – just as there are humans who are still active in their 100s – and this pair couldn’t be in a better place to be medically tended and given love by many people. Two tough and active little old ladies – here’s toasting you in Sara Lee’s favourite cat-gravy! – long life to you both! L’chaim!


Blog by Brigid Coult
Photos by Lisa Brill-Friesen, Karen Nicholson, Lisa Parker, Michele Wright