When Tori Toth first saw the calico slinking down the street, she thought it was Rusty.
Her neighbor’s cat is one of the friendliest on the block. Toth called out, but instead of bounding over for a back rub, this cat gave her what can only be described as kitty stink eye.
That wasn’t Rusty.
Not one to be deterred by a dirty look, Toth grabbed a can of wet food and approached the car the feline was hiding under. The mystery kitty was cloaked in shadows, but she could tell the poor thing hadn’t had a solid meal in a long time. His coat was matted and covered in dirt.
She placed the wet food next to the cat. He devoured it. She ran back to the house for a bowl of water. He approached the dish tentatively.
And that’s when she saw it.
Half of the cat’s cheek was gone. Where there should have been fur and skin was a gaping hole that stretched from his ear to his nose. She could see the muscles in his cheek work as he eagerly lapped the water. The wound was raw and covered in puss.
“I was just like, oh my God, what do I do?” says Toth.
She scooped him up and rushed him to her veterinarian. There, a technician coaxed him out of the back seat and told Toth: “We’ll give you a call.”
She didn’t know what to expect.
“I’d never rescued an animal before,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘my husband’s going to kill me. How much is this going to cost?’”
The answer: a lot.
The poor thing had no cheek but tons of health problems. First up was kidney disease. He also had feline AIDS. His teeth were infected and had to be pulled. Then there was the hole in the cheek—likely a result of a fight with another cat.
The vet staff guessed he was about seven years old and wasn’t sure how much time he had left, considering his ailments.
Toth was given the option of footing the bill and taking a chance, or putting the ailing feline out of his misery.
“I felt so bad, I never had to put an animal down before,” Toth says. “I wanted him to live. He had found me. I was able to get him this far already.”
So, she asked the vet to make it work.
The cat was at the clinic for a week while doctors worked to bring him back to health, Toth and her husband Sal tried to figure out what they were going to do with him.
Feline AIDS, or FIV, can be transmitted from cat to cat via bodily fluids, says Dr. Valerie Carril of Howard Beach Animal Clinic, one of the doctors who treated the rescue cat. Though their immune system is compromised, cats with this disease can lead close to normal lives. “It’s not a death sentence,” she says.
But Toth and and her husband didn’t want to risk the health of their other cats, Tigz and Remy. They set up a dog crate for their new cat in a guest room, and used a baby gate to keep the other pets out of his space.
It was a rough few months at first. The cat’s health was touch and go. It seemed like every few weeks he had to be rushed back to the vet.
But as the seasons changed, the cat regained his strength.
He also grew more interested in his new family. One day when Toth and her husband were gone, the found a way out of the baby gate. They came home to find all three cats hanging out together.
Toth and Sal were nervous about their original cats’ health. But when Remy needed a tooth pulled, they asked to also have him tested for Feline Aids. He came back clean.
Today, the once mangy cat with the missing cheek is now a beautiful and healthy part of the family. He sleeps on Toth’s back every night. He’s even game for the occasional walk on a leash.
A few weeks ago, Toth learned a teenager in the neighborhood had been feeding the cat before she rescued him. At first she was a little surprised that someone could see a cat in that condition and not do anything.
But if that teenager had done something, Toth might never have found her beloved pet. She might never had had the chance to nurse him back to health and give him a proper home.
She might never have had the chance to name him Cheeks.
“We call him Cheeky Cheeks,” she says. “He is the most loving, energetic cat I’ve ever had.”