CARRBORO, NORTH CAROLINA — Clients of the Charles House at Winmore sat a little straighter, hands folded in their laps and some smiling broadly, as Toby the Silver Tiger entered the room.
“To-by! Toby the Tiger,” one woman sang, clapping her hands in rhythm.
The black and silver-striped cat sniffed around, rubbing against shoes and chair legs. He stopped, turning his head to listen to each and every new sound he heard.
Owner Charlene Hayes wadded a piece of paper and tossed it onto the floor. Toby poked his paws forward, kicking it around while all the residents smiled and laughed, some reaching down to run a hand over his fur as he darted under their chairs.
“Cats. They’re just so clever,” said Fred Heinzel, who visits Charles House every day. He’s got two black cats — Ben and Jerry — at home who love to chase each other. It’s nice when Toby stops by the Charles House,” he said.
The cat, now 10 months old, has found a forever and a growing career as a companion for older adults with dementia and other health issues. His “play dates” regularly take him to Charles House and also other senior communities.
Toby is “curious and affectionate,” family friend Carla Shuford said. “It’s the perfect combination for a therapy cat.”
Toby is also blind.
Shuford connected Charlene Hayes, a therapy-dog foster parent and former animal clinic employee, with Toby just last year after learning that the then-12 week old cat was available for adoption from the Independent Animal Rescue group.
“The family had to act fast,” Hayes said. They picked up Toby on Saturday and, by Sunday, were all packed into a car with three cats for the 33-hour drive west to their summer home in Mexico. Hayes’s other cats Rikki Tikki Tavi, 8, and Alli Bali G, 15, also are blind.
Cats can be born or go blind for a variety of reasons, from heredity to trauma, diet and disease. Toby’s eyes were underdeveloped, causing his eyelids and also his lashes to turn under. ”
He had surgery in December to close them, reducing the chance of irritation and infection,” Hayes said.
Blind cats don’t know they’re blind, so life for Toby is fairly typical, she said. He perches in the window, listening to the winds and to the birds. He rolls around in the flowers and sharpens his claws on wood. He plays with his brothers and especially loves to play hide-and-seek, she said.
“They would run in the bedroom and jump on the bed and not move,” she said. “As soon as he would walk in the room, he would smell the air and jump on the bed, like, OK, I found you. So it is pretty amazing what other senses come forward to make up for the eyesight loss.”
Navigating a new space is simple once Toby learns the layout, she said. He has learned to use the stairs — he backs down like a toddler, she said — and jump between objects and to the floor. Hayes taps her finger just where she wants him to go. He wears a leash outside.
“When he’s running full speed, he doesn’t know any parameters,” she said. “He could fall into the pool, he has run into a tree, so we’re just trying to make sure that he’s going to be safe.”
Noisy toys are great, Hayes said, but she’s also teaching residents to go “fishing” for Toby by snapping ribbons in the air and pulling them along the floor. They cheered when Toby snagged his claw on the ribbon, wrestling to the floor.
“It’s all about entertainment for them, but it’s also for them to have the hands-on (experience), touching the fur,” she said. “If he hasn’t made his rounds, before we leave, I pick him up and make sure everybody has some fur time.”
Toby visits for just 30 minutes to an hour, sitting by the front door when he’s ready to go. Staff members have started to let them know when someone having a rough day and might need more attention, Hayes said. The visits have inspired at least one resident to get out of bed more instead of layingb down all day, she said.
“Sometimes it makes a big difference to have something to look forward to,” Hayes said.