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Where cats rule the roost

Heather McCullough lives in a full house. The longtime Elmira resident shares her Arthur Street home with her husband Jim, her three children who come to visit, their dog Sophie, and an aquarium full of fish. Oh, and don’t forget Bubba, Jasper, Bob, Mini-Me, Molly, Chocolate and Silver – a handful of the many Tonkinese cats who sit atop couch cushions, window frames, and the mantelpiece.

Heather McCollough enjoys a bit of playtime with some of the Tokinese cats at her home, from which she runs the S.S. No. 9 Cattery. She’s a breeder of the rare felines, which are a mix of Siamese and Burmese.

McCullough is one of only three people in Canada who breed and sell Tonkinese cats, a cross between the Siamese and the Burmese that she says makes a playful, inquisitive and affectionate companion.

“I have always been a cat person, but not always quite to this extent,” said McCullough with a laugh. “I saw a beautiful, champagne coloured Tonkinese peeking up at me from the cover of an issue of Cat Fancy magazine at the convenience store one day and just knew that this was the cat for me.”

Her family got their first cat when she was six years old and she has lived with at least one feline ever since. She began her business, called the S.S No. 9 Cattery, after the schoolhouse which used to operate where she now lives, in 1990. She found her first Tonkinese cat in Pennsylvania in 1992.

“Despite being a Canadian breed, there are not a lot of breeders in Canada,” she noted. “They are rare, so we find that people come from all over the place to Elmira to get them.”

The first litter came during a thunderstorm by flashlight while McCullough was getting her daughter ready for her first ballet recital; the cats have not stopped surprising her ever since.

“When you are an animal breeder, you never stop learning. Every time I think I have seen it all, something new comes up.”

And the challenges she faces are more complicated than simply changing a litter box every now and again, said the former stay-at-home mom who now works full-time at her business.

“Most people probably think we have two litter boxes, a dish of food, a couple of cats running around and that’s it,” said McCollough, who has welcomed more than 50 litters into her home. “When in reality we spend hundreds of dollars on their diets, we have to make sure each cat has had its proper shots, we spay or neuter each kitten and ensure that they are well adjusted and sociable. It’s pretty much a full-time job.”

In addition to the normal nine-to-five hours of a job, cat breeding carries over to the dinner hour when the kittens hop up on the counter to take a look at what is being prepared, and even into the wee hours of the night. The McCullough’s share their bed with three or four cats per night.

But as all-consuming as this sort of business can be, McCullough wouldn’t want it any other way.

“That’s what I love about them and also what can drive you crazy. Whatever you’re doing, they’re doing. They are known for their inquisitiveness and their social personality.”

When the cats are born, they spend the first eight to 10 weeks in isolation with the rest of their siblings and their mother before being socialized with the rest of the cats and the family dog. All pet-quality kittens are spayed or neutered before they leave the McCullough’s home. The surgery is done at 12 weeks of age and then the kittens are ready to leave for their new homes. Interested buyers must pass a screening test to determine if their lifestyle is a suitable fit for a Tonkinese.

“They make a great pet for people in the city, they don’t need to be walked and they adapt well to most family situations,” explained McCullough. “But we always like to get to know the people that we sell the cats to, to make sure that they will fit well in the home.”

For more information about the cattery or about purchasing a Tonkinese cat, see the McCullough’s website, www.ssno9tonkinese.com.

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