A feline friend who helps his owner cope with the effects of a debilitating mental health condition has been named the country’s most caring cat at a national awards ceremony.
For Army veteran Jack Dignam-Thomas, of Hillesden, three-year-old Turkish Van cat Elias is more than a pet.
He is a vital part of Jack’s ongoing recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
And yesterday, Thursday, Elias walked off with the Most Caring Cat accolade at the National Cat of the Year Awards.
The overall winner of National Cat of the Year was Nelson, from County Durham.
Elias was nominated in the Most Caring Cat category back in May by Jack’s wife, Sally.
Both Jack and Sally were at a special ceremony at London’s Savoy hotel to hear the winners announced, after the awards were judged by a panel of experts and celebrities.
Jack, aged 60, has suffered from PTSD since serving as a dog handler with the Royal Army Veterinary corps in Northern Ireland in the 1980s.
Wife Sally explained: “Jack can have good days and bad days. He either withdraws completely into himself and switches off – he’s back in an incident that was partly responsible for causing the PTSD – or he becomes very aggressive.”
Jack said: “The job was high stress, very high stress – people from Army Dog Unit Northern Ireland have committed suicide.
“I dissociate because the stress, the ghosting, the flashbacks are too bad, so I switch off.”
In one terrifying incident, Jack was held for hours with a 9mm pistol to his head, after a member of his brigade went berserk.
But PTSD was not understood in those days.
Jack said: “When I admitted something had gone wrong with my head, I was told by my sergeant my career in the Army was finished. Two years later, I was given Services No Longer Required.”
Thankfully, Jack is finally getting the help he needs, thanks to the veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress and his GP, Dr Simons, of Steeple Claydon Surgery.
But when Jack withdraws into a dissociative state, it is only Elias who can break the spell.
Sally said: “They’ve got a special bond. If he senses that Jack is down or not having a good day, he will go over, jump up on Jack’s lap, climb up his chest and headbutt him, until Jack comes back to the here and now and fusses him.
“Then Elias will just purr and purr and purr and both of them will go to sleep.”
Jack said: “Elias is brilliant, he’s a monster, he weighs 16 or 17lb.
“You hear the ‘Wah’ noise and he hits me hard in the chest at full pelt. Then he’ll bash his head into mine and force my head right back.
“All that I’m aware of when I come back is him – and often a mouthful of hair.
“He does stop me from switching off so much.”
Sally added: “Elias has been a lifesaver, I don’t think that’s too strong.
“It’s difficult to choose between him and Combat Stress which has been the more help.
“With the help of Combat Stress and with the help of Elias, we’re getting to be on an even keel for the first time in 14 years, which is how long we’ve known each other.
“Jack still has his dark days and Elias can do what I can’t do.
“He brings Jack back.
“It’s quite difficult when Jack shuts down. It’s the one element of his life I can’t share.
“Elias bridges that gap.”