Genevieve Moss has profound hearing loss, and she was feeling lonely and isolated as she flipped through the local newspaper at her home in Chesterfield, England.
"Being in a silent world and living alone without any human support caused a lot of distress and anxiety," Moss said in an email interview with The Washington Post.
Then something stopped her as she read the paper that day in April 2021, deep in the pandemic.
"I saw a photo of a tiny black and white ball of fluff, and I fell in love with him then and there," said Moss, 66.
A family had placed an ad, hoping to find a home for the last kitten in their cat's litter. When Moss reached out to them, the family arranged to bring by the two-month-old domesticated shorthair with tuxedo markings. Soon, the deal was sealed.
"He jumped from their arms straight into mine, and I knew that he had chosen me," said Moss, who decided to call him Zebby because his colors resembled those of a zebra.
Moss had heard of studies showing that pets can help to alleviate loneliness for people who live alone, but she had no idea the cat would turn into her helper and her ears, even grabbing her mail and slippers for her.
And last month, about 21/2 years after Zebby leaped into her life, Moss was stunned when her cat was named Britain's National Cat of the Year by Cats Protection, the country's largest feline welfare charity.
Zebby beat about 3,000 nominees for the title because of the many ways he helps Moss, said Zahir White, spokesperson for Cats Protection.
"He'd had no training at all," Moss said, "but his cat instincts and curiosity seemed to tell him that I needed his help - that I wasn't able to hear anything at times when the hearing aids were out of my ears."
"People were impressed with how a cat like Zebby can help someone who is in a vulnerable position," said White, adding that about 24,000 people cast votes online this year for their favorite finalists in the annual contest.
White said Zebby essentially taught himself to help Moss around the house and "act as Genevieve's ears."
Moss has no hearing in her left ear and hearing capability of less than 30 percent in her right ear. Even with hearing aids, she said, it is often difficult to pick up sounds.
From their first night together, Zebby slept next to her, and if he heard noises in the dark, he would jump up and become agitated, she said.
After several weeks, Moss noticed that whenever her phone rang or somebody knocked on the door, he would tap her with his paw or pace in front of her to alert her.
He’d had no training at all, but his cat instincts and curiosity seemed to tell him that I needed his help
When security lights came on outside, she said, her cat would scratch at the glass and run around the room until she woke up.
"He became my security guard and night watch cat," she said. "Sometimes, he would even nibble my toes to wake me."
It wasn't long before Zebby took on another task: picking up Moss's mail.
"He heard the rattle of the letterbox being opened, and he stretched up on his back legs and pulled the letter from the flap as a hand posted it through," she said. "I thought at first it was a 'one off' game, but he continued to do it every time the post arrived."
Zebby now carries the mail in his mouth and drops it at her feet, Moss said. He also fetches her slippers if she's not wearing them.
"He has helped break the loneliness and has made my house a home," she said. "Zebby always makes me laugh."
Late last fall, Moss said, she was scrolling through Facebook when she came across a post seeking nominations for the 2023 National Cat Awards. Open contest categories included Cat Colleagues (bringing joy to the workplace), Family Fur-ever (making families complete) and Moggy Marvels (extraordinary felines).
"I was keen to let them know about my fur baby," she said.
She filled out an application online in the Family Fur-ever category, explaining her hearing loss and how Zebby had taught himself to alert her to sounds inside and outside the house.
"I've never known a cat quite like him," she wrote in her application.
Moss said she was stunned when she received word earlier this year that Zebby had won the family category and, even better, that he was one of three finalists for the grand prize, National Cat of the Year. Finalists are chosen through a combination of public votes and panel judges.
The winner is selected by judges and announced at a ceremony in London.
Besides Zebby, this year's National Cat of the Year finalists included a sociable cat named Elsa that visits local shops in Bridgwater, England, and Dali, a cat from Shipley, England, that survived for a month while stranded on a patch of river rocks.
At the July 17 ceremony, Moss's eyes filled with tears when Zebby's photo popped up on a giant screen and he was announced as the grand prize winner. The only downside, she said, was that Zebby wasn't there with her.
"I froze in disbelief when he won," Moss said.
She took home two glass-engraved awards for Zebby and a gift package that included a pet store voucher worth $255.
"As soon as I got home, I hugged him, then ordered him a superhero costume," she said. "I can't envision not having Zebby in my life now. Because of him, I'll never have to go back to those dark, lonely times."