March 26, 2014 09:40 PM

Ashley Ransley says she owes her life, in part, to a cat named Riley. It was back in 2008 when Ransley, who had battled anorexia while in high school and college, had left yet another treatment center and resigned herself to the idea that her disorder would ultimately kill her.

“She was dying,” recalls her mom, Nancy Day, 66. “There was nothing we could do to reach her.”

Nothing, that is, until a stray kitten wandered into her family s backyard in Fenton, Mich., and Ransley fed it a piece of hot dog. She decided to adopt the tiny animal. A few days later, she took it to a local veterinarian and received a bit of news that transformed her life.

Her new pet, it turns out, wasn’t a kitten – it was a severely malnourished adult cat. “I didn’t see the irony at the time,” recalls Ransley, who quickly threw herself into nursing Riley back to health – and eventually began to get a better grip on her own health, with continued treatment.

Today, Ransley, 27, works as a therapist, helping those who are battling eating disorders. “Riley,” she says, “was the catalyst for me getting better.”

For more stories of the life-changing power of pets, pick up this week’s PEOPLE magazine.

• With reporting by SHARON COTLIAR

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