"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