When Ida M. Barthlow, 92, and her 76-year-old husband Leroy moved last November from a dilapidated farm house in Gaithersburg to a high-rise complex for the elderly, they didn't have much to bring with them -- just a few pieces of tattered furniture, and an 8-year-old feline, named "Baby Cat."

Now the company running Forest Glen Towers has threatened them with eviction if they do not get rid of the cat, and the Barthlows have settled in for a fight.

Grady Management Inc., the company in charge of the 175-unit federally subsidized building, sued the Barthlows for breach of their lease and on July 14, Leroy Barthlow argued his case before Montgomery County District Court Judge Thomas A. Lohm. Barthlow said he was never informed by the landlord that pets were not allowed. The cat was necessary for the "health and welfare" of his wife, he argued.

Judge Lohm found there had been a breach of the lease, but that it was "not substantial" and did not warrant eviction. Grady Management's attorneys immediately filed an appeal to the higher Circuit Court and a jury trial has been scheduled for later this year.

Barthlow, a retired carpenter, says he and his wife cannot afford to move into an apartment that would allow cats. Their combined income from Social Security is $688 a month, he says, their life's savings $1,045. The couple pays $136 a month in rent.

They also cannot afford to get rid of the cat, Barthlow says, because it is vital to his wife's health. Eight years ago, he explains, Ida became seriously crippled with arthritis and nerve disorders, and her doctor suggested that a small pet might raise her spirits.

Two weeks later, at his next-door neighbor's, he found just what the doctor ordered: a bushy-tailed, gray and white kitten.

The couple carried "Baby Cat" into Forest Glen in a brown cardboard box, and had no problems until the resident manager discovered the cat in March. Beverly Antonelli, the resident manager, said she told the couple before they moved in that the complex did not allow pets, a claim Barthlow denies.

"Baby Cat," part Persian and part Maltese, strained at his leash yesterday when Leroy Barthlow let the cat out of the bathroom, where he is kept while visitors are in the apartment.

"He is very protective of my wife. We have to keep him away from strangers because he thinks they might be trying to hurt her," said Barthlow, as he guided the cat over to his wife.

Earlier, while her husband talked to a visitor, Ida Barthlow had sat motionless and stared into the distance, but she sprang to life when the cat entered the room and reached out for the animal.

"He's my baby," she said as the cat climbed, purring into her arms. "He's the only thing in this world I've got."

Sometimes, Barthlow said his wife wakes him in the middle of the night and asks him to bring the cat into the bedroom. "She's so afraid someone is going to take the cat," he said. "She just wants to make sure he's still here."

"If we allowed one tenant to have a pet, everybody would want one," said Antonelli. "We have health and safety considerations to think about."

Barthlow resents such remarks. "This cat doesn't bother anybody," he said.