Friday, September 9, 2022

On Training Cats

“By and large, people who enjoy teaching animals to roll over will find themselves happier with a dog.”

Barbara Holland, defender of drinking, 
smoking, cursing, fatty foods, and cats*

Upon getting my first cat—after four decades of dogs—I immediately set about teaching him to come when called while simultaneously imbuing him with a love for travel. When the going got tough45-seconds into trainingI found encouragement in envisioning a rewarding future in which I would say, “Brewsky, my boy, jump in the car and take a ride with your dear old Pappy,” after which Brewsky would leap onto the front seat and slobber on the window while his striped tail beat a happy cadence on the seat-back.

Sadly, the nearest I came to success was manhandling Brewsky into the car, after which he would cower beneath the seat until I manhandled him out again. After 82 months of frazzled nerves and growing exasperation, I tried to spur his manly resolve by mockingly asking if he was ready to give up and stay home. Imagine my surprise when he said, “GOD YES!” Aghast, I stalled for time by asking, “What say we sleep on it, and talk again tomorrow?” “That will not be necessary,” he responded soberly.

As my inventory of cats increased like mateless socks, I took a more successful stab at teaching cats to come when called. What follows is my patented method: (1) Inform cat of his or her name; (2) In a masterly voice, command cat to stay; (3) Walk three rooms away; (4) Call cat by name while shaking treat jar. (5) When cat has learned step 4, summon cat without shaking treat jar. 

Each of my cats learned the come-when-called trick with breathtaking speed, although one of them—my svelte tuxedo-girl, Scully—would arrive with the enthusiasm of a hungry schnauzer only to leave with equal enthusiasm upon receiving her treat. She would then repeat this behavior until the treat jar was empty, at which time she would resume her engrossing hobby of sitting alone in an empty room and staring at the wall.

Aside from Scully, the come-when-called classes were so successful that I convened a family meeting to announce that, the trick being mastered, treats would no longer be distributed, although a far greater reward—the pleasure of my company—would await all who obeyed my summons. The five of them kept their silence as they looked at me blankly before looking at one another blankly, prior to looking at me blankly (cats don’t lack emotion, but they do lack the facial muscles to show it).

Harvey, the attorney for the Cat Side of the Family responded less favorably than anticipated. In fact, he called my plan cananine** and insisted that my expectation that cats “come for nothing” was insulting. He even said that if I were really so stupid as to
withhold treats, that I could call cats until my ____ head fell off for all anyone cared. Blindsided, betrayed, mortally wounded, and mildly disappointed, I didn’t mince words when I said that they were the ones who were stupid if they really imagined that I was so desperate for affection that I would attempt to buy the “love of a lower species. Harvey grimly replied that what cats require in order to love a human is inconsequential compared to what humans require to love one another. 

Rather than admit that he was right, I shouted the cruelest thing that came to mind: “You, my friends, might soon find that you are playing games with the wrong human because I have the power to starve every last one if I so please, and if you withhold the freely-given love that I demand, I will so please.” Brewsky (the revered patriarch of the Cat Side of the Family) quietly said, “We’re done here,” and the five of them filed out with their tails raised like a phalanx of missiles and their anuses pointed like a battle-line of howitzers. An hour later, I walked through the house handing out treats.

** The term that cats favor over asinine.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

My Fragile Cat

Brewsky and Ollie 2015
What love looks like, Brewsky and a shell-shocked, Ollie, 2015

Brewsky, Sage, Scully, and Harvey are emotionally healthy. Ollie is not, perhaps because he was abandoned on the side of a highway while still nursing. A shelter volunteer fed him every few hours, day and night, until he was old enough to go to what rescue organizations optimistically call a “forever home.” We only had one cat at the time—a seven year old male tabby named Brewsky—but I had been wanting a second cat for years. When Peggy finally agreed, she said I could choose our new cat, and I chose Ollie.

Ignoring advice to keep Brewsky and Ollie apart for two weeks, we put them together soon after getting him home. Fifteen pound Brewsky’s ears went back, but this didn’t deter tiny Ollie from running flat-out toward him for comfort. After a tense period of utter shock and total bewilderment, Brewsky sniffed Ollie from one end to the other. Satisfied that he posed no danger, Brewsky bathed him. Ollie relaxed completely, but he wanted something more than a bath, so Brewsky “nursed” him. At age seven, Ollie is still nursing.

When Ollie began vomiting several times a week, his vet put him on a prescription-only cat food. He would still barf on occasion, especially if Peggy fed him (more about that later), so we bought a feeder that was designed to slow his eating. We also began feeding him in a separate room so the other cats couldn’t steal his food. Last winter, he started vomiting several times a week no matter who fed him, so I experimented. Instead of giving him three meals a day (like everyone else gets), I fed him six times a day, varying the size of his meals so that he got less food when he was most likely to vomit. I also put him on a fish-based, grain-free diet. He rarely vomits anymore, and when he does vomit, it’s usually after his ten-kibble breakfast, so it doesn’t amount to much.

As for why Ollie is more likely to barf when Peggy feeds him, it’s not because she’s a witch (Peggy is actually so gentle, loving, and soft-spoken, that our cats trust her completely). My theory is that Ollie barfs less when I feed him simply because I’m a man. My reasoning goes as follows… 

We mammals are vulnerable to attack when we eat, sleep, drink, bath, pee, and poop. Our four-footed friends know this. They also know that male humans are—on average— stronger than female humans. This awareness has both upsides and downsides. For example, a timid animal like Ollie is more likely to run from a male stranger (particularly if the stranger has a deep voice) than from a female stranger. Conversely, he looks primarily to me for protection. This, I believe, is why Ollie is better able to keep his food down when I feed him.

Over the decades, I’ve had a great many women tell me that their adopted shelter dogs shrank from my touch because they had been abused by men. When I asked how they knew this, they usually said they based it on the dogs’ behavior. I, too, have had dogs—and cats—who were fearful of male strangers, yet I knew they hadn’t been abused. 

Another outcome of this power imbalance is that men are—for the most part—better able to enforce obedience. For example, Peggy and I had a blue heeler (a small but aggressive breed that herds cattle by biting their heels and quickly ducking) who obeyed me with alacrity but ignored Peggy with impunity. Peggy became so frustrated that she sometimes said, “Make Bonnie obey me!”

Ollie’s dependence—combined with the physical pain I live with—means that I won’t be able to attend the funeral when Peggy’s 92-year-old father dies. It would take up to three planes rides and most of a day to get there, so even if I flew down one day, went to the funeral the next, and flew back the third, Ollie’s life would be endangered. I say this based upon multiple sources like the following:

“It is important to emphasise that…a cat that has had no food for as little as two days can become malnourished and unwell and may even need urgent veterinary care.”* 

I would be duty-bound to give Ollie a good life even if I didn’t love him, but because I do love him, duty is a sacred trust. I wouldn’t put his life at risk to attend the combined funerals of everyone in both our families, and although I hate feeling imprisoned by his fragility, I would hate myself if he died unnecessarily. So, what do I love about Ollie?

His green eyes and adonic physique... The flashes of silver in his dark gray fur that led Peggy to create his private breed name—Somalian Silver Plush... The way he stands in my lap, gazes into my eyes, and presses his nose to mine... His mealtime habit of jumping onto a “cat tree,” assuming a dignified pose, and silently looking me in the eye while the other cats circle noisily at my feet... The way he happily talks to himself while he’s eating. 

Through luck and wisdom, Ollie was able to replace the beloved parent from whose breast he was taken with two parents. He named Brewsky his parent because it was Brewsky who suckled him when he was a kitten—and still suckles him now that he’s seven. He named me his parent because his life had been marred by loss, confusion, and instability, and he believed I would keep him safe. He’s also the only one of our five cats that I chose, and I suppose it’s possible he knows this. I wish I knew.



Monday, August 1, 2022

My Cat and i


My Cat and i
Girls are simply the prettiest things 
My cat and i believe
And we’re always saddened
When it’s time for them to leave

We watch them titivating
(that often takes a while)
And though they keep us waiting
My cat & i just smile

We like to see them to the door
Say how sad it couldn’t last
Then my cat and i go back inside
And talk about the past  
by Roger McGough


The women being gone, man and cat returned to their companionable silence and their worshipful togetherness. Creatures of habit and ritual, the man was elegant in the blue silk smoking jacket that he wore while imbibing his port and smoking his meerschaum. The brilliantly white Turkish Angora was equally elegant as he savored his nightly caviar. The brothers enjoyed their companionable silence no less than they enjoyed the women’s words and laughter. But no matter how welcome their guests, the women remained guests. 

They were so very charming, though, that man wished he could keep one. Unfortunately, as a kitten, cat had been—to his later objection—neutered at man’s instigation, so anything more than friendship between man and a woman would have seemed unfair. So it was that man stuck to his bachelorhood while mumbling to himself, “A woman is a woman, but a cat is a cat.” When a buddy asked what man meant, man couldn’t bring himself to say that no mere woman could compare to a Turkish Angora.

The women wanted cat and man to visit them sometimes, but cat objected: “Why, oh man, should we go there when we are comfortable here?” When man repeated this to the women, they agreed that, for cat’s sake, the visiting would be one directional. Man felt badly about this, but he and the women realized that while cats are capable of noble deeds there’s not a single mention in recorded history of a cat having inconvenienced himself for the convenience of another.

Man also realized that cats are much like deities and that the first item on every deity’s to-do list is to demand sacrifice. One might think that, having everything, gods wouldn’t make demands, but cat deities do, especially at meal time. A veteran cat-lover, man had schooled himself to be okay with cat’s demands, but he wasn’t okay that cat’s advancing age was making him stiff and causing him to lose his balance. Cat had also observed these changes, but because nothing bad had ever happened to him, he tried to interpret them as a senescent growth spurt. 

For man, seeing cat’s meager jumps, slow runs, and poorly washed posterior was like seeing a runaway 18-wheeler in the rear-view mirror. Man knew that when the flame of cat’s life was extinguished, the flame of his own life would dim. This realization left him gasping for breath because cat was his life. He was thinking about this when he saw cat looking at him with question marks in his eyes. “Pardon me, cat, I must have a touch of indigestion.” When cat said nothing, their companionable silence turned cold and empty.

Death stood so big in man’s thoughts that he sometimes cried in the shower (a facility that cat studiously avoided) in anticipation of cat’s death. He wanted to keep his fear from cat, but this was becoming harder. A few weeks ago, one of the women had asked, “Did you know that ____ died?” It worried man that normally curious cat hadn’t asked what die means. He increasingly saw himself as a parent intent on protecting his child from the knowledge of a coming tragedy. A twelve-year-old cat might be the equivalent of a seventy-year-old human, but no cat has accumulated seventy years of knowledge and experience.

Man felt frantic to break the silence, so he said: “Hey, cat, remember the poem that goes,

We like to see them to the door
Say how sad it couldn’t last
Then my cat and i go back inside
And talk about the past”?

When cat said nothing, man tried again.

“That’s us, Cat, and what a past it has been! I love you, brother.”