I have to take a bit of a time out from talking about all the dark stuff in my life to talk about something more important: cats.
But first, let me state this once, emphatically, for the record: I am a dog person. Always have been, always will be. I was raised with them. I adore them. If I’m at a party, I very literally am that person on the floor playing with the dog. I consider dog slobber on my outfit a bonus. I freely admit that I suck at “command voice,” because every dog who’s met me knows just as well as I do that I’d rather be play-bowing with them and romping across the yard than commanding them to do some stupid trick that only other humans would want them to do.
But if the very same dog who ignored my half-hearted commands five seconds ago does something wrong/dangerous, for them or for their humans, one word from me and that dog heels with the most ashamed look you’ve ever seen on a dog’s face. They know when they’ve screwed up for real, because they can hear it in my voice. In one terribly unfortunate incident, a dog splayed to the floor on its belly and pissed itself when I looked at it sternly.
I speak dog in a way that very few human beings actually do. Only my dad, mom, and sister speak dog better.
And so, full disclosure, you need to know this: If I know you and you claim your dog (whom you raised from a puppy) has “issues” that you can’t address, even if I’m nice to your face, in my mind I’m seriously judging you for how you’ve failed your dog.
Yeah, I know, that doesn’t sound nice, and it’s probably unfair. But it’s true. I work very hard to be a well-intentioned human being. And if I’m confronted with a dog that behaves like crap or doesn’t like me…well, that tells me everything I need to know about the dog’s owner. Because while many people say they never trust a person their dog doesn’t like, and that’s wise, that maxim works the other way around, too: Dogs are the best mirror of human behavior. If I’m in a room with a poorly-behaved, inconsistent dog, I know the owner is also poorly-behaved and inconsistent. If I’m in a room with a dog that’s aggressive, well…
Only twice in my entire adult life have I been afraid of a dog. I’ve been afraid around people’s dogs more than twice, but only twice has it been the dog who was at fault. In fact, now that I think of it, I can honestly say that I’ve only ever been afraid of one dog. The other case that immediately leapt to mind–a hideously overclocked, massive pitbull–could likely have been resolved safely and harmoniously had the dog been properly fixed and trained by his owner. But the owner was a paranoid and drunk delinquent, so the pittie went untrained and unfixed and everyone and everything around the pittie continued to be in danger. (It was a horrible waste of a good dog. Most pitties are by nature wonderful animals.) And that sums up my attitude toward so-called “problem” dogs: the vast majority of the time, the problem isn’t the dog. It’s the two-legged animal that purported to have raised the dog.
But I digress. Again.
God help me, I’m actually here to talk about cats.
There’s a reason more Americans own cats than dogs. Cats do well in apartments; they can be left for a few days at a time with minimal supervision; they’re reasonably compact and light; and they require no more hands-on maintenance than a few minutes of brushing, claw-trimming, feeding, and litter box cleaning. Playtime can even be accomplished from your seat on the couch (especially if you have what my sister affectionately refers to as a “fishing pole” cat toy). Compared to training, feeding, walking, bathing, and claw-trimming a hundred pound dog, taking care of a nine pound cat is an absolute breeze…
…you’ve gotten the cat for the wrong reasons.
And it’s pretty humbling to realize that, when it comes to the two cats who have suddenly appeared in my household over the last six months, I’m the two-legged animal who has made some questionable decisions.
For the moment, I’ll leave aside the problem of, “I’m a cancer patient with MS, what the hell am I doing trying to afford two cats???” I’ll focus instead on the more direly immediate question, the dilemma that has taken up the vast majority of my time for almost a month now: “HOW THE HELL DO I KEEP ONE CAT FROM KILLING THE OTHER?”
You see, there’s a story. At the heart of it is my intentions for getting the cats in the first place. And very shortly, you’ll see the problem. I wish I’d seen it sooner myself.
In September 2019, my husband’s bestie (B) called us in a bit of a panic. Several months before that, the bestie’s girlfriend (BG) had re-homed her eleven year old longhaired calico, Zelda. BG didn’t want to; she’d raised Zelda from a kitten. The problem was that the three dogs she’d raised in the meantime had become increasingly belligerent toward the cat. And as the eldest of the dogs became, frankly, kinda demented, it became apparent that the cat had to leave the house in a cat carrier before it left the house in towel-wrapped pieces destined for a hole in the back yard. So BG found a suitable and willing “friend” whom we’ll call F (for good reason), and gifted her with the cat and hundreds of dollars of cat-care items. It was the humane call; after all, an eleven year old calico has many good years yet and could be re-homed. Not so much the demented hundred-pound dog, or the two other, younger dogs who had by now been irretrievably trained by the oldest dog to hate cats. So BG did right by Zelda the calico…but then, six months later, F suddenly dumped Zelda, the cat carrier, her shot record, and absolutely nothing else, back on BG’s front porch.
Thus the kinda-panicked phone call from B. B and BG were in the midst of a literal life-and-death family crisis, and suddenly the cat had been dumped in their laps, too. B knew we’d been talking about getting a cat. Would we be interested in coming to see Zelda?
On the way there I told my husband, “We can’t get a cat if the litter box job is left to me, because I can’t. Doctor’s orders. You realize this, right?” He grudgingly agreed that the litter box job would be his if we got the cat. “And if this cat is bite-y,” I continued, “we are not bringing her home. I’ve done my time cat-sitting for piece-of-shit bite-y cats. I’m not doing that again. Right? No biters?” And he agreed.
I took one look at the thin, dusty cat so traumatized that she wouldn’t take her face away from the wall under B’s bed and said, “We’ll take her.”
I knew practically nothing about cats in general, and absolutely nothing about this cat in particular. I had no idea about its habits, its predilections, or its attitude. But my heart ached with compassion and sadness for Zelda the moment I saw her. My heart also simmered with disgust for the animal who’d dumped her on BG’s porch.
In the course of just a few hours, Zelda went from a home that neglected and didn’t want her, back to the home that (to a cat, anyway) reeked of the dogs who wanted to murder her, and lastly to a home that smelled like no place she’d ever known in her life. The whole way to our house, Zelda shook so badly that my daughter could feel it through the bottom of the cat carrier.
All I could think was, “I’ve got to help this suffering animal.”
My husband and I tore through our house like a whirlwind, setting up a litter box, food, water, and a cat tree exactly like the one she’d had before being dumped. Through all the noise, Zelda remained in the carrier, sitting in my daughter’s lap as she watched TV. When we were finally ready to let the cat out into her new suroundings, I approached the carrier with trepidation, fully expecting the cat to be a shaking, aggressive mess because of all the trouble.
Imagine our surprise and pleasure to find the cat peacefully watching TV through the holes in the carrier. So we were smiling and happy when we let her out by the litter box.
My daughter was upset when Zelda soon disappeared under the darkest part of the guest room bed and stayed there, but my husband and I consoled her with the facts: it was going to take a very long time for Zelda to come back out. The poor cat had been through a lot. As long as the food and water levels kept going down, we intended to leave her untouched for upwards of a month if we had to…just to prove to her that we meant her no harm.
Imagine our surprise and pleasure to find Zelda coming out to investigate the rest of the house after only a few days. She purred, and presented herself for head pettings, and looked, frankly, kind of stunned, with an expression that said, “But…but…where are the dogs? Where are the people who hated me? Is this really all mine?”
It took time, and she was still scared as hell–she’d disappear in a frantic ball of sliding fur and legs at the slightest unexpected noise, which, in a family with an eleven year old human child, happens really often–but Zelda settled in nonetheless. She was not unusally standoffish for a cat (according to my cat-person husband). We could pet Zelda exactly twice at any given time, though only in Zelda-approved areas of her head and neck, and only if we presented our hand (singular!) to her face first and she responded with a bow to be petted. Anything else received the immediate threat of claws or teeth. Even playtime was a careful endeavor, as she’d never learned how to play using soft paws. But we humans learned Zelda, and Zelda learned us, and things went pretty well for a few months. She’d settle on the arm of the couch to watch TV with us in the evenings, everyone calm and comfortable in proximity to each other. She even took to chasing things we couldn’t see in our upstairs hallway in the evenings, and that cracked us up hard; from the living room couch, all we could see were her ears bobbing up and down as she “cat-danced” the length of the hall, trying to catch invisible things in midair. Shoot, I don’t care if you’re a cat person or not, that’s funny right there.
Then she began to act weird in an unhappy way. Whenever we all left the house, whoever came back first (usually me) was treated to hours of nonstop mewing and attempts to herd. She was so aggressive about herding me that she came perilously close to knocking me down the stairs multiple times a week. She began systematically stripping the carpet from her cat tree and eating it, then upchucking the resulting hairballs almost daily. Her food consumption dropped by half. She didn’t quit grooming, but her coat became muddy-looking and she refused to let us brush her. She mewed and presented herself at all hours of the day and night for petting, but if we reached out to her (even in her previously-approved way), she immediately rejected us and moved off (if we were lucky)…or swatted at us (if we weren’t). She got grouchy over things that she’d handled with aplomb just a few weeks before. Suddenly even my husband (who plays with cats the way I play with dogs) became hesitant about attempting to play with Zelda. Instead of “our cat,” Zelda became the cat that merely shared living space with us.
Given my history of the last few years, I immediately thought something medical was going on. I didn’t relish the idea of trying to get her back into her cat carrier. But my husband, the curmudgeon who had rejected the idea of getting even one cat for years because it meant he had to clean a litter box, said flatly, “She’s not acting sick. She’s acting lonely.” In disbelief, I looked up the signs of loneliness in cats…
…and there they were. All of her unhappy weirdnesses, all in one list. Pica (eating things that weren’t food). Lack of grooming. Refusing food. Neediness. Constant herding. Constant bids for attention, followed by constant rejection. Irritability.
My daughter failed utterly to hide her delight at the idea of getting a second cat.
All the way to the rescue center, I prayed not to find a suitable cat. Because even though I agreed that Zelda was acting weird, I just didn’t want a second cat. One kitty was difficult enough. And I wasn’t convinced that Zelda needed a kitty friend, either. More than likely, she was just detoxing from the sheer amount of drama that had been a feature of most of her life. It had been literally years since she’d lived anywhere quiet. If I’d come from a series of bizarro-worlds in which I never got a moment’s rest, I’d be showing PTSD bigtime as soon as I got someplace quiet…and, to my eyes, anyway, that’s what Zelda was doing.
I’m by nature an introvert. I know my signs of exhaustion when I’ve been around too many people for too long. I also know the signs when circumstances have forced me waaay beyong my tolerances for other people. When I finally get back to someplace quiet, I lash out at things I normally adore, because my heart hurts for the torture I’ve just been through.
I didn’t think Zelda was lonely. Hurting, yes. Just not because of loneliness. But we found a furry friend at the rescue center that practically begged to be taken home, so I thought, “Getting Zelda was a big gamble that mostly worked out. Maybe getting a kitty friend will, too.”
So we watched tons of videos on how to properly introduce cats, set up a second “home base” in a room we could isolate easily, and went to the shelter.
Enter Mrs. Claus. Terrible name, I know, and she’s not named that now, but that’s what the shelter called her in an effort to be “Christmas themed.” They run a pet drive called “Silent Night” in which they push to empty as many kennels as possible in time for the holidays…hence the name. I don’t think they thought through the homonyms vis a vis adoptability for a cat.
Mrs. Claus couldn’t have been sweeter if we poured honey on her. She was hugely friendly with other cats, accepted handling even when terrified (because of changes in location or people or sounds or smells or whatever), and treated every human being she met as a new person to love. She purred so constantly we found ourselves referencing the “Three Robots” skit from Love, Death, and Robots: “Oh, you’ve activated it.” Her demeanor was so genuinely wonderful that, when we decided on her, everyone at the shelter was delighted by Mrs. Claus’s swift good fortune. One volunteer even broke out into happy applause.
There was a bad moment in the car on the way home. Mrs. Claus latched four paws’ worth of claws into the four sides of the soft-sided carrier and imploded it onto herself in a twist of terror that left her rolling the entire bag around the floorboard of my car. But even that freakout slowly settled into quiet acceptance. And when we let her go in the new room, it didn’t take her long to find the windowsills and become visibly delighted to watch the trees move in the wind.
Within hours she was loving on us as if we’d been her family for years, and she wasn’t just a year old and freshly home from the shelter.
We began the careful process of feeding the cats on opposite sides of a closed door. It went reasonably well. Zelda hissed once or twice, but it never progressed beyond that. There was no growling, no hackles, no yowling. There was a lot of sniffing under the door by Zelda. And Kuki–the Japanese word for “cookie,” because the new cat had to be named after a dessert of some kind with her chocolate and caramel markings–laid down as calmly as if she was being checked out by her best friend instead of a total stranger.
Over the course of ten days, the cats progressed steadily to the point of eating together, immediately on either side of the closed door. We switched out the door for a sheet of scarred-up plexiglass that we had on hand, and kept our fingers crossed.
A bit more hissing from Zelda, and the beginnings of a low yowl…but that was it. We played like mad with them both, continued feeding side by side, and Zelda retreated to merely a hiss every so often. Kuki remained, very literally, laid back.
Until she decided she was done being cooped up.
It didn’t matter that she’s a compact cat that weighs less than nine pounds. She decided she was done…and slammed her body weight into the plexiglass so hard and so repeatedly that she moved the three cases of canned soda we’d pinned the bottom with and tore the tape at the top clean off the door frame. She was out and free before we could stop her. The cats got one glance at each other, Kuki going up the stair case, Zelda coming down to investigate the noise. Both cats stopped dead.
We hustled everybody back to their safe zones. Unforunately, damage was done–we just didn’t know it until the next weekend. When we removed the plexiglass entirely and attempted what Jackson Galaxy calls “Eat Play Love”–in which the cats are encouraged to share a room as they eat and play, albeit from far corners–Zelda instantly locked onto Kuki with the deathgaze. Despite all our best distractions and treats, Zelda began to stalk Kuki. We intervened…but not in time. Kuki broke for the door. Zelda gave chase.
And this was not playtime.
Zelda was going after Kuki at full speed, with obvious intent to kill. There was no yowling, no growling, no hissing, no warning. Just BOOM. Instant kill mode at a sprint. Kuki zigged and zagged in sheer terror, and we thundered up the stairs after them as fast as we could run. My husband managed a lucky snag at Zelda’s tail and came within a hair’s breadth of receiving teeth and claws in his hand as Zelda rounded on him. He was so surprised and angry that he hissed at her, exactly like a 280-pound cat. She cowered, but only long enough for my daughter and I to get one step ahead.
We slammed the bathroom door behind Kuki to protect her. When we found her there a few minutes later, after Zelda was safely corralled elsewhere in the house, Kuki was hiding in the bath tub. Her eyes were the size of nickels. She was shaking. She squirmed out of our hands every time we picked her up. We ended up putting her back in the hated soft-side carrier just to get her back downstairs to her safe room.
Three weeks of work, undone in less than twenty seconds. And worse, we weren’t just back at zero: we were in negative territory. Because now, every time we attempted feeding on opposite sides of the door, Kuki would growl and hiss, too, and bristle up her beautiful chocolate-and-caramel coat like a bottle brush. Even under the influence of weapons-grade catnip, both cats remained scared and angry.
We’ve been using the entire house minus one room as our locations for site-switching, for weeks on end. We’re at the six week mark now, and the cats still can’t even be within sight of each other at the plexiglass without all hell breaking loose.
So at this moment, this two-legged animal is asking herself, What the actual fuck have I done?
So, my intentions here were honorable. Save Zelda. Give her a friend. Love on Kuki as much as she loves on us. Right? How could those things go wrong?
Instead of thinking we were the right family to “save” Zelda, maybe we should’ve been thinking about who else might be.
We’d thought that her cues were “loneliness.” They weren’t. They were just signs that maybe she doesn’t like us all that much. She’s neurotic, angry, and scared after years of PTSD-grade trauma, and our house is not as quiet as we thought. It’s actually a stampede of coming and going, a welter of ear-splitting volume and total silence, as my eleven year old daughter comes and goes with or without a gaggle of shrieking friends, or as my husband sits quietly doing work or cues up first-person shooter games at volume. We may not have dogs, but we do have some mighty loud humans. And Zelda’s only a few months into her learning curve of this family. Getting her a “friend” so soon turned into getting her a living, breathing animal as a punching bag instead.
As for our intention of loving on Kuki as much as she loves on us, well, that backfired spectacularly, didn’t it? Now she’s scared of any noises we make, because those noises might include the psycho cat who lives in the rest of the house.
I’ll be good and goddamned before I give Kuki back to the shelter, because she’s the sweetest cat I’ve ever met. But I refuse to be the two-legged animal who dumps Zelda a second time.
Which leaves me with the question, what the hell do I do?
So now I have a little more empathy for those dog owners I’ve met who get a dog and then have zero clue how to handle them. I still don’t have a lot of empathy, mind you; after all, I did (and continue to do) my homework on how to handle the animals I adopted. I don’t believe in quitting when the going gets rough. We’re committed to site-switching, catnip, and kitty pheromones until this gets sorted. I won’t be that two-legged animal who throws the dog on a chain in the yard and forgets about it.
But with these two cats in my house, I’ve received a firsthand, visceral teaching on how right intentions might nonetheless pave the road to Hell.
Update: It’s interesting what effects COVID-19 social isolation has had on our in-house cat dynamics.
The site-switching was simply too stressful on both cats, and us, to continue it. So the downstairs bedroom became Zelda’s domain, and only Zelda’s domain. We would keep her company most evenings, but that was about it. Nothing but two windows, a couple toys, and food and water to keep her busy all day. We fretted about how lonely she might get. It was as if she was in a bedroom-sized cage at the shelter…just minus the bedlam of noise and stress pheromones. We didn’t like how that made us feel as cat owners.
But then social isolation hit, and we were spending every evening with Zelda, and we discovered something amazing: she wasn’t lonely. She was loving the quietude.
In fact, she was loving it so much that, when she caught scent of the cat on the other side of the door, she’d immediately come to us for extra pettings. And, for the first time in months, she tolerated us brushing her. (Just in time, too. She’s getting some small mats.) We’re even getting brave enough to consider attempting trimming her claws soon…once we’ve got some CBD oil in her, anyway.
Who knew that isolation would quiet us enough as a family to allow Zelda to meet us halfway? They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but apparently Zelda is even more resilient than I gave her credit for. We just had to stumble upon the things she needed to make her happier with us.
Kuki has been a lifesaver during this craziness. She’s become one step shy of a living, breathing stuffed animal for my daughter to snuggle out her stress. Kuki has also become the whole family’s source of comic relief as she learns the lion’s share (cat’s share?) of the house. She thunders up and down the stairs, flies up the backs of our fabric chairs and across our beds, and cracks us up multiple times a day.
Who knew that isolation would see us laughing harder as a family than we’ve laughed in months?
And this weekend, for the first time in months, we tried the plexiglass again. It’s been two whole days, and Zelda has only hissed once. In fact, both cats have remained mostly chill, lying down and glancing at each other every so often, like two strangers checking out the fact that that other woman over there might have arrived at the same party wearing their same dress. But for the moment both of them have decided to rise above their cattiness and remain cool about it.
I pray to all that’s holy this continues. Because I didn’t want to become a one-cat household. My intentions here were right…just perhaps not as practical as they should’ve been. I’m glad the cats seem to be allowing me my folly.