Wee-hour Reflections on Cats

This is based on various thoughts I was having at three a.m.

So.  I’m lying here in a queen sized bed, in the middle of the night.  Beside me is Sean, sound asleep, and as usual, an earthquake probably wouldn’t wake him up.

A few minutes ago, Loki jumped up on the bed and started demanding my attention.  He’s been with me virtually all of his 13 years or so, and I can pretty much pet him in my sleep — in fact, I’m told I have — but he was restless as well.  He curled up against my stomach when I laid on my side, then got up, so I rolled onto my back and he came back to my side for more petting, but still was restless.  I finally woke up enough to really think about what was happening and asked him out loud what was wrong.

Angel, probably in response to my voice, jumped up on the bed too, and invited herself onto my pillow, curled around my head like a furry purring hat.  That meant petting one with each hand.  The old trick of patting one’s head and rubbing one’s stomach is nothing compared to petting two cats at once who like different things!  Trick I didn’t see, but that’s not a surprise, since he sleeps in the linen closet in the bathroom for some reason, every night without fail.

Finally, it occurred to me to check on Loki’s breathing, since he does have asthma.  Sure enough, while he was fine on the inhale as usual, there was a perceptible push on the exhale.  I got up to get his bronchodilator, the one that helps when he’s having trouble, and came back to bed.  Loki hopped up on the bed immediately, and laid there purring while I gave him a dose of his meds.  Afterwards, he left for a few minutes, probably to get something to eat, and I nudged Angel’s back legs one way, her front legs the other, and laid back down on my pillow with the top of my head touching her tummy.  Sure enough, Loki came back, and curled up for a much less restless snuggle-session, and all three of us fell asleep like that.

Eventually, that is.  I found myself thinking about the situation.

We’re so used to domestic animals that I don’t think most of us ever really stop to think about how incredible it is that we can form such intense bonds with a member of a completely different species.  It’s not a relationship of mutual convenience, it’s a relationship of love and trust.  Mutual love and mutual trust, I might add.

Biologically speaking, cats see us as their mothers for all their lives, and they retain some infantile behaviours because of it.  We provide food and shelter and affection long past the point where they would normally be out on their own.  But this is, I think, a gross simplification and a huge understatement.

Within the last fifteen minutes or so, remarkable things had occurred that I had more or less taken for granted.

Loki has not only made the connection that the bronchodilator will help him when needed, but he allows Sean or I to place a mask over his face twice a day for regular anti-inflammatories (Flovent) as well, without any bloodshed.  He hates to be held, and would rather lie there on his own while we do it.  Is this because he gets his gushifood right after?  Well, maybe, but he accepts the mask for his salbuterol as well, and it takes five to ten minutes to start working, and there’s no gushifood right after that.

Angel, who was once terrified, now trusts enough that we won’t be angry with her or punish her that she’s right here on my pillow.  I’m much larger than she is, I could hurt her terribly if I chose to, or I could do other unthinkable things like depriving her of food — and believe me, she’s aware of that.  But there’s a flip side to this.  I’m lying here with my face in easy reach of her formidable natural weaponry.  I know what she can do to my hand if I’m playing with her, if I’m silly and tickle her tummy when it’s available and she decides to grab me; at those times, she’s controlling it, inhibiting herself because she knows it’s me, and while she’ll respond to my temerity, she isn’t actually trying to hurt me… much.  Yet, trusting her, I’m lying here on my side with her curved around the top of my head, and if I open my eyes, I can see her forepaws only an inch or so from my eyes.  She could hurt me so much, if she chose to.  After all, I’m right against her most vulnerable area, her stomach.  Even if she turned playful, rather than aggressive; she wouldn’t need to use anything like her full impressive strength and coordination to do me real damage.

Yet, she doesn’t choose to, because she loves me and she trusts me and she understands what would hurt me so she avoids it.  And I don’t hurt her, because I love her and I trust her and I understand what would hurt her so I avoid that.  And so, we can lie here like this in the darkness, enjoying the company and the intimacy, which at this moment has nothing to do with who provides food or who has more control over whom.

While I’m with her, I’m with Loki, too, who has flopped with his back pressed against my stomach, his head pillowed on my upper arm that’s against the bed, while I stroke him with my free — upper — hand.  There is no tension at all left, no reservation, he all but turns into striped liquid under my hand as he purrs.  It doesn’t matter if I rub his throat, along his sides, his ears, it’s all good.  When I slide my fingers between his front legs to rub his chest, he twists to give me access to his stomach without the purr ever faltering for an instant.  That same trust, that same mutual power to hurt badly that will never be used, is there, too.  Unlike Angel, he’s never been abused, never had that betrayed, and I don’t think he thinks about it any more than most humans do; for him, it’s just part of life.  It’s there anyway, though.

Early hominids were just another prey species for leopards and probably other large cats as well.  Humans have committed unspeakable atrocities against felines of all kinds, including the kind lying here with me.

That doesn’t stop all three of us, curled together, to fall asleep with perfect trust, all of us finding our own pleasure and peace in it.

And I feel so sorry for anyone who has never felt that with a member of another species…

Cat toys they’ll actually play with (and that are cheap)

Happens to everyone with felines, right?  You go spend a fortune on kitty toys that look amazingly cool and you think they’ll love it, and you bring it home… and they’d rather climb in the box, or play with the wrapper, or whatever.  Frustrating beyond words, when you’re trying to keep the little monsters happy!  After all, they’re intelligent and curious, and they evolved to cope with a changing environment of predator and prey, and given their size, they could be either.  They need stimulation, especially the ones kept indoors — which is a fancy way of saying that they get bored if they have nothing to do and nowhere to go, just like humans would if they were in an enclosed environment and had no access to things to entertain them.  Think about the best zoos:  they provide enrichment for their animals, to mimic the environment they would have in the wild as much as possible.  How much more fascinating is a tiger who has water to swim in, trees to sharpen her claws on, greenery to hide in, than one who’s in a concrete and iron cage?  And how much healthier and rewarding will her life be?  House cats are small tigers, or tigers are big housecats, and the same principles apply.

In my never-ending search for ways to keep my cats amused, here are a few things I’ve come up with.  I’m always happy to hear of anything anyone else has come up with!  Not every toy will work for every cat, of course, but maybe we can get brainstorming!

  • Paper leaf bags, y’know, those huge ones for the yard?  They make wonderful tunnels.  I cut a flap in the bottom to make a kind of hidden escape hatch — my cats love it for ambushes.  It rattles, of course, being paper.  If it gets ripped up, which it will… well, so what?  I buy 5 for about $3.  In comparison, I spent $50 on a furry, crinkly cat tunnel of similar length, smaller diameter, and two “windows”, and they were amused for one evening and then got bored.
  • Not exactly a toy:  got a cat who likes to sleep in the sun?  Put a kitty bed under an ordinary reading lamp and adjust the lamp so the cat can sleep with the lamp about a foot to two feet above.  60 to 100 watt bulbs work best for this, 40 doesn’t get warm enough, and compact fluorescents don’t work.  Awesome in the winter, or for an older cat.  (Psst, if you have seasonal affective disorder, use something like Sylvania’s Daylight bulbs, which actually do mimic daylight a bit closer than regular incandescents — not a cure, but it can help a bit.)
  • Aluminum foil balls.  (How can they stand to carry these around in their mouths?  Ouch!)  Best on linoleum, tile, or hardwood floors.  Better still, toss one in the bathtub for a game of tub hockey — I can’t stop laughing when one of mine gets going, they can do the most amazing things with that ball on curved enamel!  Or if you have a kitty who likes to get up high, toss these to him for a game of baseball — just watch out, ’cause they seem to be able to aim them sometimes when they deflect them back!  Man, those paws can move fast!
  • Real-wood scratching posts.  Carpeted ones are, I think, mostly designed to look nice for humans.  Cats may enjoy them, but the best thing I’ve found for claw-sharpening yet (and this works wonders if you have a kitty who’s clawing your furniture!) is a length of solid wood with the bark still on — see if anyone you know is cutting down a tree, maybe.  Make sure it’s long enough that your cat can stretch upwards and really get her claws into the bark for a satisfying scratch.  You don’t have to get fancy, mine are just leaning in corners (2) and one lying flat on the balcony.  One very long one, basically a 6-foot cedar tree trunk that was debarked before I got it, is braced between a wardrobe just a bit shorter than it, and a dresser that’s about 4 feet high in front of a window the same height.  Okay, so, you get to sweep or vacuum up sawdust and splinters, but these last an amazingly long time (the cedar trunk one is about six years old, well-grooved and much used, but still very much in use).  And they can get so creative with them!  Anecdote time:  kitties use scratching to mark territory as much as to shed their claw sheaths, since they have scent glands there.  The higher the scratch marks, the more impressed an intruder should be by the size of the resident.  One of mine sits on top of the low bookcase one scratching post is leaning against, and scratches DOWNWARDS, upside down.  This lets him leave marks much higher than the other two.
  • Rotini, believe it or not.  Y’know those little plastic spirals you can get in some stores as cat toys?  They make me nervous.  Too easy for a cat to chew off a piece and swallow it, for one thing.  Rotini, however, is just spirally pasta.  Use it uncooked, of course!  :lol:  They skitter across hard floors wonderfully, and if they chew on them, so what?
  • Cardboard boxes.  Lots of shapes and sizes.  Keep changing them.  Every one creates a new game, a new lurking spot.  Need I say more?  So you get to keep stepping around them.  Small price to pay for happy kitties, isn’t it?  Crumple, then flatten, a few large sheets of tissue paper, newspaper, wrapping paper, and toss that in for them to burrow in.  (Why do such stealthy creatures enjoy crinkly noisy stuff so darned much???)
  • String.  You need to be careful with this one.  Ingested string, ribbon, stuff like that, can get impacted in the digestive tract, which is very painful for your cat, expensive for you when you pay a vet for surgery, and potentially fatal. That said, this is one of the best toys there is, especially with a human on one end of it.  First, choose a string or two or ten.  Try fabric and craft stores, they sometimes have tag ends of cord that can work.  Or use thin cotton rope.  Or use cheap dollar-store yarn and braid nine or twelve strands together.  Try for thick enough that they can get a claw or two into it and hang on, but not so thick that it won’t squiggle nicely.  (This also usually means it’s thick enough that they can’t swallow it easily — but you know your cat best!)  I find 6 to 8 feet long works best.  Twitch it along the floor like a snake.  Flick it in little irregular motions like prey would make.  Pull a corner of a blanket or pillow over it and then pull it in small jerks from the far side, so the cat can watch it slowly disappearing under cover… this drives mine absolutely insane!  Lay it on the floor, put a sheet or two of newspaper or tissue paper over it, then twitch it… it amazes me that my cats can track where it is so precisely that they can spear it with a claw right through the paper.  Get creative!  And don’t think you need to put a mouse or other toy on the end… in my experience, it’s the string itself that intrigues them.
  • Cheap dollar store laser pointers.

So, anyone reading this, feel free to leave a comment with what you’ve come up with to keep your cat happy and entertained?

Kitteh Relationships and Territories

I love buying and reading books on feline behaviour.  I find it fascinating to try to get inside their minds, even just a little, and understand why they do what they do.  Do I understand all of it?  Not even close!  But the process of learning it, in itself, is well worth it to me.

This is an excerpt I found in a book called The Tribe of Tiger by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.  No copyright infringement is intended, and I encourage anyone interested in the subject to find this book.  It has puzzled me for years, why older cats will give way to young ones, when one might expect them to be more aggressive about dominance.  Yes, it depends heavily on the overall situation, I know, but I couldn’t figure out any reason for it to happen at all.  When I saw this passage, I read it two or three times, I was so intrigued.

From pp 95-96:

Considering the affection that cats in groups show for one another, one might almost consider it the tragedy of the cat family that whether they want to or not, most young cats sooner or later move away from their group. Practical considerations drive them away. Except around farms, where the presence of stored grain keeps mice and rats in sufficient numbers and where the farmer supplements the food supply, the cat’s diet doesn’t encourage life in groups. Spacing is essential, and cats feel it. They don’t need a hostile stepfather to make them move — sooner or later they’ll be forced to move anyway. We were able to experience this with our own cats in a way that surprised me — they saw developments in our household that impelled emigration, while we, the human beings, saw nothing at all.

Our cats all came from that population that lived in and around our son’s house and barns. These cats were all related to each other through the female lineages, with neighboring males arriving to father new litters every once in a while. Our first cat, the white male Orion, had been born to our son’s high-ranking cat, the matriarch Manas, which may have enhanced Orion’s status in the group. His high rank may have explained his unusual confidence. Even as a kitten he dared to climb to the barn rafters in pursuit of swallows — he was the only kitten in that population ever to climb so high.

When he came to live with me and my husband, he was our only cat, and he made our house his house, spending all his time with us except when he went out to hunt, which he did by means of a cat door. About a year later, we also adopted his half sister, the inky Wicca, who at the time was about four months old, a lanky adolescent. Orion was older than Wicca and much bigger, and we expected that Orion would dominate her. But to our surprise, she evicted him. Within a week or so of her appearance he had abandoned the house except at mealtimes and had claimed as his territory the building that houses my office, a barnlike structure that we also use as a garage, tool shed, wood storage area, and home to several communities of mice. We might have gone on this way indefinitely, with Orion in the outbuilding and Wicca in the house, but we were given a third cat, the young Aasa, a cousin of the others although she had never met them. Aasa was the youngest and smallest of the three, but she took over the house in the same way that Wicca had done, and Wicca, by now a mature and very capable animal, moved into the outbuilding with Orion.

What motivated these emigrations? Not sex, since all our cats were neutered, which means that reproduction played no role whatever in their territorial arrangements. Cat behavior is so strongly motivated by individual choice that we at first tended to shrug off their arrangements as personal preference — another cat mystery that human beings cannot solve. But then visitors came to stay with us, bringing their cat, and Aasa moved out. When the visiting cat left, Aasa moved back. Clearly, something was happening that the cats understood and that we did not.

At last it came to me what the cats might be doing, how the situation might appear to them. Possibly they saw me in the role of mother cat. If so, each new cat might have seemed like the kitten of a new litter, a signal for the older kittens of the previous litter to strike out on their own. What makes this phenomenon most interesting is that wild or feral kittens sometimes stay to share space with the mother. And when they do, they almost certainly have been invited y the mother. But what might constitute an invitation, I didn’t know. So I didn’t give it. So perhaps my cats, in a very typical barn cat manner, moved to the outbuildings to give me and my “new offspring” plenty of room. There they stayed for the rest of their lives, although we tried everything, including imprisonment, to keep them with us in the house. They’d stay as long as we prevented their moving, but the moment the chance came, they’d go, leaving our house to young Aasa. Barn cats from a world of fields, barns, sheds, and outbuildings — they did what they knew to be right.

Post-depression… then what?

Depression is very treatable in most cases.  I know this.  Heck, I was a psychiatry secretary for three years.

Meds help, regardless of who says otherwise.  I would not be writing this without them.  I would be pretty much completely non-functional still.  Therapy helps, I have a wonderful therapist that I’m very grateful for, and a family doctor who wants full updates every time I see him and is always encouraging.  Family support helps, beyond words.

But what happens when you’re no longer “depressed,” per se?  When you no longer fit the criteria for diagnosis, and can be considered to have recovered?  What if, at that point, you still don’t feel like you have a grip on your life again?

What if you look around, and see a year’s backlog of housework, not done because you just didn’t care and didn’t have the energy and because your beloved partner physically can’t do it and there just isn’t anyone else?  What if you find yourself feeling so lonely that you want friendly and supportive company more than anything else, except maybe a few good laughs, and you end up spending just-a-little-longer online to fill that need, instead of doing things you should be doing?  What if, even though you’re “all better,” you still feel lost and scared of life, because you’re terrified of making the wrong choice and crashing again?  What if your self-esteem is trashed by not working, by a nagging feeling that you’ve somehow failed, by a weight increase due to too much junk food and no exercise, by a lack of enough energy to do anything about the weight?

*sigh*  I don’t know.  Probably I’m just whining.  Or something.  After all, Sean’s having another bad pain day, and it’s fall and it’s been gray and rainy for a week or so now, which is really not helping my mood — I like fall, but only when it’s the clear crisp weather, and this steady wet stuff is just dismal.  Maybe it’s just low blood sugar or something, I wonder what I can find to make for supper… something that doesn’t require too much energy or concentration….