Beautifuls...the Name I Call My Cats


Brewsky and Sage
"What greater gift than the love of a cat." --Dickens

Peggy and I were lifelong dog lovers until we made a spur of the moment decision to get a cat (Brewsky) the day after our schnauzer died. That was seven years ago, and I soon started amassing a small library of books about cats and spending a lot of time thinking about the nature of cats. We now have four of them, and if we had any confidence that they would welcome a dog, we would get one of those as well, but it's their home too, and we're all but positive that they would hate sharing it with a dog. What follows are some observations and reflections about the nature of catness.

The love of a dog is a given. The love of a cat is a reward. The tragedy of dogs is that they have no place within themselves to call their own. Kick a dog, and he will still love you. Neglect to feed her, and she will still love you. Leave him tied to a stake on a sleety night, and he will still lick your hand in the morning. Dogs resolutely deny the wickedness of their humans, and this makes the life of an abused dog tragic beyond measure. By contrast, a cat reserves a part of herself for her alone, and will loathe you and avoid you if you deserve it. 

Our most sensitive cat, Ollie, can't compete for even his most treasured treat, and will quickly upchuck his entire meal if the least thing upsets him (Scully likes to eat the vomit). When I think of the millions of cats like Ollie who are abused, neglected, abandoned, or tormented by scientists, it's obvious that the larger part of my species are less deserving of good than are those animals that we regard as our inferiors. 

While dogs are respected for their willingness to die for their masters, cats are dismissed as "only in it for themselves," but while my friend, Sheryl, was napping, a burglar broke into her home, and was it her dog, Eliot, who alerted her to the danger? Noooo. Elliot hid under the sofa while Sheryl's cat yowled and stomped on her chest.

Ignorant people think that all cats are the same. Scully is the first to greet me when I've been out. Sage is our only cat who likes to ride on people's shoulders, and he and Scully will sometimes watch nature documentaries from start to finish. If I hear galloping feet when I crawl into bed for a nap, I know that Ollie is coming to join me. He is also the first on the scene if anyone is in distress, his compassion being so great that if he were human, I'm quite sure he would be a vegan.

Even so, our cats share some traits. For instance, if one of them is on a chair, and I move the chair, he or she will go along for the ride, something that I've never seen a dog do. Likewise, if I'm walking through the house, and a cat is in my path, the cat won't move when I will step over him or her. I've never tried this with a dog but what the dog would leap to his feet in a panic, threatening to wreck both of us.     

Brewsky, Ollie, Scully
I had imagined that, because cats are less gregarious than dogs, they would be less forgiving, so when we got Brewsky, I spent a couple of weeks worrying that the least mistake on my part would destroy our relationship. I went from that to chasing him through the house while cursing and waving my arms when he had been bad, which was much of the time. I had to conclude that he wasn't taking me as seriously as I hoped when he stared interrupting our chases by rolling onto his back so I could rub his belly. The fact is that if I step on the tail of a dog or a cat, he will look to me for assurance that I didn't do it on purpose, and then life will go on as normal. Likewise, if I scold a member of either species, she only asks that I quickly get over my anger.

The fact that cats aren't pack animals doesn't mean that they deserve their reputation as unloving. I rarely see one of my cats sleeping alone, and all of them want to be petted more than I want to pet them. As I write this, I have to get up every few minutes to shoo Scully away from Peggy's door because Peggy is asleep, and Scully is impatient for her to get up. Once she and Peggy have greeted one another, Scully won't ask for further attention, but it's vital to her that a greeting occur.

One trait that is shared by dogs and cats is their extreme alertness to their humans' movements. Neither species ever sleeps so soundly but what they know when I unwrap the cheese.

Cats are exceedingly tolerant, and so it is that at least one behavior which can lead to bloodshed among dogs goes practically unnoticed among cats. I refer to the fact that if one cat steals another cat's food, the victim will stand aside and watch the aggressor eat. This is true even if the victim is bigger and stronger, and even if the food is practically stolen out of his mouth while he's picking it up to eat it. I know from watching nature shows that lions exhibit no such tolerance, but then lions are pack animals.

From the many books I've read about cats, one seemingly unremarkable sentence stands out: "Cats are small predators," the point being that their thin bones make them susceptible to injury and therefore incapable of the rough play I enjoyed with dogs. The speed, strength, and agility of cats had blinded me to their delicacy.

I discovered another trait of cats on my own. Namely that they're sprinters, not endurance runners, so even a mediocre human can run down a fleeing cat if the cat has no place to hide.

Although our cats are content with living indoors, their teeth still chatter when there's a bird at the feeder.

Ollie's chair
Until they reach old age, dogs love to play. While I expected grown cats to play less than kittens, I had no idea of the extent to which adult cats would continue to change in this and other ways, or how abrupt and permanent the changes would be. For years, Ollie spent hours a day sitting on his hind legs in my office chair, his front legs resting on the chair's left arm. This behavior so represented his Ollieness to me that I couldn't imagine that he would suddenly and irrevocably stop doing it, but he did. Such changes are like little deaths.

Our cats clean our dishes, something that we never allowed our dogs to do. This isn't because we love our cats more, but because little dry tongues gross us out less than big wet ones. Brewsky tries to eat Peggy's food right from her plate, so she'll push him away, and a few moments later, he'll start slowly reaching out his big tabby paw in the hope that she won't notice. Our other cats are content to wait.

Every time I think that, finally, I'm starting to understand cats, we'll get another cat and I'll be made humble again. For instance, I had imagined that cats were finicky eaters until we got Sage, and I couldn't find a single food that we like that he doesn't.

Nowhere is the fabled curiosity of cats more evident than when their humans are doing something unexpected. Last week, I was in the laundry room drying the interior of a freshly washed bird feeder with Peggy's hair dryer when I chanced to look down and see Sage and Ollie looking up at me in wide-eyed wonder. "What in the HELL do you think you're doing?!" they demanded. 

The winter we got Brewsky, he took enormous interest in some shelving I was painting in the laundry room, so I had to choose between letting him join me at the risk of tracking paint all over the place, or locking him out of the room and listening to him cry at the door. I chose the former, it being difficult for me to say no to my cats unless the decision is a no-brainer. I'm forever reminding myself that, while I have all the power in the relationship, love and respect demand that I use it sparingly.

Everyone knows that cats spend a lot of time bathing (30% of their waking hours), but I hadn't realized that they are enthusiastic bathers of one another. I often find up to three of them in a circle, each one bathing another, and nothing confirms the group's acceptance of a new cat like bathing him or her. When we got our second cat, Ollie, Brewsky, who had lived alone for two years, immediately gave him a bath. It was one of my life's high points.

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