Claire The Cat didn’t always hate living with us. In fact, for several years, she actually thrived as a beautiful longhaired tuxedo in our home, along with two geriatric felines. Claire was the prototypical pretty girl who hangs out with homelier ones – on purpose -- and so her luxuriant tail, impossibly cute Marilyn Monroe-type “beauty mark” on the left side of her face, and her deep green eyes which she knew how to bat at just the right time, were all the more gorgeous and endearing when she sat next to our ancient tortoiseshell, Cinnamon, and wizened brown tabby, Mona, which she frequently did.
However, life is impermanent, and Claire’s life took a decided turn for the worst a few autumns ago, with the addition of Albert, a predominantly white cat with black markings and a perfect moustache; and Mikey, a former feline inhabitant of a horse farm who came complete with a stubby tail, plus a permanently scarred left nostril and cauliflower ear from one too many fights.
I’m not sure how, which, or if both boys made Claire’s life miserable. There was no chasing or hissing in my presence. There was only the isolated “girl cat scream” from her with no antagonist present when I went to investigate. Over the course of the winter and spring, Claire became increasingly sullen. No need to have anthropomorphized the looks that we received: they were unmistakable and translatable across species lines.
Eventually, the sullenness morphed into a perceptible seething and loathing.
Our cats enjoy the deck and backyard in nice weather and so I didn’t think it too unusual when Claire became vocal and persistent about going outdoors, even when there was still a trace of snow on the ground admixed with the early crocuses. By early summer, I started getting reports that Claire was seen in other backyards and she often would spend the nights luxuriating on one of our deck’s chaise lounges, coming in to eat breakfast and use the cat box, increasing the emotional distance between herself and us, but not quite terminating the relationship—yet.
Little did I know that she was actually hatching an escape plan and formulating a move to greener pastures.
In her case, the greener pasture was the backyard of our across-the-street neighbors. It appeared that Claire had taken a fancy to the husband. Unfortunately for Claire, her desire to move in as soon as possible into our neighbors’ home was thwarted by the small fact that they were nursing their geriatric cat, Shadow, through a final illness and were not looking to add another feline. Claire, however, apparently considered this as only a temporary setback and was willing to wait things out; she took up residence in their backyard and soon was being fed by them. I brought over cases of her favorite food out of guilt and probably as small tokens of appeasement, too.
In a last ditch attempt to make Claire a respectable cat, I drove her to a friend’s feline-only veterinary practice in Iowa, where Claire’s escalating hatred for the two resident male cats prompted a phone call one day asking me to come as soon as possible and remove her from the unsuccessful experiment.
Claire returned to our home, but at the first chance, she escaped the side kick of the foot designed to keep her incarcerated, and bounded out the door and across the street. She took up residence again in our neighbors’ backyard and resumed her wait. Patience was certainly her strong suit.
My husband was nearly bereft by Claire’s abandonment. I tried to take a somewhat more clinical and detached approach, telling him that I was actually impressed by her realization that our home wasn’t her cup of catnip tea and taking it upon herself to find a better place. I tried to keep things light and provide another perspective.
Although I didn’t grasp (or chose not to contemplate) the depth of Claire’s disdain for us, I did get an unforgettable glimpse of it one evening. At the time, the neighbors and we both drove silver vehicles. Theirs was a large mini-van; ours a smaller SUV. Coming home from dinner one night, my husband used our neighbors’ driveway for a turnaround and Claire apparently thought that the man of her dreams (our male neighbor) had come home to her for the evening. She trotted ever-so-lightly down the driveway, her mane blowing seductively away from her face in the gentle breeze.
Watching her lightly prance with a perceptible smile of anticipation on her face, I was reminded of the shampoo commercial from years ago that featured lovers running across a field in which the voiceover said, “The closer you get, the better you look.”
Abruptly, Claire stopped in her tracks and her facial expression transformed from one brightened by what she thought was an impending encounter with her beloved to another twisted by disappointment. It was almost as if she couldn’t believe that she had confused vehicles. With a bit of a stomp, she turned her backside to us and trotted towards her backyard retreat.
My husband was almost inconsolable. We were dissed once and for all by our cat.
Soon thereafter, Shadow passed over to The Rainbow Bridge. Our neighbors divorced. In the midst of all this sadness, however, Claire’s life changed for the better.
Our neighbor decided to take Claire with him to his new home. Soon we were receiving not infrequent e-mails with photos of Claire luxuriating on the bed with a sunbeam warming her; Claire posing on the toilet tank in “her” bathroom; and snippets of Claire’s life in the suburbs with children and new outdoor adventures.
Although it took her about a year, with a few bumps in the road and a trip to Iowa, Claire got exactly what she wanted: A new home where she was the only cat with the human of her choice.
As a veterinarian, I have known a few other cats who worked to get better lifestyles for themselves. I had a patient named Ginger who occasionally boarded at my hospital. While in our care, Ginger never urinated inappropriately and was so well-loved and trusted by me and the staff that we often allowed her the luxury of an empty exam room to snooze in during the day. However, whenever she returned home, invariably she would revert to unacceptable feline behavior, and in her case that involved urinating on the heat vents in the dead of winter. No interventions aimed at re-bonding Ginger with her cat boxes worked.
As a cat doctor, there’s a certain anxiety in seeing your last Saturday appointment on the schedule alongside the cryptic note: Husband needs to discuss cat’s behavior. In my experience, these types of interactions are rarely pleasant or end positively for the cat. Ginger’s male human didn’t so much want to discuss her behavior as he wanted to get down to the nitty gritty business of authorizing euthanasia and group cremation. For him, it was a done deal.
I was unwilling to euthanize Ginger and I told him so. “So, what are you going to do with her?” was the retort. I explained that I was willing to take Ginger in and make her our clinic cat, a companion animal for us during business hours, if you will. Ginger’s adoption to our hospital was finalized on the spot. She became an integral part of that practice, really the heart of it, having the uncanny ability to pick out the one client who needed special soothing (and a large beige and white longhaired cat on her lap) and showed contempt for any cat not behaving according to her impossibly high set of standards: quiet, compliant, and not into histrionics.
I’ve subsequently met a number of cats who have acted out in desperation as only felines can do. This generally, but not exclusively, means that the cat has decided the cat box is purely optional. I’ve also had my share of conversations with the clients who live with those cats and many have told me that they suspect there’s something in the home that their kitties find unacceptable. Children, the dog(s), other cats, and a new boyfriend typically top the lists of culprits; sometimes, the clients suspect that they are the root cause of the cat’s unhappiness and sudden existential funk.
These angst-filled conversations are never easy, for the clients or me. If I sense that the clients will be receptive, I will sometimes softly offer, “Maybe he (or she) just doesn’t want to live with you anymore; I, too, have been dissed by my own cat.” However, I’ll be honest and say that I’ve thought it more times than verbalized it. It’s a cruel truth and actually soul-numbing to know that your cat just doesn’t care for you.
As a veterinarian, I certainly put into action all of the recommended medical treatments and environmental tactics in an attempt to regain a happy home for all concerned. These interventions are typically centered around the cat performing ablutions in designated containers that are scrupulously clean. But sometimes those interventions fail and when they do, I introduce my clients to the stories of Claire and Ginger, two cats who knew what “carpe diem” was all about and were lucky enough to be able to pursue it.
July 14, 2014
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VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.