Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Of Courage

Cats come in all shades, physically, mentally and emotionally. Some are born with a certain character, some with another; some are urged by their surroundings in one direction, some in a second.

My big boy Renn was a very frightened cat when he came to stay with me as a foster. I think he may have always had a timid streak in him. He hid from any loud, sustained noise, hurrying away to his safe spot with a low, long groan, the sort emitted by a person who is expecting trouble. In my old apartment, he fled to a box I’d fixed to the top of the kitchen counters. In the new house, he usually retreats under the bed.

He has been getting better, stronger, braver. He quickly grows used to people and comes out to see them after not so very long in hiding. He may crouch low and his eyes may grow large with apprehension when someone new offers to pet him; he will probably not allow any physical contact right away. But when a familiar visitor arrives, he will absent himself only briefly now, if at all. Then he comes out, ready to meet the person; he’ll be quick to dart away at sudden movements, but he overcomes his fears as best he can, because he enjoys people, he wants to be near them, and he likes to be liked.

But a test of his nerves was coming. I purchased new blinds for my windows and, being largely incompetent in regards to matters of repair and installation, I hired someone to put them in. I figured that they may as well be done properly, rather than by me. But I worried about my cats’ reactions. Tungsten wouldn’t care about the intruder, even with all the attendant noises an installation would entail. Josie would be wary but would find a spot to be alone and wait out the episode. 

My two boys would be concerned, though, and frightened. Tucker would hide somewhere distant from the fuss, while Renn would be unnerved and seek shelter under the bed or in a far corner of the downstairs library, where he has hidden before.

After the handyman started his work, Tucker indeed hurried to the bedroom where he jumped on the bed and laid low, literally. Renn retreated beneath the bed. I coaxed him out briefly, but then he returned. I thought it best to leave him for the time being. I worked about the house as well as I could with the interruption of my routine.

It was while I was sitting at the computer in the back parlour that I noticed Renn creeping out of the bedroom. Looking warily into the kitchen, from which a commotion of work was coming, he made his way slowly along the corridor to where I was sitting. He sat in the parlour with me for a while, then lie down and, though his eyes were watchful, he tried to relax - or at least pretended.

But that was the beginning. Over the next few hours, Renn’s fear battled his scientific spirit, and the latter won, just barely. He emerged from the parlour and examined the workman from a distance. When the man moved out of the kitchen, Renn cautiously sniffed the toolboxes and implements. He avoided the visitor but didn’t again run under the bed. He stayed with me, or climbed a cat-tree, but wouldn’t hide.

Tucker came out, too. He scampered away from any sudden noise more than did Renn, but I think he was following my big boy’s example. Throughout the majority of the handyman’s time in the house, all the cats were out and about - avoiding the intruder, but definitely not hiding.

Renn has come along way since the days when he would quake under the bed at the noise of a car pulling into the driveway. He knows that visitors do not always mean bad things are going to happen; in fact, they often give wonderful chest rubs. Life improves every day for someone who finds the courage to explore it. And that’s my big boy.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Watching the World

I feel sorry for my cats sometimes. People tell me I do a good job of seeing to their food and water, their shelter and comfort. I try to spend time with them, though it’s never enough, and make them feel loved and wanted. But I feel sorry for their restricted little world. It’s limited to the two floors of my house, and what they can see from the windows.

My three cats (plus one) must know every inch of the house by now, at least every inch they can get to, and what they observe beyond the glass panes or, in the summer, wire screens of the windows must seem very exciting and stimulating.

I could never let my cats outdoors. Some people do, and they don’t worry about their pets less than I, but I wouldn’t have a moment’s peace with them outside. Tungsten is too little, Josie too fat, Tucker too passive and Renn too timid. I’m sure something bad would happen to them. So I keep them indoors.

But what adventures they see outside. Tungsten is not overly impressed with the exterior world. She is definitely an indoor cat, if only because she is above worldly concerns such as, well, the world. The other three observe the passing parade of life whenever they can. Sometimes, it’s a conscious decision. One will sit down and watch. Automobiles driving by, people walking, animals, especially animals, stimulate their interest. But on those days, the cat will lie on a cat-tree platform and simply watch. What do they think about? Do they wish for freedom? Are they glad they are inside? Do these thoughts even come to mind?

Other times, a cat will be lying about, relaxing. His gaze is on nothing in particular. A car goes by; it’s nothing important. A dog on a leash is just another dog on a leash. Then, a bird, or perhaps another cat, or even a falling leaf: this will become the most exciting thing he has ever seen.

Then there are the days when a predator’s instinct, deep down, even in the depths of chubbiness that is Josie, will be woken by a bluejay or a finch, hopping across the lawn. The cat will chatter, whimper or whine, depending on the personality. The expressions seem to declare, “Oh, if only I were out there, what short work I would make of you.” Then the scene closes, the bird flies off. The cat’s eyes wander away to see what else he can intimidate.

Other cats crossing my pets’ property come in for special attention. Renn once saw a neighbour’s cat cross the back lawn. The stranger saw Renn. They stared at each other. My big boy didn’t move, didn’t try to get out, but if he had, there may have been words exchanged, perhaps blows. The first week Tungsten was with me, she heard someone in the corridor outside the apartment where we then lived. She quickly started rubbing her face against every corner she could find. This was her home now. Interlopers stay away. It’s not so very different now, when this cat or that is observed on our land.

But when the outdoors comes inside, when a stranger calls at the house, a repairman, a deliveryman, then I see what might happen in another situation. Renn used to run and hide, so did Tucker. How would they behave in the ‘wild’? There, a stranger isn’t just a benign visitor; he may be a danger. The boys wouldn’t want to face it, Josie - my unofficial greeter - would be too trusting, and Tungsten would be apathetic.

No, my cats will stay inside, where it’s dull but safe. They will watch the outdoors, see the passing years and miss out on a great deal. How is that different than our lives? We watch so much in which we can’t participate. There will always be something we can’t have or won’t do. But we enjoy what we can. We take pleasure in what is in our grasp, in what can be.

So it is with my cats. They see what is outside, but they don’t linger on the impossible. Anyway, perhaps it’s dinner-time, or a treat is in the offing. A friend has come in to the room and will scratch that spot just behind the ears that feels so good. It’s cold out, and a soft couch is just over there. A few minutes of getting into just the right position and they’re asleep. If they dream of running free outdoors, that doesn’t stop them from purring when they wake again indoors.

Standing Guard at the Gates of Health

I worry a great deal about my cats. I worry about the food they eat, about them not eating, about not playing enough with them, about them drinking enough water, about them getting out of the house, about them aging… The list is endless.

I take the cats to the veterinary every year for a check-up. Josie and Renn went in the summer. Tungsten and Tucker will go in December. (That should be fun: those two in the back of a car together; even in separate carriers, the orange one will not be pleased about the roly poly’s proximity.) The examination always seems cursory, a prod here, a poke there, up with the gums to see the teeth, staring into the eyes as if trying to hypnotize the animal. But, like most pet-owners, I trust that the doctor knows her business.

I always note through the year anything that causes me special concern. With Tungsten, it is three items. Her mouth seems to be drooping a little on one side. The last time I noticed it was four years ago and it was a sign of a small infection. But that was accompanied by extreme bad breath, which she doesn’t have at this time, so I wonder if the droopy lip is just something I hadn’t noticed before. There seems nothing amiss when I examine her myself. But then, I don’t know what precisely I should be seeking. I do notice more little dark brown spots - which in a human may be a danger sign, of course. But orange cats get these as they age, I’m told (by vets), like liver spots. It’s a danger sign of sorts, but this danger none of us can avoid.

I have also noticed a sort of skin tag on the bag of Tungsten’s neck, under her fur. I don’t think it is anything serious but again, it’s something to inquire about. The third item is very new. Tungsten seems to be eating hard food more often. She was at the bowl several times last night alone, which is unusual for her. Her appetite for soft food has improved only a little recently, and that is probably due to the more favourable flavour of Fancy Feast.

Otherwise, her behaviour is unchanged. She’s my oldest cat and the most active. After a visit to the litter-box following dinner, she will sometimes shoot across the ground floor of the house, launch herself from a cat-tree and come to rest on top of the fireplace mantel. I’m afraid more of broken bones in her little body than I am of anything else, really.

Josie, who passed her last examination with commendations, doesn’t worry me. Her weight is decreasing, though she is a relatively small cat, so she could lose some more. She is eating slightly less, leaving a little bit of her soft food most evenings. But she looks forward to its arrival and eats heartily, so I think she may just be losing a fraction of her appetite along with the fraction of her weight. She has trouble cleaning her bum after visiting the litter-box, but when I clean it, she is not giving me the difficulty that she used to. Josie is friendlier and healthier than ever.

Renn also did well during his exam. I worry a bit about his diet. He doesn’t eat enough soft food. He’s my fussiest. He does drink water sufficiently, I think, and though he’s lost a little weight, he remains active and strong. All in all, he is fine.

Tucker’s weight needs to be reduced. He is no longer the sleek torpedo he once may have been, cutting through the water with speed and agility. He’s become a tubby depth charge that has to be pushed off the ship and sinks with a gurgling sound. Well, he’s not as bad as that. He is too chubby, though. However, his coat is smooth and full, his teeth are good, his eyes are bright and he is energetic. But I felt what appears to be a skin-tag similar to Tungsten’s, and in the same place. That’s odd, and I will ask about it.

But I think the cats in my care are doing well. It’s important to keep an eye on everything about them. They can’t tell me with words what is wrong, if anything is, so I must interpret the clues when I find them. Anything out of the ordinary, especially with behaviour, may be a hint of something significant. Having anything alive under one’s care means constant vigilance. It’s tiring but worth it.


Most cats have whiskers. I think the hairless breeds may be without them, or have fewer. But my cats have the regulation number, about two dozen on either side of the mouth and nose, with some on the cheeks, above the eyes and even one or two on the wrists.

It’s funny that dogs, as a species, can come in so many shapes and sizes that some of them look like members of different genera. Looking at a Great Dane and a Yorkshire Terrier, one wouldn’t believe, on visual evidence alone, that they are the same sort of animal. I suppose it’s because dogs have been bred for varying, practical purposes through the centuries. Cats, who refuse to work, have been bred for looks and companionship. They all turn out roughly the same, except a few types. Or do they?

Each cat is visually recognizable as distinct from another. One must look closely sometimes. So it is with each cat’s whiskers. They are as individual as the cat itself. The length, the number, the placement, the texture; all seem quite similar. But they are not.

Tungsten’s, for instance, are small and fine, as befits the small and fine cat to whom they belong. Short and curved, even curly, they sometimes appear translucent, and disappear into the vibrant colour of her fur. But they are sensitive, nonetheless, and can, for all their thinness, be felt. I know this, as there are few things as ticklish as Tungsten’s whiskers when she’s smelling my face preparatory to lying down for the night on the bed.

Josie’s whiskers are straight and strong-looking. They resemble the slenderest of metal rods when seen from most angles, though there are curves to some of them, especially near their ends. The whiskers that grow from above her eyes are almost negligible compared to those on either side of her face, and seem to disappear, or grow insignificant at times.

Tucker has a wonderful set of whiskers, Fu Manchu-style, for the most part. Yet it is in my roly poly one that the whiskers above the eyes show most prominently. Two in particular sprout straight up and resemble antennae, a la Ray Walston, from “My Favourite Martian”. Perhaps this sausage of a cat is reporting home on all he sees…

I’ve saved the most glorious for last. Renn has a great explosion of whiskers, in every direction, curving and straight, long and strong. They are pointed like steel rapiers, graceful like the blades of sabres. Cats use their whiskers for sensing their way, for coordination; with such appendages, I’m surprised that my big boy can’t fly. When the wind blows especially strong through the town, I borrow a whisker from Renn to tie down the roof of the house, so it won’t be torn off. If the others are jealous of his whiskers, they don’t show it. But then, Renn is a modest fellow.

Whiskers are usually thought of as insubstantial, as characterized in phrases such as ‘missed it by a whisker’. The reference obviously couldn’t be to a cat’s whisker, since no matter what the size or strength, it is something important and significant to its wearer.

Sleepy Heads

Cats love to sleep. Perhaps they need it. Perhaps they are lazy. But they certainly seem to enjoy it. I wish I could sleep as often and as easily as they. They can sleep almost anywhere and in almost any position, like human babies. If I tried sleeping the way I see my cats sleep, I’d wake with permanent disability.

I like watching the cats sleep. It’s peaceful, again, rather like watching a baby. Neither have anything weighing on their consciences to keep them awake, as do many people, so they rest content - except when one has a bad dream, as my Tungsten does from time to time. But usually they're serene, with perhaps a little twitch of a paw here, a little whimper there.

The cats I have each possess certain ways of sleeping, habits as to how they rest. Tungsten curls up. There’s hardly anything to her anyway, so she can bend her little body right around in a circle. When she’s lying on my lap, she will often curl around my hand. She may like the warmth of it, though since cats’ body temperatures are higher than humans’, I wonder if I feel cool to her. Sometimes, she will lie straight, looking as though she’s sleeping where she dropped. And at night, in bed, she’s up by my head, almost in my face. She likes to rest her rear legs in the palm of my hand. Lately, he’s taken to holding my hand in place with one of her forepaws, and even twisting about so that her rear legs and her head are in my hand. She must like her head resting in the curve of my palm, since she will do that once in a while when she’s on my lap. Periodically, Tungsten will cover her eyes with a front leg; she likes to be able to adjust her amount of light.

Josie can’t curl much. She’s too round as it is. But she likes to form a semi-circle. Her favourite places to nap now are on an armchair downstairs in the library and of course on the top of the sitting room cat-trees, the taller one for preference. Now and then, she can be found on the cat-tree in the bedroom, but that’s where she will go to be alone and rest her eyes in the dark; she rarely is asleep there. Unlike the other three, Josie can look half-asleep sometimes, dozy, as though she is on the verge of the dreamless. At night, when she decides to join the rest of us on the bed, she will lie on my near side, against my ribs. I like to feel her solidity there; it’s comforting.

Renn is a versatile sleeper, even for a cat. He can sleep curled up or straightened out, on his side, on his back or on his stomach. He doesn’t seem to have a favourite position, though for deep sleeps, or at least long ones, the circular formation seems the best. He will throw himself onto his back and slumber with legs apart, the closest a cat can come to being spread-eagled. That position is especially good for when he’s on the couch, though sometimes he will appear reclusive and curl up in a corner of it. But when I’m sitting there, he will frequently lie on his side next to me, and enjoy having my hand on his chest. That’s comfortably warm - for me - on cold winter evenings. He uniquely lets out a long sigh once in a while. I don’t know if he’s content or wistful. At night, he is at the foot of the bed, on the far side, just a short jump from the windows and the cat-trees there. He will wake and leap over to make sure our little kingdom is safe, then come back to bed.

My foster-cat, Tucker, sleeps in the weirdest positions. He will snooze sitting up in the armchair, with one or both of his forelegs on the cushioned arm, as if he fell asleep watching television. He will lean his head against the edge of a side-table. He will fall asleep on a cat-tree, with his face pushed against the lip of the platform. He likes to rest, if not sleep, on the arm of the couch while I sit next to him, his increasingly barrel-like girth along its length, his relatively short legs astride. His favourite location for slumber are on the cat-trees, especially the lower one in the sitting room. But of all the cats who live with me, he sleeps the least. He will rest, relax, lie down, but he follows me about more than he sleeps. At night, still unloved by the other cats, he chooses the other corner at the foot of the bed. I always try to encourage him to lie somewhere on the bed, and he's chosen that as his spot, and I pet him, to make sure he knows he is welcome.

The cats know when it’s bed-time. They can see me preparing, and first Renn, then Tucker, come to the bedroom. I collect Tungsten from where she’s sleeping, usually by then on a cushion on a dining room chair. I’d let her be, but I have trouble sleeping unless she’s on the bed. She complains, then looks out the window, gets something to eat, and comes to bed. Josie may or may not join us later. When I wake, the cats do, ready for another day - of sleeping.