Moral Dilemma With Cat

May 9, 2009

I only seem to write when I want something. Washing machine advice, exclamations of horror. You’re so nice about giving them to me! However, you’ve probably given up on checking my blog by now, and I know bloglines doesn’t register my new entries until a month or two after I post them.

If you do come across this, maybe you will have something to say. Remember the gamboling wild kittens I mentioned in my pros and cons post a while back? Well, one of them is making a pitiful effort to socialize itself and has decided that we belong to it.

(Dog exclusivists will be bored by what follows. There’s no weaving in it. I’m warning you so you can stop reading and avoid that uncomfortable annoyed-by-the-stupidity-of-a-stranger-on-the-internet feeling.)

I once read a sort of natural history of domesticated cats by a vet, which did a lot to explain why cats relate to humans in a way unlike dogs. A happy, properly-trained dog thinks you’re its alpha pack mate. Cats don’t have packs. A cat (animal behaviorists speculate) thinks you’re its mommy. The kneading, the purring, the seeking of comfort, the lap sitting, the fixation on food when you’re around: infant behavior. Also the playing; you’re it’s teacher. I wouldn’t wonder if the wheedling and manipulating and leaving you in the dust when there’s something more interesting to do isn’t also a part of the metaphorical parent-offspring relationship–rebellious teenaged cat behavior as it leaves the nest and stakes out its own territory.

Well, I’m thinking that if a cat is going to enter into a successful social contract of protracted mama-cathood/kittenhood with its owners, it has to know what the relationship is about. It either has to have had a mama-cat, or a human who stood in for one.

Hence the problem with adopting feral cats, and the really weird behavior we noticed in the local kittens. I am used to kittens that interact with humans, that notice what you’re doing, what you want them to do, and so on; then they court you or evade you. The kittens around our house raised each other, so that while they had no fear of humans, they treated Der Mann and me as walking hurricanes–a collection of natural phenomena–rather than creatures. They would come right up to us to see what was going on, but they wouldn’t let us touch them. They would chase string without ever realizing we were pulling it. They would come in our house to explore if we accidentally left the door open without any sense of wrongdoing or any effort to be sneaky–just curious, as they were about everything else in their territory. We were weather to them because we were not cats.

In the last month or so the three black kittens have taken to making fewer and fewer appearances right by the house as they stake out their adult territories, while the Siamese-looking one seems to have made it’s territory here. Right here. Central command is our front porch, which it defends against full-grown neighborhood cats. Recently it started meowing and scratching at the back door, peeping in the windows. When we go outside it makes a beeline for us. It has learned about petting, though not well and not about laps. It seems to want something we can’t give it. Instead of sitting down and allowing itself to be petted, it frantically rubs its head against our hands while standing on our knees and gets more and more agitated. If we stop, it starts climbing our chests, kneading us, and sticking its nose in our faces.

It’s well fed, so that’s not the problem–more that it’s little kitty wires are crossed. My unscientific theory is that its sociable Siamese genes are struggling with it’s lack of upbringing. Instinctively it knows that humans are good for something, it knows that the door into the house is a portal to delights, but it can’t figure out what they are beside food, which we never give it.

Several days ago, Der Mann talked to the neighbor we thought these kittens belonged to and found out that they had been abandoned in a box in the vacant lot between our houses. The neighbor fed them but didn’t let them in her house or interact with them, except for the one she adopted. She hasn’t gotten around to taking the others to the pound. I guess she wanted to find homes for them, although she doesn’t seem to have been trying very hard because they are about 7 months old. Now it’s not likely to happen. Their kitten appeal is gone, and they haven’t been taught any of the things they need to know, like not to scratch the furniture or jump up on counters. Worst of all–like most of the pets in this town–they haven’t been fixed.

When we heard about the impending impoundment, we had already (shame on us) let the needy Siamese it in a few more times to see what it would do. Each time we were forced to put it out–immediate, unrepentant claws to the new sumak rug, etc. If (we concluded) it’s possible to train this particular cat for indoor behavior (which I doubt), it will take someone (not us) weeks and weeks of lifting it down from the counter every fifteen minutes, by which time all their furniture will be in tatters (not ours).

And yet the first thing we said to each other when we heard about the pound was, well, should we save the Siamese?

It’s not that we don’t want a cat. We do, especially Der Mann, but Der Mann is allergic. Not severely allergic, but the kind of allergy that has to do with those numbered enzyme thingies most cats make (too lazy to look it up), but which a few fancy breeds or mutants make less or none of. Basically, second hand cat-spit makes him itch. If he doesn’t have any cuts on his hands, and doesn’t touch his face, and washes his hands right afterward, he can handle a cat without too many ill effects. But living in the same house with a cat would be a different matter.

If we took responsibility for the Siamese, it would have to have a cat door and bed down in the basement workroom, and not be allowed in the house. It would be an outside-only cat–not only because of it’s allergens, but because of it’s wildness and naughtiness.

Here are the elements of our dilemma:

Cat is going to the pound where it will probably be put down.

Cat is pretty. Cat is unusually smart. Cat has worked its evil wiles on us. We like the cat.

Cat is dysfunctional. Cat claws everything in sight. Cat is high energy. Cat sheds copious amounts of whitish fur. Cat is bossy. Cat is probably untrainable. It is not a desirable house cat.

Husband is allergic to cats. Even a desirable house cat is a bad idea.

Because a house cat is a bad idea, we’re not likely to go looking for one.

But one found us.

Only, it can’t be a house cat, it can only be a basement workroom and porch cat.

Our question is: is it right to take responsibility for an animal without really giving it the home it wants?

To put it another way: is it better to let the Siamese take its chances at the pound, or to give it food and outdoor companionship without taking it into our lives?

Several things muddy the issue. Since the pretty Siamese has better chances of being adopted than its long-haired, flat-faced, rusty black siblings, shouldn’t we save one of the ugly ones? And if we are only concerned about rescuing cats from death, why not fix and start feeding all four? And if we did let it in the basement workroom, can we absolutely promise ourselves we would not let it in the house, which would be terrible for Der Mann’s health and my sanity?

Aesthetically, I’m gaga for this cat. Stubby legged, small, and sausage shaped, she is not my usual favorite flavor of kitty–but that just makes her look all the more like a panda. The sharp contrast of her dark brown ears and legs and face and tail are incredibly expressive, like a mime in whiteface. I often want to laugh at the transparency of her gestures.

But cuteness can’t make up for a bad personality. The cats I knew growing up were the easy layabout kind. They never clawed the furniture. I couldn’t stand the kind of cat that jumps on your keyboard, bothers you, nags you, demands constant interaction, is deaf to the word, “no.”

I want this cat, but I don’t want this cat. We can have this cat, but we can’t have this cat. It’s very confusing.

Central Command

Central Command


9 Responses to “Moral Dilemma With Cat”

  1. deborahbee Says:

    Oh dear! While I was reading it was clear to me that you can’t force a problem cat into the one you would really like and it would be better to go to the pound and then set about choosing a cat who will join the family and be wonderful. Then I reached the photo. He/she is handsome and distinguished so I now understand your dilemma.
    I grew up with a big fat ginger cat called Augustus John (Gussy for short)He never jumped on work tops or stole food. He slept on my bed or in the warm airing cupboard and purred! In my grown up life we have lived in fairly wild and unusual places and had cats. They were virtually feral, they bred, they peed, they were sneaky and I went right off the species. I could never work out how you train them to be domestic. I think neutering helps but being a sentimental sod I didn’t want to spoil their lives!!!
    There are so many horrid cats roaming around. Its important to choose a lovely well behaved one. Don’t get caught up with sentimental feelings. it won’t work. What a hypocrite……I apologise because I would want to rescue and be kind to dumb animals however anti-social, so I think its rather important to take a few deep breathes and think future. Cats live a long time.
    Great to have you back…cats are a perfectly good subject to blog about.

  2. Susan Says:

    Oh, dear… you do have a problem! I think the best choice is the half way point for both you, Der Man and Cat ( capitol C) To live in the basement and on the porch. No issues with allergies, fur all over, Cat on loom, and clawing furniture ( and god forbid, warp on loom)

    But then there’s the expense of having to get it fixed, other vet care when needed including shots, food etc.

    When I met my Hub, he had a tabby cat named Radish (long story) He lived outside and was a great mouser. He’d leave head and feet on the door mat just outside the door as gifts. He didn’t want to come in, get petted, or otherwise fussed over. Radish just didn’t come home one day when he was roughly 14 years old…. no matter how much tuna we used as a lure. I miss him still, although I’m very allergic to cats.
    But he survived quite nicely in the outdoor niche and wintered in the basement or heated garage.

    Mind you, he had a dog out there for company!


  3. I don’t envy you your dilemma, and I don’t have an answer. What’s to be done after you’ve fallen in love with something?

    We recently listened to an audiobook of “Marley & Me”. Then, watched the movie. In the beginning, a completly unsuitable, train-wreck of a monster dog is chosen. It destroys everything in the house, several times over. But, they love Marley, and it seems to me that the dog was instrumental in helping the author find out that he was meant to be a newspaper columnist rather than a reporter. Although entertaining from a distance, I couldn’t imagine living with the daily chaos of having to deal with a problem pet.

  4. Dot Says:

    Save the Siamese! You say she’s not domesticated, but I’ve had my cats from the sanctuary nearly a year and they won’t sit on anyone’s knee and one of them won’t be picked up. They are, however, very loving in their own ways.

    This little one is only young and can learn, she wants to learn because she wants to adopt you! Get a water pistol and give her a squirt when she’s naughty, it doesn’t hurt and it gives a clear message. Young cats are full of energy, organised playtime helps them burn it off, chasing table tennis balls around works well, or following a piece of string that you trail behind you as you walk around (that’s a good one ‘cos you can just get on with things you were doing).

    Cats keep learning life-long, and adapt to new circumstances, because as hunting animals they have to watch and learn to succeed.

    Siamese cats are especially known for their love of company, their lively imagination and adventurous spirit. One way to cope would be to get the local cat home to find you a mature and well behaved mixed-breed-moggie cat that’s used to living with other cats and will behave like Mom, help calm this one down and act as a good influence.

    Even if she’s only a workroom and porch cat, a scratching post is a good idea. Our Annie didn’t like the post to start with, so we got her an old fashioned coir doormat which she loved getting her claws into. A bit of demonstrationg by me scratching and a pat on the head as a reward whenever she did got her trained.

    Or, maybe you could find it another, suitable, home – not via the sanctuary, then you would know she’d not get put down?

    In case it’s not obvious, I have a big weak spot for cats. I’m feeding a stray that will not let me get closer than about 10 feet, she just turns up in the greenhouse and waits if she wants a meal, and she’s getting to know what time it’s cat meal time round here.

    I think it’s entirely possible that you could train this cat to fit in with your lives.

  5. Dot Says:

    p.s. do keep in touch, even if it’s washing machines and cats for now!!

    Best wishes.

  6. Dot Says:

    p.p.s. just reading Deborah’s comment, to domesticate a cat the first thing is to get it neutered. No question. Makes all the difference!!!

  7. Trapunto Says:

    Thanks for the comments! I didn’t expect to hear from so many people. deborahbee: I know how much of a nuisance un-civilized cats can be because of our relationship with the barn cats at the farmhouse we rented some time ago. And those were neutered! We liked them, but they were not even remotely house cat material. Susan: thanks for bringing your sense of proportion to this. I don’t have anything against outside-and-garage-and-barn cats; humans keeping mousers is an ancient symbiotic relationship. I guess the problem is I think this cat is made of better stuff. I’m seduced by the rags-to-riches possibilities of her story. Dot: The water pistol works like a charm. Simple solutions. In fact, I’m a little ashamed how much fun it is to see how well it works! Unfortunately her siamese cleverness is working against me in terms of long term training. The rule of thumb is: don’t jump on the counters when the lady with the squirt gun can see you.

  8. Cally Says:

    I suddenly developed cat allergy in my 20s after growing up with cats and then being without one for several years, while in itinerant student mode. I have other allergies too, but the cat one really upset me because I love the little critters. Then an enforced stay in a cat-filled home arose and lasted for two months. At the start I was regularly using a nebuliser but by the end I was almost completely de-sensitised to cats. We came home and went straight to the cat shelter: hence Nala and Clio. Although we are now catless again I am resolved that this will be temporary – don’t want to give the histamines a chance to reassert themselves. The brute force approach may not work for everyone, of course, but I wish I had thought of it sooner.

    • trapunto Says:

      Wow, this is an inspiring story. All but the part where you have to suffer and use the nebulizer! Der Mann read it with much interest. Those histamines are capricious little things. He mentioned that his contact allergy to cats used to be much worse when he was a kid, and was at it’s very worst when he was about 8 and his family had two cats. So it seems to go both ways: exposure = worse allergies, or exposure = your immune system finally wises up and settles down. The question is whether can go both ways for the same person.

      I had an acupuncturist tell me that every winter she gives a treatment to a guy with cat allergies, and he is fine for the rest of the year. Weird, if true.

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