the human-cat compromise

My mother is not really a “pet” person. That’s not to say that she doesn’t like dogs and cats – she does – but she’s not used to being around pets. She doesn’t really understand that cats get into stuff, want to explore every nook and cranny in the house, and jump on furniture. She doesn’t understand that cats think everything is a toy or something to kill. And she doesn’t understand that it is generally ok that they explore and get into and play with stuff … so long as they are safe from anything that can do them real harm. She likes my cat Toby and is entertained by him, but also is startled by him tearing around the apartment and jumping on the furniture. I’d hear her “No, no, no” multiple times a day.

Toby’s background is largely unknown, though a couple of “cat people” have suggested some of his behavior issues sound like he was living in a household that was too active, i.e., he was always on the defensive. He gets scared and sometimes lashes out, though doesn’t bring out his claws or bite to break the skin. To be clear: he never has hurt or threatened my mother – he likes her and wants to be friends. He’s like a socially awkward kid who doesn’t quite get it right. For example, he jumps up on the back of her chair to be close to her … not realizing, of course, that this scares her.

So, in the weeks that we have had Toby, these two lovable beings with whom I share a small space started to get on each other’s nerves. To be honest, they began to make my life a living hell. By last Friday, every five minutes one or the other would be calling me to complain about the other! I was trying to work and finally just couldn’t take it anymore. I called a family meeting. I told them both that:

  • this situation was unacceptable!!
  • they had to find a way to get along or one of them would be re-homed!! (I wouldn’t really)
  • I work during the day and cannot referee their squabbles!!
  • I was tired of both of them!!

Now, I know that people will say that Toby could not understand what I said and my mother won’t remember. Really, my rant wasn’t very long or very loud or very scary, and I made sure to spend time with each telling them I love them. Sounds a little crazy, right? But, I will say that since the family meeting, their behavior has completely changed. Mom is no longer yelling at Toby every five minutes. Toby is no longer as defensive or wild. They are frequently in the same room and seem to be fine. Mom laughs as Toby tries to play with her knitting needles while she is working. Toby walks by her chair to get petted and he doesn’t jump on her chair.

Perhaps the behavior changes are because I asserted my “alpha-ness”. A friend once told me that humans need to let their cats know who’s the boss. Well, on Friday, I did that. Toby has been more affectionate and happier, so maybe it was good for him to hear that I can take charge – that he doesn’t have to be scared. I’ve been reluctant to be assertive because I wanted to let him settle in and not be afraid of me, but maybe he just needed to hear that I was up to the job of running the show. He doesn’t have to act tough anymore – he can be sweet and silly and chill.

I suppose I should pause here to mention one other change. In addition to my lecture and control-taking actions, we took the practical step of switching mom’s living room and bedroom chairs. It’s harder for Toby to jump on the new living room chair and it’s no longer higher than the other furniture. Perhaps the new chair doesn’t hold the same attraction as the old chair.

Whether it was my meltdown or moving the chairs, we now have peace and tranquility. We all seem to like each other again. Mom laughs at Toby’s antics and Toby is happy to entertain us. I’d like to think that they listened to me and understood my needs. I’d like to think they put me first and wanted to make me happy. I’d like to think that we had reached a new level of common understanding about respecting each other’s space. I’d like to think they both feel safe and loved, so can relax knowing that everything is OK. But, given that one of the two has dementia and no memory and the other one is a cat, I’m thinking that this all came down to rearranging the furniture.

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