Clippings: Some observations on living with cats

Early this month, I moved out of the farmhouse I had been renting in Cornwall and piled my possessions into the back of the Subaru for a 35-mile drive to the Old North End of Burlington. The price of gas rose by 20 cents per gallon and a freezing rain began to fall as I drove north on Route 7. My departure could not have felt more depressing.
After dragging my four Rubbermaid containers onto the porch, I struggled to unlock the front door while holding a milk crate containing all manner of loose odds and ends. The latch clicked and I banged the door open with my knee. My housemates were out for the evening, but as I began dragging the heavy containers stuffed with linens and clothes in from the rain, I had the eerie feeling that I was being watched. My eyes took a minute to adjust to the dark house and a pair of luminous eyes materialized under the kitchen table.
The cat was in.
I now live with an American shorthair cat named Milo. He has a black and white coat that nearly resembles a tuxedo with white gloves and spats. His eyes are an unnerving sour green with pupils that can go from a huge, pleading stare to a nearly vicious glint in a matter of seconds. To be clear, I’ve been a “dog person” since birth, and as someone who falls firmly on the “dog” end of the spectrum, the past few weeks have indeed been a learning experience. But I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.
The first and most noticeable observation on living with a cat is an array of behaviors that can only be described as highly erratic. Casually sitting on the couch at any time of day, Milo will race into the room, claw furiously at the couch or coffee table and then go tearing back out again, leaving me sitting in bewilderment. While I’ll never know his motivations, it’s evident that his curiosity (and hunger) is the driving force behind some of his most notable antics. He has knocked over several cups of tea while patrolling the countertop; casually swats pens onto the floor and chases them; and will absolutely not permit me to use a can opener without first checking to see if the can I am about to open contains tuna. Cats will do all of this and more — for them it’s a normal concept and one that many cat owners take for granted. It’s practically in a contract.
While the Labrador retrievers of my youth were ever loyal and affectionate, I’ve found cats take a different approach to my presence. Milo is content to simply observe — and critically so. Be it an indistinct spot on the floor, something outside the window or me sitting on the couch, cohabiting with a cat I have found is to have a pair of judgmental eyes follow your every move.
While writing this, I looked up cat training manuals online (which sounds like an oxymoron). Milo is a very well behaved cat, but I wanted to see what the online community had in mind. Like any other domestic animal, cats respond well to both positive and negative reinforcement — a carrot-and-stick-approach that could more accurately be described in this case as the “treat-and-water pistol.” But attracting your cat’s attention or getting them to come when called can be next to impossible. You can call your cat by any manner of names but the only somewhat reliable manner I’ve found to attract Milo’s attention is to scrape my fingernail on the kitchen table or the couch, which then entices him to approach. Or I can just open a can of soup.
There’s a reason why the cliché is “Like herding cats.”
The biggest lesson, I guess, is that our pets can be as weird or weirder than ourselves and to expect anything otherwise would be ridiculous. Cats upset the typical “master-pet” dynamic. After this month, I’ve reached the conclusion that you don’t really own a cat so much as the cat lives with you. Like any other roommate, that can take some getting used to, with a few allocations and concessions now and then. But, like any relationship, what you put in to it is directly proportional to what you get out of it.
So the first night in my new home when I was awakened at four in the morning to the sound of my bedroom door opening and two seconds later Milo head-butted me awake in an affectionate — albeit firm — greeting, I didn’t hold it against him. He quickly claimed the pillow next to mine as his own and we both fell asleep.
He’s slept there almost every night since.

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