Anyone who says that cats are aloof have clearly not met my cats.
My husband and I have two tuxedo kitties, Jax
Jax was abandoned by his mother shortly after his birth on the front porch of our friend, B. We got him when he was about seven weeks old.
Leo was a neighborhood kitty we thought belonged to our neighbors, until they moved away…without him.
We started feeding Leo, and he promptly took up residence in front of our house.
Leo became devoted to John, who has never met an animal (especially a cat) he doesn’t love.
John tried to coax Leo indoors when it got snowy, but Leo, despite their beautiful bromance, was a committed outdoor cat.
And then Leo was attacked by a neighborhood dog , and John rescued him from the very jaws of death, solidifing Leo’s undying devotion to John.
We helped Leo convalesce.
And he has been an indoor cat with us ever since. He feels pretty happy about this.
I suppose everyone has their own strategy for interacting with pets.
I was a middle school teacher for sixteen years, and somehow, it seemed pretty natural for me to talk to Jax and Leo like I would to middle school students.
A lot of people hate working with middle school students, but I loved it…at least I loved it most of the time.
I found that when I trusted in teenagers’ ability to channel their energy in a good direction, and when I consistently worked to listen and communicate, things usually worked out well. (Of course, usually is the operative word.)
I found this was a pretty good strategy to use with Jax, whom we got first, and who always seemed to me like an exuberant, sometimes destructive, middle school student.
Me to Jax:
Choices: You can’t climb on the table during supper. Would you like to sit in this chair with us or go in the back of the house?
Feelings: Buddy, it is hard for me to grade papers when you are attacking my hand. It seems like you are feeling bored. How can I help you?
Redirection: I would like you to play with your rubber bands instead eating my Thomas Aquinas translation.*
Of course, I don’t know how much cats understand when we talk to them, but I have always had the feeling that animals understand more than we think they do, and it always seemed like a good idea to communicate to Jax like he could understand the basic gist of what I was saying.
And perhaps this is why it was not too surprising when he started communicating back.
Jax really likes playing games like “Flying Rubber Bands”, which is a game in which we throw colorful rubber bands into the air, and he catches them in his paws or flips them back up in the air after they have landed on the ground.
It is his goal to play Flying Rubber Bands every single day. Preferably several times. It is our duty to play this game with him. If we are remiss in our duty, he lets us know.
And, unfortunately, we are often remiss in our duty, because we are both college professors and have to read a lot.
Jax does not consider this a legitimate excuse.
If we forget to play rubber bands he first sits right beside us, staring intently.
If we don’t get the message from staring, he taps us repeatedly on the arm with his paw until we get up and play rubber bands with him.
If for some reason, tapping our arms doesn’t work, he climbs up onto our television armoire and bangs a picture against the wall, which makes a lot of noise and really annoys us. Which, of course, Jax knows.
Jax’s insistence that we play rubber bands with him every day can be a little annoying, but I am also pretty glad for it.
That little cat is hilarious when he plays this game, and he always makes us laugh and surprises us with his feline athleticism.
Sometimes I think that we benefit as much from Flying Rubber Bands as Jax does, and I think Jax (who thinks we read far too much) knows this.
Leo has also developed his own communication style.
Jax is a cat of action and more of a direct communicator. Leo is quite a few years older than Jax and tends to rely more on appeals to pathos.
Leo sleeps in the living room and Jax in the back, with a gate dividing them (because Jax gets territorial sometimes).
Soon after we moved Leo to the front of the house, we were awakened in the morning with a very distinct “Mwow wow? Mwow wow?”
This is the Morning Meow, and Leo only uses it in the morning when he deems that we have slept too long and that it is definitely time for us to feed him.
It sounds distinctly like “Hello? Hello?” and is absolutely infused with a tone of patient reproach.
There is also the Meow of Despair. Leo uses the Meow of Despair mostly when Leo feels that John is not spending enough time with him.
Leo will wander from room to room moaning loudly and desperately, as if suffering the torments of an eternal and relentless purgatory. The Meow of Despair will only end if John goes back and pets Leo and talks to him for a while.
At that point, the bromance has been honored,
justice is restored, and peace reigns in the house once again.
We’ve settled into a pretty peaceful routine with Jax and Leo, and despite the fact that we are humans, and they are felines, we have learned to communicate with each other really well, I think.
The other day I was reading about animals trainers and how they are often able to elicit amazing responses from animals mainly because they believe that animals understand a great deal and are able to communicate a great deal.
And this got me thinking about the times in our life when we decide that we are too different from other people, and they will never understand us, and so why bother trying to communicate.
It got me thinking about the difference trust, communicating, and listening can make.
*We got Jax my second year of grad school, and many student logic papers and Thomas Aquinas translations were nearly lost to Jax’s razor sharp teeth and kitten exuberance.