A Practical Guide to Cat Companionship
Originally published in Harrowsmith, 1994
by Kerry Riley
HOW TO GET A CAT:
The first step in getting on with a cat, is of course, to get a cat. Those finely tuned individuals who are extremely cat-simpatico have probably already been gotten by a cat, or several cats, because while a cat should never be accused of anything so pedestrian and ovine as flocking, they do seem to be particularly adept at seeking out naturally talented CAT people who often find themselves the target of the oblique attentions of more than one of the creatures. If at this moment, however, your screen door is not dotted with posturing felines, don’t despair. There are a lot more cats around than there are natural cat people. Many members of the feline species have been forced to look for individuals who might be trained into reasonable facsimiles. You may be one of these.
There are a few details that can be seen to even before you approach the feline of your choice which may sway the pendulum in your favour. A fireplace with a good couch in front of it carries considerable weight with a cat and goose-down duvets are recognized as telling touches. A well stocked larder and a certain laissez-faire when it comes to the more tiresome aspects of weight control are appreciated, as is a largesse in regards to what constitutes a normal serving size. In other words, appear to live well and eat big. Niggling little attitudes toward food and comfort are viewed dimly.
In attempting to lure a cat into your home, like a sun into your solar system, it is important not to appear too needy. Cats claim a large personal space and resent any premature assaults on its periphery. Do not attempt to throw yourself at a cat. If you must throw yourself at something, get a dog. It will meet you half way. You might also want to consider consulting a therapist about those lingering insecurities. If, however, you are sufficiently well adjusted to find a cat’s apparently aloof self-possession interesting or even attractive, it is still important not to make a fool of yourself. Treat the initial meeting like a job interview. Be cautious and as self-possessed as possible. Coy or cute behaviour, such as excessive “kitty-kittying,” is discouraged. Fur ruffling, or other uninvited advances upon the cat’s person are all actions rightly considered obnoxiously familiar, and will most likely terminate the interview forthwith. However, cats are often bored by the paltry, trifling challenges that everyday life brings and are looking for fresh conquests. Therefore, “out catting the cat,” can be an effective way to induce an interaction. As difficult as it may be, feign indifference. Unable to resist the challenge, the object of your inattention will be forced to come over to see what’s wrong with you. Strategically, you have gained some ground by forcing the cat to admit, if not interest, then at least morbid curiosity. Not that you will be regarded as any serious challenge, but perhaps just interesting enough to be considered for the position of butler cum unpaid-entertainment, in your own house, should he choose to move in. Remember, it’s always the cat’s choice. Even a scrawny, flea-bitten, moth-eaten, guttersnipe of a cat will sniff “no thank you” if you are obviously unsuitable or your comportment substandard.
Realizing that the single blank line between this paragraph and the last may bear mute testimony to many heart wrenching attempts and near misses, I must, in the interest of progress, assume that you have by now induced a feline to grace your home. You are now entering that crucial probationary period. I have assembled a few helpful hints for initiates into the convoluted and treacherous arena of feline etiquette, and laid them out, with helpful practical illustrations, under the most essential concepts of successful cat companionship.
THE SOCIAL HIERARCHY
The first and most important requirement for getting on with a cat is to humbly and unquestioningly accept your place as a secondary species in your own home. Once over this stumbling block, the rest can be deduced fairly easily and follows naturally from your station in life.
KEEPER OF THE MYTH
The cat is a mythical creature. The ancient Egyptians understood this. By associating with a cat, you are agreeing to participate in this myth, indeed, even foster it. Myths do not make mistakes. No matter what your cat does, no matter how awkward, goofy or inane, it must be silently agreed between the two of you that he meant to do it, and he meant to do it exactly that way. Any failure to appreciate the art and elegance involved must flow directly from your impoverished sensibilities and not from any lack of these attributes on your cat’s part. So, even if your cat, in the process of hopping off the armoire, trips over himself and splats onto the floor, skidding to a halt, whiskers bent and dignity askew, his aplomb temporarily de-plombed so to speak, you must join in the unspoken assumption that this was a very fine example of exactly what he intended to do. When he hauls himself up, dripping disdain for some mere trifle like gravity, gives his paw a shake and proceeds to wash his face with the calm assurance of one who pulls off these amazing stunts with such ease and frequency that he barely notices them, you are expected to react like a fellow connoisseur. Laughing, pointing or other boorish behaviour will be frowned upon, and will undoubtedly be a source of friction in the future.
MYTHS DON’T HAVE TO DO ANYTHING
You must never put your cat in the position of appearing to have been MADE to do something. An example may help clarify this point. Say, for example, that your cat has allowed you to join him on the couch for a cosy evening in front of the fire. That is to say, you are fulfilling your destiny as a cat pillow, and you have been, with great care and precision, kneaded into a pleasing shape and consistency. Suddenly, you are possessed by an urgent need to visit the water closet, but this urge, which cannot be denied with impunity, necessitates disturbing your cat. A dilemma of cataclysmic proportions! A rupture of either relations or bladder seems inevitable. The cat is a regal creature. You cannot simply plop him down, implying that your base physical needs are more important than his creature comfort. The correct, and only possible approach to this impasse is to create the illusion that it was your cat’s decision to leave. This requires great subtlety and involves a series of furtive contortions on your part designed to disturb your cat without actually making him aware of the source of the disturbance. A little shift, a little nudge, never blatant enough to appear intentional, and eventually your cat will rouse himself from his royal doze long enough to dismiss you as a complete failure, even as a pillow, and take himself off to a more satisfactory perch. Superior beings can afford a little beneficence, and you will be allowed back into the royal presence in time. You may employ the meantime usefully with a hasty visit to the water closet, a move which will, no doubt, tickle your cat’s highly refined sense of symbolism. It cannot be emphasized enough…subtlety is the key. Any perception, any whisker of suspicion on your cat’s part, that you are deliberately trying to deprive yourself of his presence could result in a permanent rift and place your carpet and favoured underthings in considerable jeopardy.
YOU CAN’T OWN A MYTH
Another important point, that must be clearly understood, is that in any reference that you might make to “my cat” the word “my” is used in the sense of “my liege” or “my sovereign,” and not meant to imply possession in any sense of the word. Cats are not in the habit of considering themselves chattel, and will thank you not to either. The reverse, however, is patently untrue. Once you have invited a cat into your abode, you are forever marked as cat chattel. An honour indeed, but one that you may have been unaware of if you assumed that those apparently affectionate rubs your cat bestows on you from time to time were effusions of love, rather than the glandular variety. What the treasured centre of your universe is actually doing, is marking you as his…similar in manner to the method your mother used to label your clothing, i.e. “Jeffrey’s sweater.” Now you sally forth into the world everyday, clearly labelled, “Sylvester’s person,” to all who read with their noses. It would be a shame to lose you after lavishing so much effort on your training.
IN THE END, A MYTH IS A MYTH
At some point in your relationship with your cat, you may feel that you absolutely must make a stand regarding some point of disagreement. Do not enter into this course of action lightly, even if you are an experienced CAT person–the outcome may be uncertain. However, if your imperial feline seems to be in danger of becoming a despot, and has decided, for example, that your ankles will do very nicely as props in his jungle fantasies, or that your significant other is hence forth a persona non grata in the household, whose personal effects make pleasing impromptu commodes, then revolutionary action may be warranted. If forced to face down a cat, remember that the autumn is the best time to press an issue. Not a good time–there is never a good time, but at least a time when the elements act in your favour. There is nothing like a little frost in the air to bring out the compromise in a cat. Those of you in southern locales are doomed to despotism I’m afraid, but the harder your winter, the bigger your bargaining tool. Subtle diplomacy is still essential. “Death (preferably yours) before dishonour” is part of the cat credo. The ultimatum must be implied, but never stated openly while at the same time an attractive excuse for complying is supplied–an “out” if you will. Once again, a practical scenario may help. Say, for example, Theodore has, for some opaque but undoubtedly superior reason, decided that he wants to spend the majority of his time sleeping in your bathtub. Having taken my advice and waited until the first frost to bring the matter up, you find that your social life is suffering, and the matter of bathtub rights has taken on a pungency all of its own. Immediate resolution is imperative. Begin your assault by making several apparently offhand remarks about the predicted snowfall for the winter. If you can work in anecdotal material about stray cats using their tails to keep their noses warm while sleeping OUTDOORS, all the better, but don’t overdo it. You don’t get to be a myth by being imperceptive. Having indirectly implied the alternative, you must now provide Theodore with a good reason to abandon the bathtub as his favourite haunt, one which he will not associate with you. Track your cat’s schedule. Make his “business” your business, if I’m not being too oblique. If I am, perhaps you’re not cut out for this cat stuff after all. Even he will be forced to bend an ear to nature’s call occasionally and temporarily vacate the bathhouse. This is your chance to pounce. Dash in and fill the tub with several layers of crinkled tinfoil (for example), a substance whose texture is known to be quite disagreeable to cats. When your cat returns and finds his favoured sleeping site defiled and befoiled, feign ignorance. When he fixes you with that look that implies that you should DO something, pretend to be impenetrably thickheaded. Having appealed to his prejudices, your cat is likely to accept this as a given, and huff himself off to SOMEWHERE BETTER. Having achieved your goal, don’t blow it now by appearing to be too pleased with yourself. Your cat may be willing to forgive doltish incompetence on your part, but not one-upmanship. Hence forth, it will simply be agreed between the two of you that tinfoil problems have been particularly severe in your area lately, and it’s a shame it had to happen to such a fine tub. You may silently rejoice, showering on tinfoil being a small price to pay for restored harmony. However, if you notice that Theodore has spent quite a bit of time chatting up that neighbour with two fireplaces and a three piece ensuite, your days as a cat butler may be numbered. That’s a chance you take when you mess with a myth. If this is your unfortunate eventuality, please return to the first section entitled: HOW TO GET A CAT.