Petting cat head

Do you know anybody whose adult life could have been easier and a whole lot happier if they’d been treated better as a child? Not only do I know people like that, I’m one of them. In my work I’m fortunate to meet pets and humans with broken and battered pasts. We are not alone.

Esther was a 70 year old single lady when she brought her shiny new 5 month old kitten JP to see me. Actually, I sort of made that up. This little guy was plenty good looking but his emotional state was rather tattered. Prior to his stretch in animal control where Esther found him this feline waif had already been through two homes. Like most cats in shelters his crimes had been behavioral. JP was known to be pushy and assertive in his play with other cats. It seemed that he had few friends in the slammer but Esther gave him a shot anyway.

I’m a veterinary behavior specialist. Esther brought JP to me because he scratched and bit her whenever she tried to pick him up. Rather than rejecting him she wanted to learn how she could give her new kitty the love he needed. He just wouldn’t let her touch him.

It turned out that JP had good reason to resist human handling. During one of his previous lives he’d been thrown out the window of a moving car. The poor little guy was badly injured and needed surgery on his face. Beyond his aversion to being touched JP wouldn’t cooperate with being put in a cat carrier to come to the veterinary clinic. This young fellow was severely scarred.

Residency training in my specialty requires an intimate understanding of the trove of research on animal behavior. Custom-fitting a behavior modification method called desensitization and counterconditioning would be necessary for JP so he could learn that being approached and touched by his person was actually a good thing. He never needed to fear human hands again.

I told Esther not to approach her kitty but if he jumped into her lap (which he occasionally did) she could very slowly and gently pet him. Her caring touch would reinforce JP’s cautious willingness to take a chance. If she sensed any tension she was to immediately take her hands away so he could relax. If his agitation ramped-up anyway I told her to end the interaction by immediately standing so her kitty would drop to the floor and walk away. This last bit of advice was important. People can mistakenly continue touching an agitated cat, leading to human injury. An otherwise promising friendship can suffer unnecessary damage.

That sounds simple enough but it’s important to remember that we were dealing with a different species. Many cats who are otherwise sweet, well-adjusted snuggle bunnies react badly if they are touched behind their shoulders. And that’s because those areas are generally off-limits to anyone other than the cat himself – the owner of that feline body. It’s a personal boundary thing.

What??? Cats are different than people, you ask? Well, yes, they need for us to recognize their uniqueness and to respect their special requirements. Every person I know would love to have others understand their individual needs. Cats deserve nothing less.

Put another way, cats are not little people in furry suits. In fact, many of their physical functions are unlike ours. A cat’s nervous system, from her brain to the tips of her toes, functions in distinctively feline ways. If you observe cats in a colony (a free-living group) you would learn that their mutual grooming is confined to – you guessed it – their heads, necks, and shoulders. The take-away for cat parents is to learn what a cat is and then to treat their cat like a cat. It’s an especially good idea to keep your big clumsy mitts off their dainty little paws and their delicate rear ends. Most of us humans are fine with limited handling of our hands but our derrieres, well, that’s something else altogether.

These tid bits of wisdom made sense to Esther. She knew that being touched appropriately as a child would have brought her comfort and security. She had already forgiven her parents for their emotional and physical violence. She shared with me that she’d learned that carrying a grudge was like taking poison and hoping that the other person would die. Maybe it was Lily Tomlin or Jerry Jampolsky or that great philosopher “Anonymous” who said that “Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.” Esther had internalized this wisdom but she could now share it with her special and rather damaged new cat. In so doing she reinforced it in herself.

And so Esther and I set about the task of teaching JP that he could actually enjoy being picked up and carried. A blanket, the same one every time, would be a constant presence in Esther’s lap when she was sitting. After her kitty jumped onto her lap she would slowly bring the blanket near the side of his face and touch him gently with it so he could feel how nice and soft it was. She quietly told him he was good and would then let the blanket drop. To avoid triggering JP’s fear I told Esther to repeat this only a few times and then let her boy sit and relax. Our objective was for him to associate the blanket with his person’s gentle care.

With patience and repetition JP adapted nicely to this routine. So we took another leap. Esther quietly carried the blanket to where JP was resting. To help him connect a calm emotional state with it I told her to spray it with the calming pheromone Feliway. We wanted JP to associate feelings of relaxation whenever Esther and the blanket were near.

This process of healing JP’s emotional wounds was working for him. Esther, who’d thought that she’d made plenty of progress overcoming her own troubled past, began to realize that teaching someone else to trust illuminated a new path for her too. Her wellbeing was improving right along with JP’s.

While she was sitting or crouching next to her kitty I told Esther to touch the blanket to the side of JP’s neck or shoulder – just a few times, twice daily. When it became clear that he was comfortable with this I had her drape it over his chest and head. After repeating this step over several days she was able to slowly pick up a swaddled JP and gently carry him. She always left the blanket available for her good cat so he could snuggle and hide in it when he felt like it.

Esther and JP were having fun together. I taught her to use a clicker to teach her fine boy to come when called. There was always a tasty morsel and a gentle scratch under the chin when he arrived.

While working with Esther for JP’s wellbeing I came to know this good lady a little bit. She explained that the damage she suffered as a child had led to some anger problems in her adult life. She’d struggled for a long time with the effects of her unhappy childhood but found that investing herself in the care of another creature made it possible for her to re-parent herself.

In some ways it can actually be easier to overcome our human challenges while caring for a wounded nonhuman. By listening and observing we can appreciate their unique needs and bring out their best. JP could never learn to speak English or adopt a human perspective on life. So Esther fostered healthy change by adapting her leadership to him.

When we do something that good for somebody else we can mend ourselves at the same time. Those of us who didn’t have reliable, trustworthy parents can find our way out of the woods by doing the job right for someone else. I understand how it works; I’ve taken that road myself. Giving service to pets and their people, well, that’s what drew me to veterinary medicine in the first place.

Human infants, toddlers, and adolescents who face uncertainty carry that anxiety all of their lives. We may be prone to some regrettable adult behaviors. None of us can get back our childhoods for a do-over. All we have is now and tomorrow. But if we serve as a guide for a creature who lives in our homes, who never grows tired of us, and who will never leave we can do right by them and ourselves. We can’t be 8 years old again but we can be the good leader for somebody else who really needs us.