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Wed, 31 Jan 2007

Cat Confessions

Who's to blame? I can only blame myself. Like most problems, the beginnings of the downward slide were almost imperceptible at first. You think you're doing a good thing, the right thing. But little by little, you find yourself falling further down the slippery slope, being drawn deeper and deeper into an ever-growing nightmare, until one day you find yourself at rock bottom, wondering just how you ever got into this mess in the first place, your life shot to hell.

Health problems? Drug or alcohol addiction? Financial irresponsibility? No, my problem is far more intractable than any of these, for it is neither an addiction nor a simple dependency. Instead, I have become the codependent and enabler of my spouse's obsession, an obsession that has stripped away any vestiges of a peaceful and quiet life for me.

I refer, of course, to life with cats.

Not just life with cats in general, though. In the normal, everyday sense, within generally accepted behavioral norms, "life with cats" would not be such a big deal. Instead, I refer to being the enabler of my wife's obsession with cats. By acquiescing and even supporting her fanaticism in regards to the little furballs, I have made our family's life and myself miserable at times. (Well, perhaps only somewhat miserable: my wife isn't greatly upset about the situation. It's her obsession, after all.)

Looking back on everything, I can see that my problems began with the confluence of two powerful factors, the first of which was my wife's obsession with cats. I have never completely understood the root causes of these kinds of animal obsessions. Drugs, alcohol, sex -- addictions to any of these I can more easily understand; the pharmacological and psychological kicks they give are readily apparent. But there are whole classes of obsessions that are unfathomable to me, and an overpowering infatuation with pets of any kind is at the top of this list. (My wife suggests that my complete lack of empathy with her condition is symptomatic of my not having had any pets myself when I was growing up. Perhaps that is so, but I know many people who had pets when they were young who have gone on to lead ordinary, unremarkable, unobsessive adult lives, so I think her assertion is on somewhat shaky ground.) Still, I see the evidence all around me of how pervasive these obsessions must be, the strongest of which is how much money there seems to be being made in catering to those who suffer from them.

My personal suspicion is that, like many other forms of mental illness, pet obsession has both a genetic and an environmental basis: in other words, these things tend to run in families. My wife's family, and my wife's own history growing up in it, are prima facie evidence for that.

As bad as my wife's obsession with cats is, it pales in comparison to that shown by her mother. In my mother-in-law's house, the cats rule the roost (to mix a metaphor), and the primary function of everything found and everyone living there is the care, maintenance, and adoration of her cats. Like those stories one occasionally hears of the reclusive old lady who dies and is found later surrounded by dozens of her cats (all crying to be fed), my in-laws, living in a modest, suburban, three-bedroom home, currently support a pack of nearly three dozen cats. While the exact number of cats inhabiting the house has varied over the years, the current population is not far off the mean value averaged over my mother-in-law's lifetime.

And beyond just having the cats living there, there is the shrine-like atmosphere in my mother-in-law's house, paying homage to all things cat, looking for all the world like an Egyptian temple to Bastet. It isn't enough that with thirty-odd cats in the house that there is literally one everywhere you look, any time, day or night -- but in addition, the walls are covered with various forms of "cat art", the rooms are filled with cat statues, the calendar on the refrigerator is "A Year of Cats", photos of favorite cats hang on the wall alongside the portraits of children and grandchildren, and on and on, ad nauseam. Even the furniture is cat-centric: cat scratchers in every room, padded cat perches attached to nearly every window, an enormous "can condominium" (which is essentially a floor-to-ceiling jungle gym for cats) occupying a substantial part of the living room, catnip-stuffed cat toys scattered everywhere, and on and on.

Who, growing up in an environment like that, could fail to be influenced by it? Akin to the Stockholm Syndrome, where kidnapping victims wind up identifying with their captors, a child growing up in such an environment almost certainly cannot help but be swayed by it, to think that such a life and such behavior are "normal". I think this is what must have happened to my wife. From the stories she tells me, it's evident that she was drawn into life in CatWorld from a very early age, and quickly came to accept it as completely normal. Starting at around age five, she would bring home stray cats that followed her back to the house as she walked up from the school bus stop, adding them to the existing menagerie. It did not take very many years for her to develop a sub-group of her own adoptees within her parents' larger pride.

(The ironic and somewhat frightening thing about the way my wife was co-opted into the cat mindset is the fact that, from the time she was an infant, she suffered from severe asthma, as well as being (she discovered in her early teens) strongly allergic to cats. The pediatricians and other doctors would tell my in-laws that they had to get rid of the cats, that the enormous quantities of dander floating in the air of their house were like subjecting her to life in a coal mine. My mother-in-law would simply look back at them and say, "No, that's not an option," and ask for an appointment for my wife to get allergy shots.)

The second factor that led to my current condition is my own weakness in not always being able to stand up for what I think is right, when my wife holds a contrary opinion. I do love my wife very much, and sometimes the urge to go along, to be accommodating, to give her what she wants, overpowers my better judgment. This is not unusual in marriage, and often the consequences of doing so are minor to nil. But regarding her cats, I did not realize at first that letting her cats "in the door" so to speak was offering up an essentially open-ended invitation whose ramifications would extend over not just months or years, but decades.

Before we were married, my wife did bring up the subject of her pets as we were talking one day about plans for our first house.

"You know I need to take my cats with me when I move out of my parents' house," she said quietly. I had been to my future in-laws' house several times by that time, and the thought horrified me. The pack of kitties living there was so overwhelming that I had no idea which cats belonged to my in-laws and which belonged to her -- it all seemed like one amorphous bunch to me.

"How many is that?" I asked.

"Ten," she replied, again quietly, in a matter-of-fact tone. I knew she had pets, but the subject of exactly how many had never come up until now. I suspect she was worried about how I would react when I found out. Quite perceptive.

"TEN?! Out of the question." I, who had never had a pet in my life, recoiled at the thought of sharing our small apartment ten cats. As far as I was concerned, it would be like living at her parents' house, and I had seen more than enough of that to know I couldn't stand it.

"Oh, Rich, please! They're mine, and I have to take care of them. It wouldn't be fair to leave them with my parents." Well, that was a point. But ten?

"I don't know. I'll have to think about this."

Wisely, she left things there. My instincts were all telling me that letting her bring her menagerie would be a big mistake, but as I did think more about it, I also felt bad for being so hard-nosed about the whole thing. After all, it is understandable for people to become attached to their pets, and besides, I couldn't shake the look of disappointment on my fiancée's face when I told her, "Out of the question." The idea of making her unhappy started to gnaw at me. I have always succumbed easily to feelings of guilt, and this time was no exception. But maybe there was a way I could engineer a compromise. A couple of days later, I brought up the subject again.

"I've been thinking about your cats. I don't think I could cope with having ten cats running around the house. Can we take less than ten?"

"How many?" She looked apprehensive.

"I was thinking four." I knew people who had three or four cats, and it did not seem like as much of an overwhelming thing as ten.

"Four? How can I pick just four? I love them all. How can I pick some and leave the rest behind? And it still wouldn't be fair to my parents."

"I've been thinking about that. We could pay them for the care and feeding of the ones still there; it's really no different than what you do now with them."

My fiancée was crestfallen. "I'll have to think about that," she said, a little sadly, with a look of disappointment on her face. And she went off to think about it for the next couple of days. For my part, I couldn't get that disappointed look of hers out of my mind. I started to feel like I was being rotten about the whole thing.

Several more days passed, then the subject came up again.

"Rich, I've been thinking about what you said about the cats." She took a deep breath. "I've been trying to figure out which ones I would take and which ones I would leave." Well, that was a good sign, but she didn't seem very happy about it. "I think I could live with five. Can you live with five?" she asked plaintively, and when she looked up at me, I could see she was barely suppressing a tear.

Great, I thought. Here I am being stubborn over a couple of stupid cats, and all I'm succeeding in doing is making my bride-to-be miserable. I felt awful, and guilty. So I caved.

"I've been thinking some more about it too. And it's okay; you can bring all your cats. Not a problem."

"Rich!" Her eyes brightened. "Are you sure? Really?"

"Yes. I'm sure." Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all. And a few more cats would be a small down payment to make towards a long and happy married life together.

"Oh, Richard, thank you!" And the look of relief and happiness on her face as she kissed me reinforced my belief that I had done the right thing. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all. And besides, most of her cats were getting old, so by attrition we ought to be back at a reasonable number in just a few years.

Pretty naive, I know, looking back at the scene now, twenty years later. Little did I suspect exactly how much having to manage a large number of cats would dominate my life.

As mentioned, the first thing I learned about having a large number of cats in a relatively small space is that you're never away from them. (My wife's cats are all "indoor" cats, and aren't allowed out of the house to roam outside -- worries about things like rabies, or being chased by dogs, and the like. This is not to say that my wife didn't press me for years to construct a fenced-in enclosure taking up most of the back yard of the house, which is exactly what her parents had done to their own back yard. I always thought it was like living in Stalag 17, with only the lack of guard towers and razor wire at the top of the ten-foot high fence keeping the illusion from being complete.) It's not like they all go and hang out in one room for most of the day, only coming out to be fed. When you sit down in the kitchen, two or three immediately come out to investigate what you're doing, looking for food. When you go to the bathroom, one pops up from inside the bathtub to watch you. They occupy all the choice places on the couch and chairs. They sleep on your bed, and make nests in any clothing you might leave out. Life with this many cats becomes a series of "C'mon, move"s, shooing them off of our out of wherever you happen to be or want to be.

Sleeping in a house full of cats also devolves into a series of unfortunate events. My wife insists that she is unable to sleep without having her cats near her, so she also insists on keeping the bedroom door open at night to allow them unhindered access. Alas for me, my side of the bed happens to be between her and the door, so I am caught every night in the middle of the cat parade, as they march in and out of the bedroom to lie on top of my wife as they sleep. For me, since this is not unlike trying to sleep in the center lane of an Interstate, evenings for me rarely consist of uninterrupted hours of restful slumber. A few of the cats I have managed to intimidate into leaving me and my side of the bed alone at night, and another few generally don't come in at all. But most of them have no qualms about walking right over me as I lay in bed -- to them, I am nothing more than a speed bump on the road to my wife. Some walk across the comforters with claws extended, so when they climb over my legs, I get the cuts and scratches to prove it. A few are just very large -- imagine being awakened from a sound sleep by someone dropping a fifteen-pound bag onto your chest. One is fairly small and light, and had been declawed by her previous owner; she compensates for her lack of these irritating factors by insisting on walking across my face several times a night to get to my wife, as if she's too dumb or too stubborn to take another route. Finally, the young ones see feet or legs moving beneath a quilt or comforter as a mouse or some such creature that needs to be caught, so, when rolling over or straightening or bending my legs, I am, more often than not, pounced upon and clawed at. Sleep scientists have demonstrated that you don't have to be kept awake continuously to lose the benefits of normal sleep -- you just have to be awakened over and over at certain key points in the sleep cycle. They needn't have gone to all the bother of creating studies; they could just have spoken to me.

Then, there are the large, ongoing expenses associated with having so many pets. Many weeks, the budget for cat food and kitty litter equals or exceeds what we spend on groceries and staples for the family. Veterinary care, like health care in general, is by no means cheap, and there are few if any health insurance plans for pets. In any given year, our vet charges are comparable to our out-of-pocket expenses for the family's health care. For many years, my wife took her pets to the same vet her parents used, and, given the sheer number of animals involved, he took pity on us and offered us "breeders discounts" (even though we weren't breeding them at all) and allowed us to essentially run a tab during those months when one or more of the cats were seriously ill or needed surgery, which we would then pay off later. But when we moved a couple of years ago, that ended, and now the new vet asks for payment in full, and doesn't offer discounts. So we occasionally struggle to make ends meet in trying to pay for the care and feeding of the animals.

Finally, in some sense, the rest of the family is held captive to the cats. We are generally unable to take anything more than day trips out of the house, because of the inevitable questions, "Who will take care of the cats? Who's going to feed them? Water them? Empty the litter boxes?" We now live too far from my in-laws to ask them to stop by and perform the housekeeping chores the cats require, so whenever we want to get away for more than a day, we have to hire a cat sitter, or pay one of the neighborhood kids to come by an take care of them. Another complication and another expense that always has to be factored into our plans.

My wife often wonders if I actually hate the cats. I honestly don't. I originally thought to title this essay "Why I Hate Cats", and, although I do have many complaints about having so many underfoot, I quickly realized that that wasn't true. For the most part, I am out of the house and at work on weekdays, so my exposure to them is not as much as it might otherwise be, which helps a lot. I do find their antics and quirky behaviors amusing on occasion. And at times, it is kind of soothing to have a cat sitting quietly in my lap, purring contentedly.

But I have to go now. The howling coming from downstairs tells me that several of the cats are fighting, and I have to go down there and separate he combatants before they manage to injure each other.

Posted Jan 31, 2007 at 17:18 UTC, 3094 words,  [/richPermalink

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