Human-Feline Relationships: Limited Human-Feline Partnerships

In addition to periodically seeing our cats as fur-covered babies and fuzzy cinder blocks, we all form limited partnerships with our pets to one degree or another. Limits may take many forms, but most belong to one of four general categories:

  • Time
  • Financial
  • Physical
  • Emotional

Let’s briefly look at each one of these and see how it may affect feline health and behavior and the quality of the human-feline bond.

One of the main factors that led cats to replace dogs as the number one pet in this country in the late eighties was the belief that it required less time to properly care for a cat than a dog. But is this necessarily true? Well, it depends on the cat and the owner and the nature of their bond. Obviously it takes more time for Mary to groom Hairy, her Persian, than it does for her neighbor, Stan, to groom his Siamese, MeeTu. Mary also prepares elaborate meals for Hairy, and these take a lot more time than it takes Stan to fill up MeeTu’s bowl with dry food when it becomes empty.

On the feline front, however, we see quite a different picture. Hairy contentedly lies like a furry mop next to Mary when she works at her desk. Meanwhile MeeTu views Stan’s desk as a kitty playground and every pen, pencil, paper clip, and piece of paper is fair game for the active and curious Siamese. Mary can finish her paperwork in an hour; it takes Stan two because MeeTu constantly interferes. When he locks her of his home office so he can work in peace, MeeTu’s pitiful yowls convince all of Stan’s neighbors within a five mile radius that he’s torturing his pet.

While financial limits may be a factor when we decide to get a new cat, most owners don’t give them much thought. “Cat food” goes on the grocery list along with peanut butter and paper towels; the annual trip to the veterinarian’s for vaccinations automatically gets incorporated into the monthly budget. While we may vaguely recall hearing about an $8,000 cat, a $200 computerized litterbox, or a $5,000 kitty activity center, most of us don’t think of our cats as a drain on our bank accounts.

Physical limits would seem to pose no problem either because the average cat easily can be carried–provided it wants to be, of course. As 6-foot, 200-pound Stan will attest, f a cat doesn’t want to be carried, brute force won’t help much. Additionally there are those people who suffer from various physical ailments that may undermine their immune responses. And cats, like all animals, may carry micro-organisms or cause injuries that prove problematic for these folks. Consequently it’s not unusual to encounter people like Stan, who suffers from multiple allergies, who draw the line at keeping a pet who bites, eliminates in his house, or otherwise poses what Stan considers a threat to his physical well-being.

The human emotional limits that may affect human-feline relationships are as varied as people and cats. Even though some cats who hiss at their owners may pose no physical threat to those people whatsoever, the very idea that Hairy would do that to her so upsets Mary it undermines her entire relationship with him. Other folks maintain very strong, purely emotional prejudices against certain breeds: “I’d never own a Persian,” Stan announces emphatically. “Every time I see one I think of my Aunt Flo. She was an old battle-ax and had five of the darn things.”

Even though most of us don’t give a thought about any time, financial, physical or emotional limits we consciously or subconsciously impose on our relationships with our cats, when problems arise sometimes these can effect the treatment process and the animal’s recovery more than any other factors. We saw before how Mary’s mother’s illness changed her entire relationship with Hairy: Mary simply didn’t have the time to fuss over him like she did before. Or suppose MeeTu develops an eye infection and the veterinarian gives Stan an ointment to put in the eye three times a day. Stan, a single self-employed contractor, often leaves home before seven in the morning and doesn’t get home until seven at night. How can he possibly medicate his cat? If he has to chase MeeTu around the house for twenty minutes to catch her to medicate her, time becomes ever more precious.

“Still, if anything happened to MeeTu, I’d make time to take care of her,” Stan insists.

We all like to think that, but sometimes reality doesn’t match that image. Because Stan had given no thought to his time limits, he automatically accepted the ointment for MeeTu’s eye infection. But when he actually tried to medicate his pet as directed given his schedule, he discovered he was lucky to get the medication into her twice a day.

What about financial limits? It’s easy to say, “Money’s no object,” when Hairy remains healthy and well-behaved. But does that hold true when he develops intermittent diarrhea? Mary drops him off at the veterinary clinic on her way to work with instructions to “Do whatever you need to do to find out what’s causing the problem,” but then she’s stunned when she sees the $450 bill for this diagnostic work-up. While Mary may feel very angry because the veterinarian didn’t tell her how much it could cost to diagnose a nonspecific problem, she can’t deny that she contributed to the problem by not bringing up the matter of cost when her veterinarian didn’t.

Feline medical and behavioral problems also may exceed the physical limits of the unprepared owner too. Recall how MeeTu’s rambunctious behavior made it physically impossible for Stan to medicate her eye. While ideally we should get our cats used to handling from an early age, if we opt to let them do as they will then we need to find some way to compensate for this lack of physical control when problems arise. Stan may need to wrap MeeTu snugly in a towel when he needs to medicate her, or accustom the extremely active Siamese to her own, personal carrier as a safe haven into which Stan can put her when stimulus overload causes her to race around the house menacing anyone who gets in her way.

Owner emotional limits also can undermine the human-feline relationship when the cat experiences health or behavioral problems. The very thought of putting ointment in Hairy’s eyes, let alone washing off his furry bottom when he has diarrhea is enough to make Mary’s stomach churn. Stan, on the other hand, “forgets” to regularly spray MeeTu for fleas because he hates the smell of the spray, an emotional response he regrets when both his cat and his house become infested. Within the behavioral realm, some people maintain such intensely emotional views about animals who bite, they don’t even want to hear about either the causes or the treatments for the problem.

Because prevention is always cheaper than treatment, consider how any time, financial, physical, and emotional limits may affect your relationship with your cat. While none of us likes to think about what we could or would do if our cats developed serious medical or behavioral problems, this is one of the most caring things we can do for them. How much time could you spend with your pet every day? How much could you afford financially? What physical or emotional factors would come into play?

The idea isn’t to make you feel guilty, but rather to open yourself to options that might escape your notice when a crisis occurs. It springs from the awareness that the only limits that truly limit us are those we deny. Alternate treatments often are available to meet a range of time, financial, physical, and emotion limits. But if Stan doesn’t tell his veterinarian about his limits, she can’t tailor a treatment program that will best meet his and his pet’s needs.