Can a difficult pet make you a better human?
People like to tell you about the health benefits of owning pets. They'll extol the virtues of how a loyal, furry companion can keep you calm and happy even through the toughest of times. These people have obviously never met my cat, Cassidy.
I chose to rescue Cassidy from our local shelter because he seemed like a shy, overlooked kitten. He was cowering in a corner of the cat room, looking terrified and bereft. I instantly wanted to protect him from the world. I imagined us lounging together as I read and watched television, his presence a soothing tonic for my sometimes tense nature. He could be a friend to the cat that already lived with us and would fit perfectly into our little household. In retrospect, this strikes me as overwhelmingly naive. My first warning came from the vet, as she looked him over. “This one's got a glint in his eyes. He's a troublemaker,” she said. I laughed, assuring her that he was a terrified kitten who had spent his first few days in my home cowering under the bed and shaking. He was harmless. He had to be coaxed into cuddling or even just eating when the other cat was in the house. The vet gave me a pitying glance but didn't bother to argue. I'd find out soon enough.
And how I did. Cassidy gets into everything. He knocks over every glass, no matter what’s in it. He attacks lamp cords like they have personally offended him. Sometimes he runs back and forth through the room as if the demons of hell are literally on his tail. He chews everything: unguarded food, plastic wrap, any available cable, and even scissors. His hatred for toilet paper and paper towels is unnerving in its intensity. He wails to get attention. Every toy we buy him is short-lived, destroyed under his boundless enthusiasm. It might be easier to be angry with him if Cassidy was mean or malicious in any way. But he's a remarkably sweet and good-natured cat. It's just that his wonderful personality is welded to a feline chaos machine. Between cleaning up increasingly outlandish messes and struggling to return to some sort of non-cat-interrupted sleep schedule, I decided to turn these growing pains into a positive experience. Cassidy presents endless opportunities to practice mindfulness and gain perspective during my days. With this in mind, I present just a few of the mindfulness lessons I have learned in the short months since Cassidy came into my world.
Control what you can
There are few moments that demand a calm and mindful nature more than being woken up at 4 a.m. to find your beloved cat has somehow managed to turn your entire bedroom into his personal litter box. My first instinct—as it was with many of Cassidy's antics—was to yell at him. Instead, I decided to focus on what I could do in the moment. Cassidy wouldn't understand why I was infuriated that he'd decided to poop quite literally everywhere. All that yelling would do was stress me out, upset my cat, and make a bad night even worse. I cleaned up and resolved to look into bad litter habits the next day. No yelling involved.
Don't judge or place blame
Instead of shrieking and losing my cool when Cassidy decided to tear open and sample every single packet of cat food in the kitchen, I opted for a different tactic. I gently reprimanded him and set about cleaning up the mess. It took some time to return the room to its former order, but when I was finished I felt calm and was already formulating ways to deal with Cassidy's next outburst. It helps to remind myself when Cassidy is acting out or causing stress that he is not intrinsically a “bad” cat. He's not doing these things to be difficult or cruel. Cassidy doesn’t realize his antics result in frustration and a large investment in cleaning products. In this case, he just wanted to sample the tasty food we’d unwittingly left in his path. Once I tossed out the concept of placing blame (along with those destroyed food packets), it was much easier to move into problem-solving mode and work on plans to reduce stress for both of us.
Cassidy enjoys chasing our other cat around the home in the most unpleasant game of tag in history, resulting in the older cat howling and casting disgusted glances in my direction. We followed new pet protocol, introducing the two cats by giving them a week to adjust to each others’ smells through a closed door, but still, Cassidy chases the other cat. Rather than give into frustration, we looked at this as an opportunity to practice patience as we tried out various solutions: separating the cats, making sure the older cat has her own space away from Cassidy, and the careful use of spray bottles when the playing becomes unpleasant. The results are already evident: the frequency of these outbursts is diminishing. It hasn’t always been easy, but patiently using these techniques has been well worth the effort. The older cat even seeks out Cassidy’s company on occasion to play (although she’d never admit it).
Take a moment
Between gentle admonishments, positive reinforcement, and picking kitty litter out of the rug, it can all get overwhelming. Rehabilitating my shelter cat can seem insurmountable. I begin to imagine that this is a permanent state: that even my best efforts will have no impact, leaving me with a cat that yowls all night and chews on everything in my home. When this thinking arises, I stop. I focus on my breathing (away from the litter box). I step back from whatever new mess he's created and take a moment to gain some perspective. I wait until the stress doesn't overwhelm me, and I can handle the situation with some semblance of grace.
Keep your perspective
Let's be realistic. It's entirely possible that Cassidy will always have his issues (or quirks, if we're being generous). He may never be able to get through the night without wailing for company, or resisting the urge to tackle the other cat when she happens to cross his path. But Cassidy also purrs so loudly that you can hear it across the room. He head-butts me when I'm sad, and knocks my glasses off my face in his enthusiasm to get closer to me. He plays with me for hours (sometimes whether I want to or not). He snuggles against me while I work (although he may take a nibble on my arm if I stop scratching his ears). His steady purrs provide a soothing soundtrack on sleepless nights. He runs to greet me when I get home after a long day and (mostly) doesn't make a break for the great outdoors. Cassidy is by no means a perfect cat. But with patience, mindfulness, and a healthy dose of humor, we’re making it work. And when it comes right down to it, I wouldn't want him any other way. Share your worst perfect pet story here.
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