Feline-ding Herself

Trigger Warning: If stories about pets being in charge will cause you to run to the shelter and get one (or two) of your own that you will then go above and beyond to spoil, then definitely keep reading.

Today we really, really, really realized how this whole ‘my people are home all day long!’ thing has affected our pets. And by ‘affected,’ I mean, today we realized exactly how well we, the people, have been trained over the last four months. Our house includes two or three dogs – two Aussiedoodles – named Finley (7) and Kylo (4) and maybe Pickles (story developing). It also includes two or three cats – all randoms that the vet has pawned off on us as great pets when they sense of moments of weakness (spoiler alert: we are always weak) – Coalbolt (12?), Gunter (5?) and maybe Pickles (1) (story still developing).

Before Covid (BC), we would all get up in the morning and depart from our bedrooms in different directions. Kids to school, Rich to his lower level office (if he wasn’t on the road), and I to the living room couch/office via the coffee maker. Animals were pretty much something we passed by on the way – maybe with a quick ‘good morning’ pat of the head. Throughout the day, the animals would rotate from couch to couch to barking at UPS/FedEx/USPS to outside to couch until the kids came home. Through the first weeks of quarantine – the dogs didn’t really know what to do. Every time a human made a move in the house, they would pop up and follow them. Maybe a treat would appear, maybe not – but better to be safe.

A month in, we realized a few things. First, Kylo had appointed herself as Zack’s Virtual School Sidekick. Each morning when he settled into his homeroom, she settled onto the couch or in her ‘house’ to accompany him through Zoom sessions and worksheets. Typically when Zack wrapped up his school day and moved onto his Minecraft hours, Kylo would leave him and head downstairs to her usual daytime spot behind Rich’s office chair. The second thing we noticed was that both dogs were absolutely exhausted. The responsibility of following four humans around 24/7 was too much and soon we found our human selves taking random drives to give the dogs some quiet time. Really? Month one: I’m not even sure the cats noticed we were here.

Two months in and we started noting the embarrassment that our mornings had become. The quick ‘good morning’ pat on the head had slipped away from us and turned into some sort of trained circus act. The embarrassing part was that the humans were the ones who were trained. Thankfully, the animals are kind enough to wait for the windchime-y sound of Rich’s alarm before they begin their routines. Let me preface this by saying, we are snooze hitters. We like to hear our alarm at least four times before finally making our exit from slumber. But on alarm one, we have about ten seconds before two furry heads pop up beside the bed like Meerkats assessing the day. Finley is generally still half-asleep, standing up and throwing her head and body across mine. Kylo comes ready to roll, with a ball/frisbee/animal that she would like everyone to ooooooh and aaaaaah over immediately. She sings while taking the toy to both sides of the bed – grrr-ing for someone to hurry up and look (but don’t take it away!0 – each day completely beside herself with glee that her humans woke up again.

From there, Finley goes from the side of the bed to the floor in front of the walk through closet – always just in time to catch Rich on his way to the bathroom, diving and rolling to her back for a morning belly rub. If you’ve never seen a dog wipe the sleep out of her eyes, you’re missing out on one of the cutest things life can throw at you. Finley’s awakened eyes scream of ‘this would be perfect, if only the dumb other dog wasn’t doing circles around me, grrr-ing for Rich’s attention and waving the dumb toy around.’ Month two: the cats sensed our presence. We are now greeted at the bathroom counter by Gunter wanting to get a faucet drink because the 32 water dishes aren’t good enough. And, yes, please if you could just wait to brush your teeth until this behemoth gets his liquid fill, that would be great.

About a year ago, Gunter was recommended for an alteration in his diet. Evidently, at 16 pounds…he was a bit fluffly for our vet’s liking. The fact that he can even get up to the bathroom counter is amazing and the fact that he hasn’t put a crack in it, a miracle. What hasn’t his diet done? Helped at all. He is now over 20 pounds, but still on it (essentially moving to canned cat food to cut out the carbs of dry food) and has alerted the other two cats to this special brunch. Which means when we arrive downstairs, we find a waiting line of cats at the hostess stand in the kitchen. The problem is (among the problems), Pickles, the five pound wonder, enjoys playing queen of the kitchen table mountain. Yes, she would like breakfast from a can – but first, she’s going try to swat the other cats off the table. Obviously, she is no match for Gunter’s bowling ball physique as he barrels his way to glory – but our elder, Coalbolt, has to be collected and placed in a ‘safe’ zone – where Pickles will ignore him and the dogs won’t eat his food and yet I also try to serve him first in a probably failing attempt to show the others that he’s the alpha.

I am mortified by the conversations I find myself having with these felines in the morning. “Pickles, no, leave him alone. Gunter, I’m going as fast as I can but I have to make my coffee first. Pickles, stop. Coalbolt, it’s fine buddy, just give me a second. Gunter, it’s coming…I know you prefer shreds but this is what we have today. Coalbolt, one second. Pickles, stop walking on all the counters, is that kitty litter coming off your feet? No, Finley, this isn’t for you.” Once everyone has a dish, it goes like this: Gunter licks everything in one dish as if it to mark it. Pickles swats him, tries a bite and leaves. Gunter moves to her bowl and licks that. Coalbolt eats whatever Gunter hasn’t gotten to first if Pickles hasn’t pissed him off enough to leave. Finley sidles up to the table waiting for an opening – both an open bowl and the moment I have my back turned – when she’ll Prarie Dog up, grab the glass bowl with her lips and disappear quietly to the living room.

This is how it starts. This is how I become a crazy cat lady. I’m not even the biggest fan of cats. Yet by 9:00am, I am exhausted and I haven’t even seen the human children.

One of house rules during Covid Phase Zero (the one where you get to do zero things) was for each member of the house to get in some fresh air time. Typically, the kids would land in the hammocks at about 3ish to enjoy staring at the leaves. Rich and I break at the same time when we can – but it’s been difficult due to increased workloads (shout out to everybody who needed virtual desktops installed in 2020). It worked for a while but soon I found myself generally delayed until after my 3:30 check in with my mom, during which I began noticing the stare down I was getting from Kylo as she waited impatiently with a ball in her mouth. Okay. Wrap up the phone call, head downstairs, throw the ball. No biggie.

Except within a week it was like I had written on a stone tablet “I WILL PLAY BALL WITH KYLO AT 3:34PM DAILY.” If I wasn’t sliding on my flip flops by 3:35, the stare down would turn into pawing my leg and throwing the ball in the air next to me. Fine. Except then I made the mistake of popping downstairs one day at about 10am and the additional mistake of, yes, throwing the ball a few times. It instantly became written in stone “WILL ALSO PLAY BALL AT 10:00AM.” Which, inconveniently, is also when I have several meetings during the week. A dog waits for no meeting. A dog will join right in and explain to the host that her owner is needed for a very important different engagement (so, yes, when I say ‘could you repeat the question?’ it’s because I’m entertaining something with four legs).

But here’s where it gets weirder. We have two dogs (this isn’t the weird part) – one who is very good at fetch (Finley) and one who is terrible at it (Kylo). We basically give Kylo something to hold while Finley runs up and down the yard retrieving a ball or frisbee (still not the weird part, yet….). Kylo runs up and down the yard next to Finley with whatever she’s holding – and I assume she thinks that’s the whole game. The weird part (here we are) is that sometime in May, Pickles (5 pound cat), decided she would also like to play the game.

As a refresher – Pickles is the worst cat ever. She’s mean. She’s a bitch. She swipes anybody within reach. She been accused of marking. She brings in snakes and lizards and would probably snag an alligator if she was a touch bigger. We have Feliway on a subscription order from Amazon because the pheromones have enabled us to get to this point (yes, the points above – which represent actual demeanor improvement). We call her the terrorist or bad cat or ‘watch out, Pickles is coming for you.’ Again, at breakfast each morning, she pretty much knocks the other cats off the table, then doesn’t eat her food, and leaves – just because she can. She’s a dick.

Until she started playing fetch with the dogs. I know – I didn’t believe it either. Was she really playing fetch? Well, no, obviously she can’t hoist a tennis ball or frisbee up the yard. Yet she definitely seemed to appear each time we were outside playing – running from who knows where and hopping the fence. Then we noticed that her watching Kylo (the remedial dog) – it seemed like Pickles was waiting for Kylo to drop her ball so she could go after it. Surely, not, right? Yes. Actually, very much yes. Did we start taking another ball out for the cat? No, that would be ridiculous. And, yes, fine, we did – we started taking out three balls – one for Kylo to hold, one for Finley to chase and one to roll down the backyard hill for the cat to wrestle. Really?

I will spare you the stages of Pickles’ progress and take you straight to today. This cat now chases both the balls and the dogs. This cat has learned how to do parkour through the trees in an effort not to get trampled by the dogs (85% effective, no signs of caring in the other 15%). This cat comes when you call her and expects you to do the same – which she does often, whether it’s sitting outside Rich’s office mew-ing, sitting at the top of the stairs mew-ing, appearing in my office mew-ing or (her favorite), sitting inside next to the doggy door mewing – until somebody comes outside and plays with her. Do I feel used by this cat? Uh, yes. And if it wasn’t for one thing – we might ignore her.

The thing is, she’s becoming nicer. She’s even figured out how to purr and rub against our lower legs without (usually) biting our calves. She’s taken to lying on the couch (as long as it is alone and nobody enters the room or tries to sit with her) in the daylight. Just this week she’s started chasing lighting bugs and, maybe for the first time ever, we said “Oh, Pickles!! You’re so cute!!” Words we never thought we would utter.

Now, she’s still a dick. Nine out of ten play times end with the dogs taking their toys and storming back in the house – annoyed at the imp threatening there dog ankles (dankles?) with her tiny dagger paws. But we’re starting to get glimpses of how all this quarantine training has paid off. The humans have been trained to perform elaborate wake up rituals, serve formal feline breakfasts and adhere to the chosen canine play times. But the humans are not alone in their learning. We’re seeing that there are others who have used this time to learn something new or take up a hobby or really ‘find’ themselves. In this house, that ‘other’ is Pickles. After months of introspection and self-awareness, it seems that Pickles has finally found her spot in this world.

And that is to be treated just like any other dog.

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