Thursday, 30 May 2013

Love, Manipulation and Hunger Strikes

If It's in Your Nature

     If you live in amongst animals you get to know their ways. It's tempting to see their habits and funny little ways as human traits. In the end, however, it's animal instinct that drives an animal to do what they do and that instinct is driven in turn by a will to survive.

     We all need love and connection. Whether we're animal or human, that particular emotional need crosses all boundaries. In an animal, however, the rationale behind an act of what we perceive to be love can be more basic than that. They know that a certain behaviour often results in a treat or a snack. They know that they'll get a tickle or a stroke if they sit in a certain place at a certain time. But have you ever tried to stroke a cat that doesn't want to be stroked?

     The cat that lives with me, Pusia, demonstrated in the most explicit way recently that she knows exactly how to push my buttons. It was a traumatic experience and I very nearly lost her! But it brought home to me just how precious the bond of connection is for her as well as me. That was a real shock.

Resolving Conflict

     I often visit the horses who live opposite me. There's a lovely gang of three and now there's a foal who arrived recently. The scene is idyllic when you look across the field and see them quietly grazing. They've become accustomed to me coming and going and they connect with me by greeting me at the gate as I arrive home in my car. The cat will also come racing out of her cat flap. The scene resembles Dr Doolittle and sometimes it can even be quite an intimidating little gang who resemble rock groupies!

     I had a stark reminder recently of the fact that the horses' impulses are not necessarily driven by my presence but more by what they think they'll get as a result of my presence. In a minor scuffle over some carrots they got a bit over excited. Toby (on the left) tried to bite Billy (on the right) and Billy nipped Misty (in the middle) who reared up and accidentally (I think) pushed me into a post in the field. As I lay in a pool of mud, nursing a broken rib and fishing bits of my glasses out of a puddle the three horses delighted in the fresh pile of carrots and apples that I'd dropped and they could gorge on freely.

     My illusion that they had any kind of regard for me evaporated into thin air. Having said that, the next time I was in the field (one pair of repaired glasses and a healed rib later) I was bit anxious. I think Misty (a very caring and at that time pregnant mare) and Billy (a somewhat headstrong male pony - a real old gent at 18 years) stood guard around me and stopped Billy (the hell raiser at only 7 years) coming anywhere near me!

Precious Things in Small Packages

     I thought I could deal better with the cat to whom I belong. She's also 7 years old and loves roaming around the farm. When I took her on I was told that she's very independent and takes little looking after. She has simple tastes and feeds herself from a dry food stack that she prods to get food when she wants it.

     To a certain extent this was all true. As you can tell from the tale of the horses I couldn't leave it at that. Instead I started cuddling her, feeding her the odd sachet of wet food and generally treating her as an equal companion in the house. I don't mind that at all and people may think I'm a bit odd but she gives me so much pleasure.

     But every now and again she'll give me a little reminder of the real situation. If I stroke her when she doesn't want it then she'll nip my hand. If I stay in bed a bit too long when she wants food then I can see here eyeing up the door post with her claws extended. And if I'm snoring in bed at 4am then I'll get a punch in the face before she retreats to her cushion for the rest of the night.

Where Focus Goes Energy Flows

     By giving the cat my attention the power of our relationship grew. The shift of balance altered and she became quite reliant on my company. In terms of a human animal relationship this can't really work except in certain instances such as a guide dog. Inevitably I had to leave Pusia while I went out about my business. She's always been happy enough when I'm out for a few hours but recently I had a succession of days when I was out for most of the day for about five days running.

     Every day I was putting food down for her as I left. When I returned it was untouched. By the end of the second day it was apparent that she wasn't drinking anything either. I knew from my neighbours that when I'm out she rarely ventures outside. I assumed that she was sick or had hurt herself somehow.

     After three more days she had become so withdrawn and weak that she spent most of the time sitting upstairs asleep. She didn't eat, drink or go out and when she cleaned herself it was without energy and she gave little cries of pain. I was so busy with my life in that moment that it took my neighbour to point out to me that she was losing weight rapidly.

     It was a Saturday and really the first time I had taken the chance to look at Pusia properly. I tried stroking and comforting her but her eyes were empty and she was a shadow of her former self. She wasn't interested in food and no matter how much I tried to comfort her or encourage her to drink she just stared at me with half open eyes.


     It was obvious I had to take her to the vet and I did this without delay. The vet's reception was reluctant to give me an appointment but I insisted and I suddenly realized the power of feeling I have for this cat, my companion. She was weak and crying in the cat basket and I felt I had badly let her down by not noticing her deteriorating state.

     When the vet saw her it became apparent that this was a very serious situation in cat terms. The first suspicions were that Pusia had FIV, the feline equivalent of AIDS, or even possibly the full blown version of it. She needed blood tests and what happened next ranged from confining her as a house cat if she had FIV to the most terrible other extreme that didn't even bear thinking about.

     At best, the vet told me, she was severely dehydrated and needed a full scan to see what was going on. The poor cat was so ill that she gave a little yelp when they took her temperature by putting the thermometer up her bottom and I don't think I'll ever forget the look she gave me. All I could do was tickle her neck with a real lump in my throat. Even under these circumstances she mustered the energy to purr and nuzzled my hand.

     After the tests the vet came to see me in the waiting room. 
She didn't hesitate to tell me that Pusia had tested negative for both FIV and its full blown equivalent. The relief flooded through me. I've often tried to confront the fact that she is a cat and I will almost certainly outlive her but the very reality of finding that she had a reprieve literally brought a tear to my eye. It must have seemed very strange to the vet. Here I was, a forty something man, sitting in the waiting room and shedding a tear because my cat was clear of FIV! I can only assume she must have thought the tears flowed because of the amount of money I'd had to spend on the test. But I can tell you it was the sheer relief of knowing that I'd get her back.

Admission and Release

     Pusia was admitted for the night to be rehydrated on a drip. She had come dangerously close to kidney failure because of her lack of fluid intake and was suffering from a urine infection. I asked the vet what could have caused this. The vet told me that it is usually stress. But Pusia is a cat lovingly cared for. She's the boss of the farm. The mice population knows it and the local feral cats know it! My neighbour's flowers have also suffered at her hand. With a few more probing questions we landed on the fact that I had been out of the house more often than usual.

     In the vet's opinion this had resulted in Pusia's decline. She had effectively gone on hunger strike. In my absence she was pining away for the company to which she'd become so accustomed. She's not used to this amount of attention and clearly she enjoys it. By giving her my focus the energy of this particular relationship had grown to an intensity that made it hard for her to cope with once I was gone.

     I'm not saying I now have to spend every moment with my cat. When I picked her up from the vet she could hear me in the reception and her wailing was so loud you could hear her throughout the building. The vet said she'd been quiet all the time up to that point. He also said what a sensitive animal she is.

     I have to admit that she was a bit clingy when we got home. She would go out but kept coming back to check I was still there. Maybe she is reassured now that she has had this incident and knows that even if I'm away for days then I'll return.

     The episode has certainly made me realize that there is more to this relationship than purely human and pet. Pusia may manipulate me to a certain extent but the amount of attention she has paid me since her return from the animal hospital has made me realize that I have a responsibility to her, to watch her and give her the attention she deserves but also to indulge her whenever I can and to reassure her when I'm busy. I've discovered that there is nothing mechanical about the bonding she's experienced with me.

     As I write these last few sentences she's just burst through the kitchen door and wailingly announced that she has caught a mouse. I know this because she has placed it at my feet and is looking at me with a certain unmistakable pride, purring loudly. I can't tell her off. I can't be disappointed with her. I can only celebrate and praise her. If this relationship is going to work then I have to modify my interactions with her so that she knows she's important and that the love she's experiencing is still there even when I'm not. I think we've come to an understanding now.

     More about why we can't blame cats for killing mice at a later date!