The last couple of months my family has been working to rehabilitate a psychologically traumatized house cat named Nori (not pictured above). This cat came to us by way of my ex wife’s house where it had been living underneath the bed of my 14 year old son for the last year or two due to a frictional relationship with the two dogs that also live there. The dogs, for whatever reason, seem hell bent on eating the cat and the cat saw little reason to venture out of my son’s bedroom and cope with the chance of being eaten. Obviously this cat’s biological needs were all taken care of within the safety of my son’s room. There was food, water, a litter box and the safety of a bed the dogs can’t get under and a bedroom door that remained closed most of the time.
One night a couple of months ago, my wife started telling me the tale of Nori the psychologically traumatized house cat living in constant fear over at my ex wife’s house (my wife and ex wife have a great relationship and could appropriately be described as friends, which is a benefit to our lives and the lives of our sons that I think cannot be overstated).
“The dogs keep trying to eat her, and she has been living under the 14 year old’s bed for so long, and it’s just not healthy to have a litter box in his room and…”
I went ahead and skipped to the predictable end of this conversation and just told my wife that we should move the cat over to our house to see if we can fix this situation. There’s no guarantees we’ll be able to, but I see no harm in giving it a try. What’s the worst that could happen? The cat ends up living underneath the 14 year old’s bed in our house instead of his mother’s house? No change for the cat, no change for the 14 year old. Just a difference of scenery. Perhaps we’d still decide the cat needed to find another home so we could get the unhealthy litter box out of our son’s room? Okay, certainly a possibility but again there’s no harm in trying something different.
It’s not like we have an animal free house. We have two dogs and two cats, as well. The success or failure of re-homing Nori would largely be dependent on her ability to strike a balance with the other pets in the house. But what the hell, lets give it a try, so we moved the cat over.
It was decided that we would keep the conditions in our son’s bedroom much as they were at his mom’s house in the beginning; Nori would have access to food, water, a litter box and have a safe space underneath our son’s bed and his bedroom door would remain closed so the cat would be free to venture around the room without being bombarded by the other animals. The first step was just to change the cat’s address, and little else.
This went on, more or less, for several weeks. Nori the psychologically traumatized house cat was given a bedroom where she wanted for nothing, save the freedom to roam, which quickly proved itself to not be a very strong motivator. We forced meetings between Nori and the two dogs, who were of course interested and slightly aggressive, as Nori herself seemed to be a little aggressive towards the dogs. I started to wonder if Nori wasn’t the problem piece of the puzzle the whole time and maybe the dogs at my ex-wife’s house were just responding to a feisty, pointy threat in their den the best way they knew how.
There was hissing and growling and biting and scratching. My left hand received a puncture wound from needled cat teeth one evening while holding Nori down, trying to just let them get it out of their system for a bit. After about six weeks or so there really didn’t seem to be much progress.
We put up a baby gate to divide our son’s room/cat cave from the main house, which we hoped would allow the animals to get closer to each other without actually being able to attack each other, which may have helped a little but it still wasn’t driving much growth or change in the cat’s affinity for living under the bed. We decided that more drastic measures were necessary.
The reason that Nori the psychologically traumatized house cat was not experiencing the emotional growth necessary to join the family, put a couple of dopey dogs in their place and stop using a litter box uncomfortably close to where my son sleeps at night was that she had no reason to. She was safe in my son’s room, she was comfortable, she didn’t need to adapt even though she may have wanted to. So we created a necessity for change. We removed her food from the room. Not the water, not the litter box, just the food.
As far as we could tell, Nori didn’t eat for at least a week. She started attempting to venture out of the bedroom in the middle of the night, but the dogs were pretty in tune to her movements and would wake up like a finely tuned motion detector system and chase her right back. A few times we put the dogs outside and pulled Nori out of the bedroom and placed her next to the cat food, but despite having not eaten for many days, she still didn’t seem emotionally strong enough to eat out in the open. So we removed the water from the bedroom as well.
Now, contrary to what humans in modern society might think as a result of the hangriness they get if they are late to lunch or, food pyramid forbid, actually have to skip a meal, it takes a really long time for a mammal to starve to death. Not as long as a reptile or an arachnid, but it’s still not a quick process. It takes weeks for a hydrated and previously well-fed mammal to actually reach a point of harm or death in the absence of food. But water is a different story, so this did represent a significant increase in the potential for harm. Regardless, change needed to happen and there needed to be a catalyst to drive that change. We also started locking her out of the bedroom while we were home and able to supervise interactions between all the animals.
Nori quickly found and memorized a few key hiding places where she could audibly register her complaints about the situation, but still be safe from the prodding noses of the dogs. Our two cats, by the way, couldn’t really care less about Nori. They weren’t in any hurry to socialize with her, but were perfectly content to hang out on the other side of the house while the crybaby cat in the living room threw her little temper tantrums.
So now Nori the psychologically traumatized house cat was generally relegated to the five inch space between the side of our living room couch and the wall. No food or water in her safe space cat cave, and certainly none in her five inch crack. It was getting on to about two weeks the last time we knew for certain she ate and a few days without water, that we could tell. She may have run some successful stealth missions to the food and water during the night, but if she did they were few and far between and only during the times when the dogs were most heavily knocked out.
Slowly, but surely, she began to increase the sphere of her acceptable being beyond the crack between the couch and the wall. She stopped running and hiding at the mere sight of the dogs, allowing them to get closer and becoming increasingly less feisty and pointy in her response to them. The dogs in turn softened their approach. Necessity was driving growth, and growth was creating change. Success, as motivated by discomfort, was beginning to set in. But we weren’t finished.
Our two other cats are not complete house cats. Since gaining a backyard, we have started allowing them to roam free and we often keep our back door open while we are at home (and while the weather is nice) so they and the dogs can come and go as they please. For Nori to be fully socialized into our pack, she would need to be okay with a house that opens up to the outside world as well. Our end goal was to prepare the cat for the house, not the house for the cat. Last night, after a few days of even more gradual increase to her sphere of comfort, Nori the psychologically traumatized house cat apparently found the open door and was gone. She was nowhere to be found anywhere in the yard or around the house and we weren’t even really sure when she left. Our 14 year old simply looked up from his video game in the living room and she was no longer there.
The family was a little worried. Through the yard and over the fence was a much larger step than Nori had previously taken to expand her territory and if she was running from fear then it was possible that by the time she stopped she will have lost her way. Regardless, there was nothing to do about it except go to bed and hope for the best.
We woke up today and I spent some time looking around the outside of the house in the dark with a flashlight to see if she was maybe hiding in a tree or under a bush, but to no avail. It became time to leave for the day, lock up the house and drop the kids off at the school bus stop, so I gave up the search. I went out to the back patio one more time to call in our other two cats, who typically prefer to not be locked outside all day (although sometimes they don’t come in and are stuck in the yard until someone gets home in the afternoon). There was Nori the psychologically traumatized house cat sitting smug and calm on top of an ice chest on the back patio.
She’s still a little skittish around me, the big mean guy who took her food and water away, the big mean guy her pulled her crying and clawing out from underneath her safe space in her comfort cave, the big mean guy who held her down and forced her to experience emotional distress for her own good, but my 14 year old son was able to grab her and get her back in the house for the day. I’d say that she is well on her way to a full recovery and a happy life as a cat with an infinitely larger world around her.
House cats are not natural. After 5,000 years of attempting to domesticate the feline species, I think it’s more than safe to say the felines won and remain nearly as wild as they ever were, even if selective breeding produced a few ornamental variations. Your fluffy little Tinkerbell is actually a wandering territorial predator that suffers physically and psychologically when not allowed to roam. We can lock the doors around them, provide them with everything they need to live, remove all the snarling dogs and indifferent cats from their environment, keep them nice and safe and secure, but that’s not what’s good for them. Life grows in the presence of struggle, and atrophies in its absence. Our drive to remove all struggle from life comes from a place of caring and compassion, but whether we are talking about cats, dogs, plants, children or adults, there seems to be a shared common dynamic among the life on earth; comfort leads to lethargy and emotional instability. Conversely, discomfort is a catalyst to positive growth and emotional resilience.
This is a story about a cat in my house, but it’s a representation of more than just the cat. There is a culture in our society that has evolved to treat humans like house cats. We provide all the safety and comfort and subsistence we can, and that comes from a place of caring and fear of the dangers that are outside the back door. Danger does exist. There’s no guarantee that children will come home from the playground unscathed. There was no guarantee that Nori would find her way back to the patio. Hiding under the bed in a constant state of emotional panic, isolated from the world around us is not a better alternative, as comfortable and as compassionate as it may seem.