It all started with a cat. I knew very little about cats back then and my primary reasons for getting one were because 1) they make great apartment pets, 2) are fairly easy to take care of/are cheaper than dogs, 3) they’re adorable and I really wanted a fluffy pet, and 4) my boyfriend had broken up with me. So I entered the Animal Rescue League of Boston one Thursday afternoon with my roommate Cassandra in tow, eager to pick out the perfect cat. I wanted one that was sweet, friendly, female, and liked sitting on laps. What I got was Smirnoff.
He was banging on his cage door, spilling his food onto the floor. He reached his paw through the bars and Cassandra said, “Let’s look at that one!” In the visiting room, Bolt (that was his shelter name) was rubbing against us, putting his face right up to our faces, and purring like a motor. My heart melted and I quickly agreed to adopt him.
The first week he was home, he had an upper respiratory infection (URI); it’s a common thing for shelter cats to get once they leave the stressful environment. I took him to the vet, got some medication, and spent the week gently petting the calm, sleeping cat. He seemed perfect. Then he got better.
Smirnoff had a lot of kitten energy despite being a one year old and would tear through the apartment at full gallop, knocking things over and meowing loudly. He bit. His pupils would dilate and he’d crouch down, and soon he’d have his teeth right into the flesh of your belly. Or your arm. Or your neck. We’d push him away and then he’d pounce again, more eager. He had—although I didn’t know it at the time—a classic case of high arousal behavior.
I was afraid of my own cat. I cried because I didn’t know who this monster was and where the adorable, friendly cat went that I adopted. I even considered taking him back, but it was Cassandra (who was also thrown by his behavior) who told me I couldn’t. And while I could have returned him, I’m grateful for Cassandra’s stubbornness. Because what happened next changed everything.
We bought some spray bottles. We filled them with water. Every night when I went to sleep, I’d get into bed, spray bottle at the ready. Because I knew that as soon as it went dark, Smirnoff would attack, only this time he was met with a face-full of water. He’d only ever pounce once, and then he’d get sprayed, and then he’d move on.
We set ground rules. Smirnoff wasn’t allowed on the kitchen counters or the coffee table. Every time he jumped on, he’d be pushed off (or sprayed). Any time he’d gnaw on our fingers, he’d be given zero resistance. Let him chew all he wanted; it wasn’t fun. If he started to go for our arms, he’d get a small bop on the nose. And when he really went wild, he’d get a time out, spending ten minutes or so locked in my bedroom so that he’d be able to diffuse his frantic energy on his own.
(I’d like to break in here to say that I nowadays don’t believe that spray bottle training is really necessary. It’s definitely not the best way to train a cat because it’s still a type of negative reinforcement*, even though it doesn’t hurt the cat. And I definitely don’t advocate bopping a cat on the nose, no matter how lightly. But Smirnoff was my first cat and I knew nothing and all I could do was use the tools at my disposal. So we move on…)
[*EDIT: it’s actually a type of “positive punishment”, if you want to get into the nitty gritty of animal training.]
Then I started training him. I knew about training dogs, even though I’d never really done it myself, and I just didn’t see why my cat couldn’t be trained as well. He’s incredibly smart for a cat. I’d take a treat and put it just above and behind his nose so that he’d have to sit in order to reach it. Once his butt was down, he’d get the treat. That was easy. So then I put the treat on the floor and when he was lying down, he’d get the treat. Not too bad. And then I took it one step further and circled the treat so that he’d roll over in order to get it. And after not too long, Smirnoff was able to sit, lay down, and roll over.
We also took him outside onto the porch. He was brought to the shelter as a stray and loves the outdoors, so I bought a harness and leash to make sure he didn’t go anywhere he wasn’t supposed to (I live on the third floor, which is a very dangerous height for a falling cat). He loved being outside even though he hated the harness. It was only through treats that I’d be able to trick him into letting me put it over his head and then I’d have to buckle the rest quickly before he’d bite. Eventually, however, he realized that the harness meant the porch, and so he’d let me put it on him without bribery or force. He was getting better.
I’d love to say that all of this took just a few weeks, but that would be a blatant lie. I’m talking about a good three months before I felt confident in dealing with Smirnoff’s issues, and another three months before he was completely manageable. I adopted him in May, and by Christmas time, he was a much more controlled cat. It took effort from not only me, but a lot of effort from Cassandra, and although our disciplinary styles didn’t always match (she was a lot more firm with Smirnoff than I was), she had a lot to do with Smirnoff’s success because he idolized her; she was the top of the hierarchy.
Lastly, a huge change in Smirnoff’s behavior came when I adopted Bacardi in January 2011 (more on that later). After all, most of Smirnoff’s wild energy came from the fact that he wanted to play (which we did plenty with him) and he wanted to roughhouse (which we didn’t want him to do with us). Bacardi was the final piece of Smirnoff’s behavioral transformation.
Now, at age 3, Smirnoff has calmed down significantly. He still has high arousal tendencies and plenty of energy, but he loves people, is incredibly smart and he always gives you fair warning if you’re riling him up or doing something he doesn’t like. He’ll gently put his teeth on you once. If you don’t listen, that’s when he bites—but not hard. He’s a cat; not a savage.