Cats & Claws

photo (5)“But what about my couch?”

Cat adopters, particularly first-time adopters, often don’t know what to do when it comes to their cats’ claws. And the concern, oftentimes, is not, “Will my cat scratch or hurt me?” but, “Will my cat damage my stuff?”

And the short, simple answer is, “yes, probably.”

But owning an animal, whether it’s a cat or dog or other, necessitates at least some level of compromise. A dog owner can expect their couch to eventually smell like wet dog. A cat owner can expect their couch to get a little scratched. Sure, there are plenty of ways to dissuade a cat from this behavior—providing appropriate places where they are allowed to scratch, regularly trimming their nails, exercising the cat to prevent boredom, putting sticky tape on the couch to discourage scratching, training the cat not to scratch the couch (yes, cats can be trained!), and if it gets bad enough, there are even nail caps you can glue on like a protective manicure—but that requires the tiniest bit of effort. And a tiny bit of effort is often too much effort for a lot of people.

Because we like our possessions. Sometimes, even more than we like our pets. It sounds absurd to say it, but it must be true. Otherwise, who would ever even think to declaw a cat?

A small part of the declawing problem is ignorance. Some people don’t really know what declawing is. They think it’s a simple procedure, like snapping little twigs off a branch. They don’t realize that it’s an amputation—a complicated one—that if done wrong (and even when done “right”) can lead to medical and behavioral issues far worse than a scratched up couch.

At the Animal Rescue League of Boston, we’ve had some declawed cats pass through the shelter. Jack and Sancho were a bonded pair of declawed cats. Jack was a sweet, easygoing tabby. Sancho was a gray and white cat who almost didn’t make it.

Sancho had severe fear aggression. When he was nervous or stressed out (which is the life of a cat in a shelter environment), he would lash out at people. Now, because Sancho was declawed, he could swipe at someone without hurting them. But the insecurity he possessed because he couldn’t defend himself resulted in a frenzied, panicked biting and kicking with his back claws that could cause some serious damage. He had some strong muscles behind him.

The volunteers worked with Sancho to soothe him and boost his confidence. And once he began to trust people, he turned into a very affectionate cat and the pair was eventually adopted. But Sancho will always have his fear aggression issues—a direct result of having been declawed.

It may end there for Sancho, but for some declawed cats, it gets worse. Declawing can cause house-soiling (urinating outside the litterbox). It can cause lameness, arthritis, and pain for a cat. In other words—declawing can make a cat’s life, and its owner’s life, hell.

“But I’ve had declawed cats in the past and they’ve all been fine,” is the usual response to this argument.

Yes, that can be the case. But cats are also known for hiding pain and sickness, and an owner might never have noticed the discomfort their cat felt from walking on its heels instead of its toes.

And every cat is different, just like people. A human amputee, for instance, might use their loss of limb as a challenge and rise to the occasion. And another amputee might become increasingly depressed or angry. Just because one cat did okay with their amputation, doesn’t mean the next one will.

Ultimately, declawing a cat is selfish. It’s a human convenience that brings absolutely no benefit to the cat. It’s also a form of animal cruelty and illegal in many countries. The United States, unfortunately, is having trouble rising above convenience.

For more information, take a look at the amazing upcoming documentary by Jennifer Conrad and The Paw Project. It will make you want to kiss your cats’ claws and buy them a brand new scratching post.

Check out The Paw Project on Facebook, Twitter, and their official website.

Meeting Jackson Galaxy

Photo by Christine Barton
Photo by Christine Barton

A Cat Named Bette Midler
Yesterday at 1pm at the Animal Rescue League of Boston, grumbles of “I was waiting for hours,” and “I was here first,” and “I was first in line,” cut through me as I tried to organize the chaos while people fought over the tiny, adorable kittens up for adoption.

Meanwhile, the adult cats could do nothing to make themselves small enough or cute enough for attention. By 1:20pm, most of the kittens were spoken for. I was kept busy doing interviews and paperwork, but once the madness died down, there was a lull.

Then at 3:15pm, a group of college guys came into the shelter. I asked if they were looking to adopt a cat or were just looking, when one of them said he wanted to adopt a cat, preferably a short-haired female. I took them upstairs to meet Bette Midler.

Bette Midler had been with us over 100 days. She was a six-year-old active cat who had spent most of the six years of her life in a basement as a mouser. Until we rescued her. It took a long time for her to adjust to being at the shelter, and had been put into an office foster because of her behavior (essentially, she lived in a large empty office where she had a lot more room, could look out windows, and was away from the stress of other animals). But she still wasn’t getting adopted.

Once the guys met Bette Midler, she melted. One of them was able to sit on the floor and cradle her in his lap while she looked adoringly up at him. His friends called him “the cat whisperer.”

And then those magic words came… “yeah, I’ll adopt her” and my heart nearly burst and I wanted to throw myself at him and hug him and thought, yes! This is what animal shelters are about. Finding cats like Bette Midler, who so deserve a new chance in life, a wonderful home.

Jackson Galaxy at the BPL
Jackson Galaxy at the BPL

Waiting in Line
I thought of Bette Midler as I waited in line to meet Jackson Galaxy, the famed cat behaviorist from the TV show My Cat From HellHe was giving a book talk at the Boston Public Library as part of his paperback book tour. I thought about Bette amid grumbles of, “I got here at 10 this morning,” and “Make sure that lady doesn’t cut the line,” and “I was here first.” (In this instance, Jackson Galaxy was the tiny, adorable kitten.)

I had arrived at 11:30 this morning, thinking it was better to be overly cautious. When the library opened its doors at 1pm, some people actually began running to the lecture hall. The door to the lecture hall didn’t open until 1:30. Jackson Galaxy arrived at the event’s start  time, 2pm.

Then he gave his talk.

There is no other way to describe Jackson Galaxy except that he’s cool. He talked about how ridiculous it is that so many people in this country own cats, but it’s still considered to be taboo. How we’re all viewed as “crazy cat ladies” (yes, even the men). Well that just isn’t true.

He talked about his background of working with cats in the shelter. And that what started as an “easy” job that he could tolerate while being a musician turned into him being a cat behaviorist on TV. He talked about working with cats in shelters, and clicker training them, and getting them to appear more adoptable. And he talked about how a cat named Benny in part changed everything, because Benny challenged him and humbled him as a cat behaviorist on a daily basis. Jackson Galaxy’s book, Cat Daddy, is mostly about the story of Benny, and Jackson’s transition from working at a shelter to becoming a full-time cat behaviorist.

It’s not really an exaggeration to say that I would have listen to this guy talk all day. But after his chat and some Q&As, he was done.

Waiting in Line Some More
After the talk, there was a long line wrapped around the lobby of the lecture hall so that people could meet Jackson and have a book signed. I knew I would have only a short moment with him and was wishing I had paid more attention in speech class in college—now was the time I needed an “elevator pitch”—so I tried to rehearse what I would say.

I wanted to tell Jackson about Bette Midler. About how when cats like her get adopted, I feel such joy that I know I need to be spending my time in the shelter instead of behind a desk. I wanted to tell him that my cat, Smirnoff, is my Benny—he gave me a crash course in cat behavior that while tough when I adopted him, I will forever be grateful for. That my cats, Smirnoff and Bacardi, are the best companions I could ask for. I wanted to tell him that I love my volunteer work so much, and since I’m planning on moving to LA very soon, I’m trying to get a job at a shelter in LA working with cats. That I love Best Friends Animal Society and hope I hear back from my job application this week. That I know he loves Best Friends too (he was wearing a No Kill LA wristband). I wanted to ask him if there are any other organizations in LA I should be connecting with. And I wanted to let him know that his show inspires me to think outside the box and that I want to become a shelter cat behaviorist, making cats’ time in a shelter the best it can be and decrease the time it takes for “problem” cats (and all cats) to get adopted.

But how do you say all that at once?

Meeting Jackson
For every person who was in line to meet Jackson Galaxy, he gave a smile that said, “hey, thank you so much for coming to hear me talk, I think you’re awesome.”

But despite his high approach-ability, I was still nervous as I got nearer in line. What do I say? How can I tell him that I am interested in the super nerdy behavior stuff that often gets cut from his TV show, that he mentioned during his talk? How can I let him know that what I’d really love to do is grab a coffee and pick his brain about the shelter cat world, even though I know he’s way too busy to give some girl he’s never met his time?

I was next in line when it was announced that Jackson could only stay another ten minutes because he had a flight to catch. Suddenly, my semi-prepared speech had to be axed down significantly.

As I gave him my book to be signed, I said, “I’m moving to LA this summer. I want to work for Best Friends. I want to be a shelter cat behaviorist.” You know, the Sparks Note version.

There was no mention of Bette Midler, who is now settled into her new home with her new owner who adores her. No mention of Smirnoff who is at home with Bacardi, waiting for his dinner, and who is no longer an out-of-control high arousal cat.

Jackson Galaxy nodded his head, and said something like, “They’re really great,” meaning Best Friends, and some other positive response to my wanting to be a shelter cat behaviorist. Honestly, I was concentrating too hard on what I was going to say to listen properly.

Meeting Jackson Galaxy
Meeting Jackson Galaxy. Blurrily.

I got one very blurry photo of us. (My semi-decent digital camera is somewhere at the animal shelter, so I had to dig out a super old one that barely functions. Plus I’m pretty sure the guy taking it didn’t care.)

I managed to offer Jackson a business card and told him I was going to write a blog post about the event if he wanted to check it out later. “Yeah, definitely,” he said. Then I left.

A Guy Named Jackson Galaxy
Now I’m back home with the alcohol cats. They’re slightly annoyed that I’m writing this instead of feeding them dinner (even though it’s not dinner time yet). Smirnoff is meowing his displeasure while Bacardi tries to walk across my laptop.

Tomorrow, I’ll be at work at a desk job so I can pay my rent, waiting for it to be Saturday again so I can go to the Animal Rescue League of Boston and help more cats get adopted. I’m hoping that very soon, that’s all I’ll be doing.

Jackson, if you do end up reading this, what else can I say? You’re a cool dude. Thank you for helping shelter cats.

I hope to see you in LA.

Smirnoff checking out his signed copy of "Cat Daddy."
Smirnoff checking out his signed copy of “Cat Daddy.”

My Cat Is Not a Killer (Except When He Is)… But That’s Not the Point

Smirnoff at Window

A few days ago, Smirnoff killed a mouse. I woke up and walked to the bathroom to find him crouched, with a limp gray body clamped in his mouth, growling at Bacardi to back away from his prize. I traded the mouse for some treats, praised Smirnoff for his superb hunting skills and Bacardi for giving it a good ol’ try, and gently picked up the mouse with a plastic bag, checked it for any signs of disease (it was healthily dead), and disposed of it outside. It was Smirnoff’s first ever kill, and his third ever attempt, not counting house flies.

Smirnoff and Bacardi are indoor-only cats. For several reasons. 1.) I live in a city. 2.) I volunteer at an animal shelter and see how rough outdoor cats have it in a city. 3.) I have minor control issues and half panic just at the thought of letting my cats outside. Smirnoff was plucked off the streets as a young cat and still sometimes takes late night snacks out of the garbage. The first two days after I brought him home, he didn’t touch the cat food I placed out for him. On the third day he wolfed down my roommate’s bowl of pasta before she knew what was happening. Smirnoff would happily spend half the day outside, even in the city, if I let him. But I don’t. He and Bacardi remain indoors (although I sometimes treat Smirnoff to a jaunt on the porch wearing a harness and leash) and they both remain perfectly content, with only occasional half-hearted scratches at the windowsill.

Yet, many people do let their cats outside, even in a city. I get adopters all the time who ask during the interview, “Oh, but isn’t it cruel to keep them indoors?” I’ve counted at least seven indoor-outdoor cats on my street alone, several indoor-outdoor cats where my parents live in the suburbs, and saw plenty of stray and semi-feral cats last year when my boyfriend lived in a low-income neighborhood. (I tried trapping a couple of them but they were too smart.)

The statistics that get bandied about often (and are repeated by myself and other volunteers at the shelter) are that indoor cats live about 16 years, while outdoor cats live 3–5. I’m not entirely certain where I first heard that statistic but on its surface it at least makes sense. Outdoor cats are subject to being run over by cars, disease, starvation, getting lost, getting stolen, etc. Even though I know several indoor-outdoor cats who have lived to ripe old ages, on average it’s a grim outlook.

But the focus right now isn’t on how outdoor living can be damaging for your cat. It’s on how damaging cats are for the outdoors. Because let’s face it: cats are killers. They are predatory animals, obligate carnivores, and if Smirnoff were let outside, his kill would be much higher than one out of three. Continue reading “My Cat Is Not a Killer (Except When He Is)… But That’s Not the Point”