February 6, 2011
In The Mind of a Sleeping Cat
The decision to keep the lost cat that was staying at my house was not an easy decision on my part. The decision to stay with me was an easy decision on the cat's part. As far as he was concerned I had carried him inside a house, provided him with bowls of food and been a warm lap for the endless hours of cuddling it took for him to get over the trauma of losing his previous person & home. What about that didn't say "home" to him? All the while I considered the cat to be a houseguest, and I was just being a considerate host.
The decision for me was as tangled as the legendary Gordian knot. I had pets before (though never a cat) so I knew all the wonderful things pets can bring into a life as well as all the downside of the expense, the mess, the inconvenience, the being tied down. I didn't want a pet at that time. But every time I thought about taking the cat to the Humane Society (taking the cat to the pound was never an option -- I would never have been able to live with that decision) I was overwhelmed with guilt and concern. The cat had been so badly hurt by losing his person & home. He was convinced he had a new home and a new person (for this cat "home" and "person" are synonymous). How could I take that away from him? But, I didn't love him, not then. I cared for the cat; I felt a deep affection for the cat; I was concerned for the cat's well-being. But love, real love, the kind of love that causes me to automatically plant a kiss on the cat every time I pick him up ---- that came later. All the while the cat made it clear by his actions that he loved me. In Sanskrit the word "love" translates as "stickiness" or "attachment." And this cat was attached to me, in fact, he was downright stickied to me as he followed me around the house. The cat was clear. I was the one who was conflicted. So I vacillated for months. And while I vacillated, I watched.
One of those tangled threads in the Gordian knot was my fascination for the cat. I never considered becoming a psychologist, but if I had, I would have been the kind who studies animals, not people.
This cat was a psychology experiment on four legs that had been dropped in my lap; all I had to do was observe. I found myself absorbed in watching the cat and seeing the clues into his mind from his actions. Here was proof of Freud's theory of the defense mechanism of regression as he reverted to kittenhood -- a kitten whose world was utterly dependent upon his "mother" in the form of this human being. There was behavior demonstrating Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. He went through all five stages from physiological and safety needs up to self-actualization as he went from a cat who wouldn't go near the door and wouldn't let me out of his sight to a cat who, out of the blue, one day streaked through the open door as if to say, "Thanks for the food, shelter and lots of affection. Now that I'm secure in all that, I'm going to show you who I really am: I'm an indoor-outdoor cat." That day I thought my dilemma of what to do with the cat was gone along with the cat, but he wasn't gone; the only reason he even left the yard was because I chased him trying to catch him. He didn't want to be gone. He was just self-actualizing who he was, a cat who likes being out-of-doors in nice weather.
Watching the cat, my head was spinning. I'd never seen anything go through so many different stages so quickly. Psychologists could have written books about him; he was a walking, purring textbook. He demonstrated why studies on everything from rats to monkeys are valid bases to draw conclusions for human behavior. We are all startlingly similar...........and very different, because he was uniquely a cat: feline, not human. The similarities drew me in and the differences had me spending hours on the internet trying to understand cat behavior. Both fascinated me.
One progression of behavior had to do with the cat's sleeping habits. In contrast to his rapid movement through other stages, this development took almost a year to come to full maturity. When I first took the cat in, I appreciated his respect for my sleep period. I mean I really appreciated it. When I slept, he left me completely alone. It was one of the behaviors that made keeping the cat a possibility in my mind. There were no demands for attention, no waking me up and, most importantly, no sleeping with me. I had never had a pet sleep with me, and I wasn't interested in starting now. I wanted to be left to sleep in peace; the cat let me sleep in peace.
Right up until the night when I was awakened out of a deep sleep by a 14 pound cat walking on my stomach. Now there may be people in the world who can sleep through that kind of thing, but I'm not one of them. I picked up the cat and dumped him on the floor.
As they say on Iron Chef ----------- "Let the battle begin!"
And battle it was for the rest of the night. The cat must have watched me closely, because when I was in the deepest part of my sleep cycle I would be abruptly woken up by the cat walking on me. It never happened as I was just drifting off or in a light doze. And every time, I would dump the cat back on the floor.
This went on for three very long nights. Wake -- Dump. Wake -- Dump. Wake -- Dump.
For anyone who wonders why I didn't just put the cat out of the room, you'd have to go back to the state the cat was in. He had been badly traumatized by losing his person & home. Whoever that cat's previous person was, he or she had been the center of the cat's world. Now he was building a new world with me at its center. He didn't just like to be near me, he needed to be near me. Although he had finally reached the point where he would let me out of a room without immediately following me, I knew --- sooner or later --- he would come to wherever I was at. If I physically locked him away from me for an entire night I didn't know what he'd do: if he'd cry or spend the night scratching at the door -- both of which would ruin my sleep even more than it was being ruined now. And there was a more fundamental reason than that: because it would be mean. I knew the cat was traumatized. I'd seen him healing from that trauma. Locking him away would have been just plain mean.
Besides, this was an intelligent cat. He'd demonstrated to me that he was capable of being told something once and remembering it. He'd learned the kitchen counter was off limits with a single "No!" and the same thing for getting on my lap while I'm on the PC. So I was confident the cat would learn that he couldn't sleep with me. What I didn't realize at the time was that I wasn't dealing with the cat's intelligence.....but his stubbornness. And as the famous science-fiction author Robert A. Heinlein said, "Never try to out stubborn a cat."
It would be an understatement to say I wasn't looking forward to that fourth night. I lay down, and it didn't take me long to fall asleep. In the middle of the night, I woke up. Notice I didn't say I was woken up. This was my natural I'm-waking-up-to-turn-over waking up. No cat. I'd have been happy if I weren't still so exhausted. As it was I was just relieved. But then I noticed something strange. There by my leg was a hard lump: the cat, curled up and sleeping peacefully. My immediate impulse was to shove the cat off. But I honestly couldn't figure out a justification. I couldn't say he was interrupting my sleep. I'd been sleeping fine. And.......I was impressed with the cat. He'd figured out what the problem was, had adjusted his needs and come to a compromise solution --- one that worked for both of us. More than that, he was happy with the compromise. Do you know how few people in the world are capable of doing that series of events? (I can't think of a kid under the age of 12 that can do all of that on his own. And there aren't a lot of adults who can either.) So I lay there in the dark considering. As I said, this was a smart cat. I'd tried to be consistent with him. From the first night, "No" meant no and "Yes" meant yes. If I said "Yes" by letting him sleep there, the cat would remember and it would be a forever yes. In the end, he was sleeping so peacefully, I didn't have the heart to dump him on the floor, and I let the cat sleep on.
So the cat slept with me. And he was smart enough to learn from that one night the only way it was going to work was for him to sleep down by my legs. He never again woke me in the middle of the night by trying to sleep on my stomach or anywhere else. (That's to sleep with me. Eventually he started to climb on top of me when he wants a cuddle in the middle of the night. And he meows when he wants a drink. Or a snack. Or to be let out. And he scratches to be let in. The only time I get an uninterrupted night's sleep anymore is when the cat decides to spend the night outside. Somehow he was either smart enough or lucky enough to save all that behavior until after I decided to keep him. But, like with a baby, I've figured out how to do those things while staying half asleep.)
The other thing I hadn't realized about the cat's thinking was that it was less a dial and more a bunch of switches. Somewhere in his brain a switch had been flipped from "off" to "on" and that switch said "Sleep with my person." And when I had resigned myself to the idea that the cat was going to sleep with me every night, just as abruptly, the switch was flipped to off. Mostly, it stays in the "off" position. Periodically, the switch get flipped back on, and the cat will sleep with me for nights on end. Once I tried bribing him to another spot by putting a heating pad down; being new it worked for two or three nights, then when the novelty wore off, it never worked again. So, so much for the theory that cats sleep with people for the warmth. It's definitely the companionship.
Given that the cat had gone through so much trouble and effort to sleep with me, what I found strange was that he would not sleep with me when I was awake. He'd be stretched out on me; I'd be petting him, and I'd see him get more and more relaxed. Cats are borderline narcoleptic anyway. It seemed to me anytime the cat got really relaxed, he'd drift off to sleep. But when he was on me, he'd get to the dividing line of sleep and force himself back to full alertness. He'd do that every time.
Obviously he had no trouble sleeping with me when I was asleep. He'd been the one to force the issue. But I came to realize that it was because I was asleep too. This cat didn't trust me enough to be sleeping in my arms when I was awake. Clearly -- to his cat mind -- I must be planning to do something nefarious to him as soon he dropped off. It says something about my threshold for amusement that I found that idea pretty funny. Here I'd become "his person," his favorite source of affection and play; I'd given him shelter and food --- when we were in a 100° heatwave and he wanted to stay outside, I put ice cubes in his water bowl. Just what the cat thought I would do to him if he fell asleep in my lap, I don't know. But I found it humorous to watch him struggle and fight so hard against sleeping. It was yet another piece of the puzzle of this mind that was now living in my house.
So I would hold him, and I would watch. And as the months passed, I saw him begin to give up the struggle. By accident he would drop off into a short doze, then wake with a start as if to say, "What did I just do?" Then, for the first time, he went into a deep sleep: adorable with his paws and face twitching. But it was a rare event, maybe three times in four months. Finally, after close to a year, he realized that he was safe falling asleep on me. Now I'll be watching TV or reading, he'll wake up from where he's napping on a chair and jump up on me, flop on his side, stretch out and immediately drop off to sleep. Sometimes it's a cat nap; other times he'll spend hours that way, waking up just enough to make a happy sighing sound, stretch some more or roll over, then go back to sleep while my legs and hands go numb as I wish my back would go numb because of the dull ache in it and my bladder tells me there was something I should have done.
The cat has other people in his life that he loves. It never bothers me when he walks past me to greet a neighbor. I find it delightful when I'm sitting next to a friend and the cat jumps up and lays down beside them rather than me. I've known other pet owners who get jealous when their pets show a preference for someone else. But whatever the cat does when he's awake, I know I have something that no one else has with him: I have the deepest trust he's capable of........the trust of a sleeping cat.
Want to read more about Trilby Kitty? Check out "The Devotion of a Cat ," "10 Reasons Why the Best "Boyfriend" I've Ever Had Is My Cat," or "The Suburban Wilds."
If you have a cat or dog, then you should read "7 Scary Things You Didn't Know about Your Pet's Food."
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