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Relating to Cats and
Free as a bird
Silk Scarf
Alice at 21
Alice Evelyn King Skiff
Cookies & Milk
Animals in Mountains

Relating to Cats and Dogs

I sometimes get impatient with Comanchi, our Himalayan cat, because he doesn’t understand the give and take of relationships. When he wants closeness (which is more and more often lately, for some reason), he wants it now, and on his terms. He’s found that when I’m reading over my morning cappuccino, I’m leaning back in my chair at an angle that seems perfect for him to lie on me, supported by my lap but sprawled up my chest where his face and mine are close enough to share breath (is that conspiring?). So I hold him with one hand under his hindquarters and stroke his head, chin and cheeks with the other. (Notice that there are no more hands available to hold my book.) He purrs loudly, closes his eyes, and lives in that moment. I try to do the same. Eventually, of course, he begins to look around—through the window at leaves and birds moving, at the ceiling where scurry other creatures too small for me to notice, at flecks of dust in the rays of the sun—whatever it is that cats notice. When my arm tires, or he gets bored, he turns and jumps down, and I continue reading. All well and good, until ten minutes later when he is back again, meowing for me to notice him, at which point the whole thing begins again. He’s not learned the word "no" yet, although he can always tell when I’m being cursory, and he has little patience with that.

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Tasha, on the other hand—she’s our flat-coated retriever—is constantly monitoring our moods and desires. She is dedicated to pleasing us. Nearly always, anyway. Her eyes follow us continually, even when she’s half asleep. And she would never do anything to incur our displeasure. 

Only once, in all her time with us, have I seen her on any furniture, and that was when she was quite young. She heard another dog outside, and frantically ran from room to room trying to find a way to see who it was out there (and let them know that this was her territory to defend). Our bedroom windows are high on the street side of the house, and Tasha bounded unthinkingly up on the bed to try to see out them. One sharp word from me and she retreated immediately, tail tucked under her, nuzzling my hand to beg forgiveness.

Only when she is very hungry or very excited by hearing squirrels in the back yard does she shake off an affectionate pat on the head. Once, when she was young, we were playing with a bit of rope. She tugged and shook her head, and if I let go she immediately brought it back to my hand so that the game could continue. In her enthusiasm, she opened her jaws to get a better purchase on the rope, and bit down hard on my fingers. I yelped, she let go, and all was chaos for a moment. I massaged my hand (she had not broken the skin) and she cowered, dropping the rope. I didn’t yell at her, for it was obviously an accident. But she acted as though I had, crouching with her tail between her legs and curling her body in that strange submissive way. I sat back in my chair, feeling the game was over but not carrying any grudge. She came over to me and laid her chin on my knee and implored forgiveness with her big brown eyes.

Even though Comanchi (the spelling of his name comes from when we first got him. Judith first named him Chi, for all his kittenish energy, but within weeks it changed to Comanchi, to honor the feline warrior in him) has very clear boundaries, he is quite attentive to us. He follows us around the house, getting underfoot, demanding to be noticed. Nevertheless, one may touch him only when he wants it and—most importantly—where he wants it. One may not touch his belly or his hindquarters without an instant and clear response. After nearly a year, we have succeeded in learning how to play with him around those boundaries, teasing him just a little so that he can swipe at us with his (clawless) front paws and snap at us with still-very-sharp teeth, but pulling quickly out of reach. Too much of that kind of teasing, of course, irritates him, and he will skulk off to be alone for a while. Judith has managed to teach him to tolerate a daily wiping of his eyes with a swab (the breed is prone to having stuff collect at the corners of their eyes, the breeder told her), and a cursory inspection under his tail (his long hair sometimes gets in the way of his toilet). But any more handing than that requires gloves. He is adamant about protecting his body from insult. And he considers even affection, unskillfully applied, to be an insult.

How he and I ever developed our little tete-a-tete routine is a mystery. Judith has struggled all his life to get him to tolerate her handling and petting. I seldom reach out to him. Yet it’s my lap he seems to want. He will sleep on her desk or in her overturned wastebasket for hours at a time, but permits only occasional and brief cuddling. And of course, for Judith, who loves nothing so much as cuddling soft and furry things, this is a keen disappointment.

I’m beginning to think that the difference between our relationship with Tasha and that with Comanchi has to do with the difference in evolutionary levels they exist in. Dogs have been more thoroughly domesticated, until our lives have become a kind of god-world (is that what heaven is?) for them. Clearly, Tasha sees both Judith and me as her gods. She shows immense affection for many of our friends, especially those whom she sees often. When she hears a familiar car engine in the driveway, she prances and circles and whimpers until that person appears at the door. If she hears or sees a friend through the heavy wooden gate across our driveway, she barks to be let in, and leaps into the air at the door until she’s allowed to greet the visitor. Her emotional level is so like our own (and is so much less inhibited by convention or propriety) that we easily identify with what she feels. I suspect that the converse is true, as well, although I wouldn’t want to be unduly anthropomorphic. Dogs, or most dogs anyway, have developed the same range of emotions as humans, or most humans anyway. Only the barrier of language seems to separate us. I’m convinced that if we could somehow fit Tasha with a prosthetic opposable thumb, she would easily learn to let herself in and out of the house—saving us a lot of running up and down stairs, but also depriving us of that bit of interaction we both benefit from.

I’m not so sure about Comanchi. He’s pretty smart. But sometimes he seems rather thick-headed. He will chase a laser spot on the floor for a long time, and play with a dangling tail of a tablecloth until long after I would think he’d tire of it. It’s clear that he’s programmed to hunt. When he plays with Tasha (and he is inclined much more than she is), he is fearless. To see him leap through the air at her head, front paws (thankfully clawless) outstretched to clutch at her, mouth open to bite any part of her that happens to protrude, is to wonder at how domesticated he really is. She, of course, shakes him off easily. Occasionally she will join into his game, and they romp through the house thumping and running, until she tires of it all. They both have periods of energy, but not often are they synchronized. She may get impatient with him, but her gentle style is to simply get up and move to somewhere else in the house, or ask us to let her outside, where he has never been in his life. He will follow her to her new resting spot and rub against her until she gets up and moves somewhere else. Eventually, he tires of the one-sidedness of the game and finds his own place to snooze.

If I get up in the middle of the night to go read for a while (sleeplessness seems to increase with age, doesn’t it?), Tasha will come to where I am and lie down within sight of me, and promptly go to sleep again. Comanchi runs just ahead of me to the next room, seemingly begging for me to trip over him. And as soon as I settle in a chair to read, he meows at my feet, then leaps into my lap.

If we are gods to our dog, we are convenient to our cat. I don’t mean to be unkind, but that’s how it seems. My response to this difference in relationships is to feel guilty whenever I go out without Tasha, and to force myself to sit quietly with Comanchi and enjoy the moment. Perhaps that’s more an indication of my lower-level need to be loved than it is of any difference in the evolutionary level of our two pets. But it points up to me the mystery of relationships in general—why we interact, with people as well as with animals, as we do, and what there is in all of us that seems to need relationship.

Donald Skiff, October 4, 2000

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