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Cat People

Dirk Ellingson

Contributed by Columnist Dirk Ellingson

When I visit my vet, I’m usually the only customer bringing in a cat. In Missouri, I’d guess an equal number of acquaintances lived with cats as those who lived with dogs. In my corner of Louisiana, dog owners seem to prevail by numbers. I don’t know if that’s a southern thing. I do know obedience is a valued characteristic down here and that would certainly give dogs the edge.

If I’ve bias, it’s bias from experience. I’ve lived and currently live with a dog and cats.  More cats than dogs.  Never a dog in childhood. My Siamese cat Oscar (1968-86) lived 18 years and so, other than tropical fish, my stable childhood did not include much pet turnover. Oscar was a friendly fellow, a gift from Grandma Fern in Iberia, Missouri. She was actually my cousin’s grandmother and not mine but we called her Grandma Fern.  She sold puppies and kittens so we enjoyed visiting her zoo. Oscar was somehow related to my cousin’s Siamese cats Mandy (a bad-tempered beast) and Musty (a mild little gynandromorph or something bereft of gender the adults told us was a boy). Fern was famous for her parsimony but I think she knew she couldn’t extract a dime from my dad for a cat and so she gave him to me. I named him Oscar after Oliver on the TV show Green Acres. I had the name wrong. I was just a kindergarten kid.

In adulthood, free cats were plentiful. People did not spay and neuter their pets as they should and so offspring were readily available to adopt. Cats came and went. After Lisa and I had been married a few years, I finally convinced her she would prefer cats to dogs because she expressed understandable objections to our dog barking and begging for food and having accidents in the house. Cats don’t do these things.

I’m talking about fixed cats here. Not feral strays who mark territory and nocturnally yowl at decibels to interrupt your sleep. Cats are fastidious creatures who groom themselves. The disadvantage is that grooming, particularly in the long-haired of the species, leads to hairballs vomited on the floor every few weeks. Unpleasant to clean up but you can’t fault a mammal for coughing up the bezoars.

Scooping kitty litter is no day at the beach but cats arrive with factory presets to faithfully use a litterbox. No training necessary. I clean more dog messes in a week than I clean from cats in a lifetime. I’ve seen many a dog feast on his/her own waste. A cat wouldn’t consider this.

Among disadvantages of cat ownership is wrestling with the decision to declaw them. If you don’t, they might claw the backs of upholstered furniture to ribbons. If you do, you’re mutilating an animal’s front feet. Declawing is a disingenuous term. It’s not akin to removing human fingernails. It’s like amputation at the knuckles. It’s a tough decision to wrestle with like trying to decide whether you really need to circumcise a baby boy.  It’s in the Bible but so is that pesky admonition about eating shellfish.

Unlike their American counterparts, European veterinarians do not declaw cats. In fact, it’s illegal in the United Kingdom. We’re more inclined to keep our cats indoors. Many Americans too recoil in horror at the prospect of paw mutilation. A growing number of U.S. cities have or are considering statutes against declawing.  

If you keep a cat indoors, they’ll be much safer. But your furniture is in peril. And the cat’s window gaze makes clear he or she is clearly interested to get outside and explore. They’re lovely creatures but they’re ruthless killers. I’ve never thought much about lizards before but I really enjoy seeing them in Louisiana. They scurry about the porch. Some in garden variety reptile browns and grays but others in a stunning cerulean blue. I’ve traded the colors of autumn leaves up north for the colors of spring reptiles down south. But if one gets in the house, he or she is likely to lose more than a detachable tail if discovered by the cat. If it’s a competition to get to the lizard first, the cat invariably prevails over the human.

But if you’ve mice or vermin you want extinguished, cats earn their keep. They’ll take care of the problem with stealth and efficiency. At my previous Minden residence, a feral cat my neighbor named Jewel often left decapitated rodents on our sidewalk.

My friend CJ has a cat named Stripes. She’s an energetic three-year old gray tabby domestic short hair who roams indoors and out. I agree with CJ’s preference for cats over dogs because they’re “clean, independent, and to me they don’t have a smell.” Dogs large and small have wretched breath.

Childhood trauma might mold a preference. My stepdaughter Lindsay dislikes cats because she was scratched by one named Whiskers as a child. CJ had a similar experience with a dog. “When I was younger, a Great Dane knocked me down and jumped on me.  This as a young child terrified me and to this day, I still don’t like larger breeds of dogs.”

Cats are funny creatures. When Stripes was a kitten, she sprinted through the house and caromed off a large box fan into the wall. She lay motionless for a few minutes before recovering and returning to running.

Cats are elegant and graceful. I am mesmerized just watching them move. My calico Woolco often stands on her hind legs to get a better view of life. My white cat Tully is an adult who never outgrew his sweet kitten mew.

Your life like mine could be enriched by living with a cat and many need loving homes. CJ’s suggestion to people who dislike cats is to, “Give them a shot. You never know, cats can be very friendly and a very nice and warm lap cat given time.” But don’t declaw them or CJ will give you the stink eye like he does me. I might deserve it. I might be on the wrong side of history. Posterity will judge me more on how I treated small animals rather than the condition of my sofa.