article and photos by Jasmine Lee
A Responsible Evolution
For five years I worked as a professional petsitter. During this time, six cats I had grown to love were either killed by cars or missing. That's a lot of friends to lose. Many of my clients would say, "My cat's safe; she never leaves the backyard." I would see the cat out on the street, tell the people when they returned from their travels, and they'd mumble something like, "it was probably just that one time." Later, when their cat was killed or had disappeared, they were grief stricken. These very nice, well-meaning people had not taken the proper precautions to protect their companions. What's going on here?
Cats deserve to be treated as fully domesticated animals. They depend on us for their lives. Tehani Mosconi, PHS' animal behaviorist, notes, "Some people believe keeping cats indoors is incarceration. They also believe cats are self-sufficient. It isn't and they aren't. Domestic cats hunt for recreation, not survival. If you leave a companion animal outside he's no longer a companion because he's not sharing a life with you."
The Cat Room
Amy and Christopher Patrick* found a note taped to the front gate of their Woodside home. It asked: "If you're going to leave your cats outside, why not have litterboxes outside?" It had been written by a mother whose young children had probably run into cat feces in their yard.
One of their cats, Colonel, had become infamous for basking on the hood of a neighbor's Cadillac. Amy and Christopher recall finding him on the car and watching him make a leisurely stretching bow toward them -- followed by scratching motions on the gold paint.
The Patricks felt their house was too small to keep their cats indoors fulltime. Plus they wanted the cats to have fresh air and feel intellectually stimulated. But with the help of some contractor friends, they came up with a solution.
Outside their bedroom's sliding glass doors, the long overhanging roof was supported by tall posts. By enclosing the entire area with chicken wire, the cat-loving couple merged the benefits of the outdoors with the safety of their home. The cats have both plenty of space and countless ways to enjoy it. Christopher built a ladder that leads to a high loft. Amy constructed a large wooden box with circular holes for easy access. There are tree branches on the patio floor and a tall scratching post. The cats can enter the house through sliding glass doors in the bedroom.
"We feel so much safer with the cats indoors," Amy explains. "Colonel had his leg broken while outdoors and we never found out how. On another occasion, he was bitten by a snake. Sometimes a cat would disappear for days, causing anxiety and painful trips to the shelter. Colonel died of cancer. We didn't know that white cats shouldn't be in the sun."
Christopher has just one complaint about having the cats indoors. A writer, he often receives unwelcome editing from his keyboard-walking cats. But he takes it in stride. "We're all trustees of our companion animals; they're our beneficiaries. You have to take responsibility."
(If you'd like to enclose some outdoor space for your cat and are not carpentry-inclined, C & D Pet Products may be able to help. Call 707/763-9205.)
Note: Names in this story were changed at the subjects' request.
The Table Is Turned for Freezer
"Ahh, James, get him off the table," his mother says. James Olivera replies, "No, that's his table. I'm not here all the time and if he wants to get on the table I'm not going to train him to get off it when I'm not here. It's his home -- period."
Freezer is black-and-white and 21 years old. James has had him since he was a little bitty kitten. They're currently living in a studio apartment on the east side of Redwood City. Some might balk at the idea of having a cat in such a small space, yet the two seem perfectly cozy and comfortable. When asked why he keeps Freezer indoors, James responds, "The highway's too close. There's no lawn area. There are kids who throw rocks at animals and try to kill the birds."
Plus there is the fate of Nappy, Freezer's unlucky brother. One afternoon 18 years ago, a neighbor called James at work. There had been an accident: three-year-old Nappy had been hit by a speeding Porsche right in front of his home.
When James began keeping Freezer solely indoors, they started paying more attention to one another. They play games like hide-and-seek; James has become a master cat communicator. "If you spend time, talk, play, massage and treat them like your child, they become a member of your family and that's what makes them very special.
"Freezer can hear my emotions. One time I got food poisoning. I made sure to fill up Freezer's food and water dishes and then ended up staying in bed for three days. And you know what? Freezer was always by my side."
James' mother is visiting again. "Oh, Freezer's ruined your chair!," she exclaims, examining the frayed upholstery. James firmly says, "That's his. He saved me from having to buy an expensive cat toy."
The Unjumpable Fence
It's 2 am and raining in Half Moon Bay. Mia Stormer lets in a large orange cat. She dries off the wet, matted fur and feeds him. He likes it. They've met before: he's the guy she's seen roaming the neighborhood, scaring all the dogs with his loud meow. Early each morning he resonantly calls a neighborhood meeting to order. Mia christens him Chairman Maow.
In addition to his unkempt fur, Chairman had fleas and ticks, and was not neutered. Advantage™ took care of the fleas; having him altered improved his behavior. Chairman had been spraying all over the yard and had urinated "in more than one corner." Two weeks after the surgery finds him politely sniffing everything he would previously have marked.
For scratching problems, Mia uses a product called Repel™. She sprays it on the furniture -- and it works. She also employs a squirt gun to teach Chairman where he cannot scratch. Cat-proofing her house was easy, but how to keep Chairman happy indoors?
Mia turned to PHS' animal behaviorist, Tehani Mosconi, who recommended a product called Cat Fence-In for the backyard. Mia was skeptical: how could Chairman be prevented from jumping right over it? But it was a potentially simple solution, so she gave it a try. According to Mia, erecting the fence was so easy, "my 93-year-old grandmother could do it. (My 102-year-old grandmother is too short.)"
At first, Chairman couldn't believe he couldn't get out! After four days of trying, however, he conceded defeat. Now he's making the most of his house-and-yard existence. Mia laments, "His hunting instincts have not lessened. He steals dirty laundry from my hamper as if it's his prey and drags it down the hallway. Sometimes I find my underwear outside in the bushes and I know I didn't have a wild party!"
Nearly a dozen friends and neighbors have been given the key to the house. When Mia's away for extended periods, they visit in shifts throughout the day. "Chairman even gets phone messages," Mia boasts. "He sits on the recorder and listens to them. Sometimes he'll walk across the machine and erase them."
Funny, the last time I called Mia her answering machine said: "This machine is not working properly. Do not leave a message. If you do, I may not get it."
(For more information about the Cat Fence-In system call xxx/xxx-xxxx.)
The Suite Life
The two barn cats started out life on a 20-acre ranch, where cars and other dangers were rare. Later, when Chummley and Samo moved to a more residential neighborhood, their guardians, Pam Patek and Gary Allen, decided to bring them in each night.
Then Pam began working in the Peninsula Humane Society's education department. As part of her orientation, she spent a day riding along with a humane officer. The experience was an eye-opener. "All day we found squished cats on the street." Her observation is sadly true: two to three times as many cats as dogs come to the shelter dead on arrival.
Pam's growing awareness prompted her to want the cats indoors all the time. Gary wasn't so sure. But when Samo's veterinarian pronounced him FIV-positive (the feline equivalent of HIV-positive for humans), the decision was made: the cats would no longer go outside. Samo, a big macho grey-and-black tabby, frequently got into fights, risking both his own and other cats' health. But while the petite, solid grey Chummley enjoyed becoming a fulltime homebody, Samo was an entirely different story.
A squirt bottle stood stationed at the front door. Samo repeatedly challenged it in his attempts to get outside. Even though he was neutered, he began spraying. "It was awful," Pam remembers. She consulted with veterinarians and behaviorists, and had almost given up on finding a solution. Then she and Gary moved to a tiny trailer in La Honda, parked onsite where their new home was being built.
Two humans were cramped enough in this dauntingly small space; two cats made it tighter. The food and water dishes were placed on the floorboard between the bucket seats. The litterbox was kept in the shower when it wasn't in use. The surprise was that it worked. Samo even stopped spraying.
"The cats received a tremendous amount of attention," Pam explains. "They were always with us. They sat in our laps while we ate. They slept with us. It was difficult for the people, but fine for the cats." One of the felines' favorite perches was a shelf high above the passenger cab that had a large window with a view.
A year later, Pam and Gary moved into their new home. It's still under construction, and building materials are constantly moving through the front door. To prevent escapes, Samo and Chummley now live in the master bedroom suite. The room affords views of redwood trees, a walk-in closet (with Samo's favorite bed behind the hanging clothes), a multitude of toys and a large bathroom. It's probably three times bigger than the trailer.
Gary recently asked Pam when the cats would be allowed into the rest of the house. Pam thinks maybe they don't need all that space. "It's nice being able to leave a door open and not have to worry. Now, if they get out, they only get out into the house." She adds, "Of course, they are still microchipped and wear collars with ID tags and licenses. And if they did escape, I'd be looking for them right away."
5 Reasons to Keep Your Cat Indoors
Cars...are a danger not only because they can hit or run over your cat. Some cats sleep inside car hoods or on top of the wheels. Once the engine is started, serious injuries often occur.
Poisons...can make your cat sick. Cats have been known to eat fertilized grass or plants treated with insecticides. Many cats find poisoned rats easy -- and sometimes deadly -- catches.
Fights...are common with neighborhood cats, dogs and wildlife. Results can include life-threatening injuries or diseases. Feline AIDS can be contracted when a cat fights with an FIV-positive cat. No vaccine or cure exist for FIV.
Abuse...by unattended children who throw rocks, cut off whiskers or even spray-paint cats. Adults have also been known to torture "stray" cats.
Lost...cats who have been let outdoors and don't return home. This can be due to a number or reasons, especially the four listed above.
You can double the life of your cat by keeping him primarily indoors and protected when he's outdoors (whether in an enclosed space or out for a walk wearing a harness and leash). For specific information call PHS' Animal Behavior Helpline at 650/340-7022, ext. 783.
(Jasmine Lee has worked as a petsitter, in an animal hospital and for PHS. She recently returned to her solo piano career. One of her original compositions is entitled, "To All the Cats I've Known.")