Written by Stephanie Meador
I sit here now, stress eating chocolate, and kicking myself for not keeping any rum on hand. The past few days have had many ups and downs. Let me catch you up.
Several days ago, we made a decision to move forward in our plan of integrating Renee into our glaring cats. (Fitting term, isn’t it? “Glaring” meaning a group of cats. I get it now though. That’s what they do, they glare at each other...and sometimes at me if I’m late with the canned food.) We thought we’d once again try the old switcheroo, and put Binx and Sophie downstairs, and Renee upstairs to familiarize them with the other scents around the house in the hopes of preventing territoriality. This lasted all of about 10 minutes before there was a spat at the gate.
Okay, well, they were all cut off from their personal food, water, and evil lairs. So, maybe this was just too much, separating them from “their” resources. Picking them up and moving them around also seemed to add to their stress, so we rounded them up, had another cat rodeo, and put them all back where they had been before. Why put them through that kind of stress if we don’t have to? If reading this paragraph just made some alarm bells go off in your head, then good for you for paying attention. In hindsight, I maybe should have used both gates when we switched upstairs and downstairs, despite normally just having the one. I have also since learned that it’s much easier (and calmer overall) to lure your cat(s) to another area of the house than to pick them up and carry them around. Picking up my cats hauling them around like luggage seemed to not only stress them out, it was also hurting my back. (Yes, Binx and Renee are both Chonks.) And finally, by deciding not to let them explore each other's spaces to get used to each other's smells together, I’d skipped a very, VERY important step. By this point, I feel like we’d “tweaked” the steps so many times to suit our needs we were getting way off course.
A few days later, after everyone was back to acting normal, and didn’t seem to mind seeing each other at the gate again, we decided that we’d open the gate and see what happened. Renee and Binx up to this point had played and cooed at each other through the gate on a daily basis. Sophie was a bit more standoffish, but she still wasn’t exhibiting any aggressive behavior, well...with the exception of a hiss or two, but that’s normal for her. We could still pull this off, right? So, we opened up the gate while we were having dinner. With the dining room being upstairs, this let Renee come past the top of the steps, to see once again what the upstairs had to offer. I swished around a wand toy, and Binx and Renee both played with it, a few feet apart. This was amazing! I finally put down the toy and went back to my dinner.
Renee snooped around a bit, and finally happened upon the bright pink super-fuzzy cat house that is Sophie’s hideout, AKA “the pretty pink puffball OF DOOM!” Sophie however wasn’t having any of it. She came partway out of her house and hissed and growled at Renee. At this point, some random switch seems to flip in Binx’s brain, and he begins growling at Renee too. Wait, weren’t they literally just playing together? What the hell is happening here? So, we put Renee back on “her side” of the gate, thinking they’d all had enough excitement for a while.
A few hours later after everyone had calmed down, we tried again. Things worked well while Renee snooped around the kitchen and dining room. Then she went into the master bedroom. Binx followed her in and watched her check things out. They were doing so well that I sat on the bed and read the news on my phone. It had been long enough that I’d forgotten the two were in there. And then, of course, all hell broke loose. As if on cue, Sophie runs in and gets herself in the middle of it, exacerbating the fight. Once again, Renee gets put back behind bars (okay, technically baby gate bars, but to me, it felt like I was jailing her.) Now I should make a note here that all of the information I found online said that once the cats were getting along through the gate, the next step is to take the gate down, and basically “all will be well”.
I’m starting to think there might be a few more steps needed in this process for older cats who are set in their ways. In another note of hindsight, I had not followed the rule of keeping everyone occupied while they were in the same space. Keeping them happy with positive reinforcements such as treats, play, food, etc. is apparently a large factor in keeping everyone relaxed, distracted, and therefore not fighting. I had started with that when I played with the wand toy, but did not continue through the whole “session”, and did not put Renee back once the playing was done. I should have been engaging them in an activity the whole time, and not left them alone together once it was over. Looks like I should be put in time out behind baby gate bars too!
The next few times we let Renee come upstairs, I did notice that Binx would only get into a spat with her in the master bedroom...where he sleeps with us. Then while we were downstairs sorting my late father’s belongings (picture of Renee, to the left, helping us sort), we saw that Renee was chasing Binx and Sophie both out of the basement, very aggressively, and noisily. (I might note here that Sophie is a tough old former street cat who takes no guff and would likely start a street gang if she had thumbs and a switchblade. So to have another cat scaring her...well, this is a whole new level of bad.) There was lots of shrieking, and what I can only describe as the old cartoons of the Tasmanian devil twister. To my surprise, I noticed that Renee had chased them up to the top of the stairs, and stopped just short of the open gate. It seems the turf wars had finally begun. Crap! Crap, crap, crap!!!! Why did I not follow this rule, or that step, or do the process down to the tee, and for a longer amount of time? (My excuse here would be that I was trying to keep a handle on my sanity. Cat wrangling can be tough work!) Looking back, I can see several mistakes I made that led to this chaos. One of my biggest problems was that I was getting impatient, and trying to hurry things along. It’s like that story my husband likes to remind me of; This guy approaches a martial arts master, and said “I want to learn martial arts so I can fight today.” The master tells him, “It takes time, and you must learn patience”. He responds with “Yeah, yeah, patience, sure. How long will that take?”
"A tough old former street cat who takes no guff and would likely start a street gang if she had thumbs and a switchblade. So to have another cat scaring her...well, this is a whole new level of bad."
It was around this point that I started feeling absolutely lost. Hopelessness was quickly creeping in, and I didn’t have a clue as to how to fix this mess. My poor little guys had all been through so much. This was really not fair to the cats. They deserve a home where they can feel safe. If I couldn’t provide that, what kind of a cat-mom was I? I was a failure. I had failed everyone; our cats, my late father’s cat, my husband. I had no idea what to do at this point. I’m sure many of you out there have been through this too. I empathize with you. I really do. The only advantage I had that many of you might not, was that I had been working for a few months with the most amazing group of cat-sitters who I could turn to for help. Many of these sitters had lots of experience with cats in other areas, such as working in veterinarian clinics, being educated in behavioral training, and so on. I reached out to my boss, Jessica, giving her the run-down of what had happened. I’d like you to all keep this in mind if you’re in the situation I was in. She said, “Setbacks happen.” She told me that this happens all the time and that it’s perfectly normal. She knew how hard we were trying to make everything work, and just hearing that this was a normal occurrence really helped ease my guilt that I was doing everything completely wrong. We could still make this work.
So, should you find yourself in this kind of situation, please don’t throw in the towel? Don’t stress over having to back up a step or two, or slowing things down a bit. You may run across people who ask why the cats are still separated. Just remember they’re probably not experts in this field.
Well, we’ve reached the end of chapter 4. I know it’s not a pretty picture, and doesn’t leave you all warm and fuzzy inside, but it’s the truth. I hope that sharing this ugly side of the story, blunt as it is, may prove helpful to someone out there who’s at the end of their rope, and feeling as lost as I was. Give yourself and your feline companions another chance. You all deserve it. Then get yourself some rum, even if just to have on hand for a future “cat-astrophy”.