Friday, February 3, 2023

Finally, a Truce

Well, it took fifteen weeks, a mesh screen door, a ton of patience, and even a couple of Eagles victories, but I’m happy to report that my older cat, Mahal, has more or less agreed to live and let live with the kittens introduced into her life, against her will, in mid-October.

It helps, I’m sure, that the boys have quadrupled in size during the intervening four months and can now defend themselves if need be. If nothing else, knowing that they can hold their own makes us more comfortable with the idea of letting the threesome work it out without human interference. Decades of living with cats have taught me much about how to read their behavior, but I’ve also developed a deep appreciation of how much I don’t know about how cats communicate with one another.

The crucial turning point, in this case, seems to have been time—assisted by that mesh screen door. Made of nylon, it includes zippers and attaches to the existing frame, allowing people to pass through at will and cats to see, hear, and smell one another. In this case, we set it up in the room where the  kittens had spent their first two weeks, so that most of the furnishings already bore their scent. Mahal had her own food and water dishes, her own cat box, a steady supply of Feliway pheromones (not sure how much difference those actually made, but they are supposed to calm cats), and frequent visits from her humans. She could watch us as we went about our daily tasks and, most important, interact with the kittens but not attack them.

They, in turn, were forced to respect her space, dialing down the opportunity for conflict. (I would be the first to admit that Mahal had ample cause for complaint, since the boys thought nothing of cleaning out her food dish, drinking up her water, or soiling her cat box.)

You may wonder why we put Mahal behind the screen, when she was the long-time resident. The answer is two-part. First, she was the one whose behavior we wanted to modify, and shutting them up and leaving her the run of the house would convince her she had won the day rather than give her an incentive to change. But more fundamentally, kittens are like children. They’re busy figuring out the rules of their world and what’s expected of them. The last thing we wanted to do was convince them that they should spend the rest of their lives immured in a single room. Instead, we wanted them to feel comfortable exploring and bonding with us—just as Mahal already did and continues to do.

At first, she did her best to leap at them whenever they appeared. The first time we let her out, she hunted for them and attacked them, and we had to return her to her cave. But then something interesting happened. She started calling for attention.

Was she calling for the kittens? I don’t know. But the kittens were the ones who responded, dashing from wherever they happened to be to station themselves outside her door. Throughout December and January, the three cats gradually moved closer, even touching noses through the screen. The next time we let Mahal out, she hissed only once, when Rafi—who has made it his prime objective to climb the screen and break into her room—dashed in the moment the door came down, then ran past her on his way back out again. And last Sunday, when we let her out again, we could watch her and the boys sussing each other out, advancing and retreating, visibly testing how close they can get to each other without crossing a boundary only they can see.

And that’s the main thing we wanted: a détente. Knowing Siamese, I suspect they will eventually snuggle on the couch, but if we can maintain “no teeth, minimal claws,” the rest can develop at its own pace—or not. A cold war is better than a hot one, and a working truce better still.

So here I raise a glass to Mahal. It’s not easy dealing with such a fundamental change when you’re the cat equivalent of seventy-five. Some great cat treats and a nice belly rub for you. And despite the occasional setback—such as the one that occurred a few days after I drafted this post—we feel confident we will get you through this, sooner or later.

Images: Mahal relaxing on the couch, sending good thoughts to the Eagles, who had just won their division title; Rafi (front) and Ruslan relaxing while they wait for the next summons—both © 2023 C. P. Lesley.

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