This Side of the Pond – Feb. 13

By Sarah Pridgeon

I write to you this week with shredded skin, shattered nerves and dread at the pit of my stomach. Goodness knows what I was thinking, but I put my cat on a diet.

Consequently, our apartment has been hit by a tiny tornado in the throes of extreme panic. If my cat doesn’t get to eat, you can be sure that the rest of us will suffer.

Food has always been a bone of contention between the cat and her human servants. When first we retrieved our minute hellion from the Spearfish rescue center, she gazed up at us with big blue eyes and snuggled in the crook of my arm. To all appearances, she was loving, fluffy and as calm as the day is long – the perfect pet for a quiet life.

But when that cat was introduced to her new home and felt there was no longer a need to win our hearts, she ceased to put on a pretense. The second she was released from the captivity of her cat carrier, she expelled from every orifice, bit me as hard as she could and set off at speed on her quest to find sustenance. She hasn’t stopped since.

There is some argument among her immediate family as to whether she was suffering from a poorly tummy when we met her at the rescue center, or whether she possesses advanced acting skills. Either way, her strategy was successful and her appetite ours to satisfy.

When my cat is hungry (which is all the time), it’s difficult to remain oblivious. My sister-in-law has a theory that rescue cats become obsessed with eating because they fear returning to a life in which a food bowl has not been provided.

Her own rescue cat grew so wide that it could barely cross the floor without stopping for a rest and so neurotic about its dinner that it would sit on its hind quarters to beg for a treat. She, too, tried to put her cat on a diet, but it simply took up residence next to the dog bowl.

This would certainly explain Tinker’s preoccupation with the edible things in life, but I have an additional theory for her bad behavior: she never met her mother. Her litter was abandoned at birth, so she had no momma cat to clip her about the ear when she misbehaved. I helped her learn to clean herself by giving her a bath (and watched her quite literally climb a mirror in an attempt to escape), but I never worked out how to teach her proper manners.

As a kitten, she would roam the house for hours on end, disappearing into every nook and cranny on her hunt for something to eat. If she failed to find reward, she would punish her hiding place with both tooth and claw, much to the dismay of the sofa. We tried giving her a collar with a little bell attached so that we could at least pinpoint her activities, but she would deliberately stand between our pillows in the middle of the night and jangle until we removed it.

“Feline” is a word that most of us take to imply a certain gracefulness, but this does not apply to my cat – especially now she’s had several years to locate extra rations. Though she’s happiest when she’s up high, she is capable of falling off almost anything. This means that we are routinely woken in the middle of the night by a loud crash as she tumbles from whatever surface wasn’t wide enough for her. Even while sleeping peacefully on top of a cabinet, she routinely stands up for a stretch and rides her cat basket to the floor like a surfboard.

Now she’s in a diet-induced panic mode, she’s even worse. She will fling herself from sideboard to shelf, push ornaments to the floor entirely on purpose and, when none of these tactics produces results, she will bully the dog.

This is heartbreaking to witness, because it’s not all that difficult to outsmart our dog. When a disembodied cat paw appears around the edge of a cushion and smacks her on the nose, she quite simply doesn’t know what to do about it.

This leaves us in the situation of owning a cat whose stomach is dangerously close to dragging on the floor, but who will make sure that you feed her through any necessary means. She becomes a trash cat, digging for anything that might sustain her for just a little bit longer, and we still can’t work out how she manages to open the garbage can. Yesterday morning, I found her sucking on an old teabag.

If she can’t find anything edible to steal, it doesn’t seem to stop her from eating. Over Christmas, my beloved niece was given a loom that creates jewelry from rubber bands. Always looking for new ways to demonstrate her affection, she used it to make us all bracelets. Mine was in my favorite colors, red and black, and of course was an item to be treasured.

I placed it on my desk so I could easily find it the next morning. Unfortunately, when I came to retrieve it, there wasn’t a bracelet in sight – and I didn’t have much difficulty in identifying the culprit. All that remained of my precious gift was a single rubber band, taunting me from the middle of the floor. The rest was in the cat’s stomach.

We changed tactics and swapped out Tinker’s regular food for a diet version, but not even a full bowl could satisfy her tummy – the panic got worse. I’m not sure this was entirely her fault; we also fed it to the outside cat that occasionally comes to visit and he yowled outside the window for almost an hour, begging for more. At least Oliver Twist took no for an answer.

We did find one solution, but sadly it wasn’t sustainable. During one of the coldest days last week, one of us accidentally turned the heater off and the inside temperature plummeted. By the time we noticed what had happened, Tinker had gone into standby mode and was keeping very still on top of the dresser. It was, in fact, the noticeable lack of mewling that alerted us to the problem.

Tempted though we were to maintain the arctic conditions, we were forced to admit that summer would arrive eventually. None of us were prepared to face her wrath.

I’ve always scoffed at the idea that our pets are the ones in charge – our animals know their place in the family pecking order, I thought. But as my cat stood in silent observation while I filled her food bowl to the brim, I finally admitted which of us has been the delusional one.