Alexandra Duncan

Science Fiction. Fantasy. Feminism.

STRANGE PROCLIVITIES OF THE NORTH-AMERICAN BASTARD CAT: A CASE STUDY

Usually when the cats show up on this blog, it's because they've been particularly adorable, and I managed to catch it on film. Not so, today. The cats are getting a mention because I actually made something for them that wasn't a tiny crocheted mouse toy.
CHECK IT - A scratching post!

I've been reading a lot about cat behavioral psychology lately. If you live with cats, I think you can understand why I would do this. Sometimes their pupils turn into big, dark saucers and they start bolting around the house, making weird chirruping noises, or they wake you up in the middle of the night because they're chewing on your fingers, or they steal your watch from the nightstand and carry it off in their mouths to one of their secret hiding places. At time like that, you can't help but wonder what the hell is going on in their tiny, predatory brains.

The first explains the evolutionary origins of the domestic cat, how to measure a cat's intelligence, the history of the relationship between cats and humans, and typical cat behavior patterns. Budiansky argues that cats aren't truly domesticated in the same sense as dogs or cattle, for example. Rather, he says they're comparable to hawks or elephants, which often coexist and cooperate with humans, but are "exploited captives" as opposed to true domesticated species. I read this portion aloud to Jeremy, and then we both looked over at the cats, who were snoozing belly-up together on the couch, and burst into laughter. Still, I take the point. A tame animal and a domestic animal aren't the same thing. A domestic animal can go wild or feral, and certain "wild" animals can be tamed.

In the second book, Dodman uses a series of case studies to discuss common physical and behavioral problems among cats. Most of them are pretty extreme -- like wool-eating cats or animals who lick themselves so obsessively that they lose all their fur -- but those extreme examples can still shed light on an ordinary cat's behavior.

I came away from both of these books with two conclusions. 1) My cats were actually much less crazy than the average feline, and 2) I needed to build an awesome scratching post for them if I wanted them to stop destroying our house.

We've bought scratching posts and other toys for them before, but the cats' default response seems to be to ignore anything purchased specifically for them. They would prefer to destroy our furniture or the odd cardboard box left unattended than use the various scratchers we've bought for them over the years. At some point, we gave up and accepted that we could never have nice things.

But there were several important factors I hadn't recognized when I first tried to give the cats a scratching post. Dodman and Budiansky's books laid them out clearly for me.

1) The scratching post has to be freaking enormous. Ideally, the post needs to be tall enough that the cat can reach up to its full length, hook its claws into the post, and stretch. The measly, carpeted, store-bought posts we had tried to offer the cats in the past were simply not large enough to accommodate our domestic monsters. We have what Jeremy and I refer to fondly as "North-American Bastard Cats," which means they are both gigantic, long-haired brutes of indeterminate origin, likely with a little bit of Maine Coon in their recent pasts. An average commercial scratching post was never going to cut it.
North-American Bastard Cat: Exhibit A-1.
North-American Bastard Cat: Exhibit A-2.

North-American Bastard Cat: Exhibit B-1
North-American Bastard Cat: Exhibit B-2.
North-American Bastard Cats: Exhibit C.
2) Cats like to see the destruction they've wrought. I always thought scratching served a similar function to the incessant chewing rodents have to do so their teeth don't grow up into their skulls, or at least it could be compared to humans trimming their fingernails. This is only part of the story. Cats do need to shed the dull, outer layer of their claws occasionally, but scratching is also a territorial marking behavior. When cats scratch something (usually a tree, in the wild) they're leaving both a visible sign of their presence and an subtle odor marker that other cats can smell, but humans cannot. The cheap carpet used in most cat scratching posts simply doesn't shred in the same satisfactory way as, say, wood or the fabric covering the back of your sofa. If you want your cats to use a scratching post (an not your living room furniture), they have to be able to leave behind signs of visible destruction on its surface.

Of course, there are scratching posts that meet both criteria which you can buy at the pet store, but Jeremy and I have next to no money, and I had a good time in middle school wood shop. I was pretty sure I could make an awesome scratching post from some rough rope, a wooden post, and a small plywood square.

I spent the better part of an evening wrapping the post in sisal rope and nailing the whole thing together, then I slid my towering creation into the corner of the living room near the cats' favorite chair and waited. And waited. And waited.

The cats were completely uninterested in the new addition to the living room. This may have had something to do with the fact that it almost fell on them during one point of construction, when I leaned the post against the couch and left the room for 30 seconds to find a pair of scissors. Loki took this opportunity to rub his face on the post and knock it over on his brother. I re-entered the room just as Pyewackett was about to be crushed by the falling block of timber, dove toward him, and batted the post out of the way like an extremely inept volleyball player. It didn't hit him, but it did crash against the hardwood floor and send both cats skittering out of the living room for the next twenty minutes.

I tried to persuade the cats that the new scratching post was their friend by feeding them treats beside it and running my nails over the rope while conducting a running monologue about how awesome it was. The cats were not impressed.

It was only when I came home with a tiny spray bottle of concentrated catnip oil and doused the entire structure in it that the cats took interest. They approached, sniffed the rope, rubbed their faces against it and then. . . flopped over, too high to do anything but lie down next to their new toy.

I was distraught. I had put so much effort into this damn scratching post! Was it going to turn out like every other thing we deliberately bought for the cats? Jeremy talked me down. I just had to give them time, keep giving them treats, and keep soaking the thing with catnip spray. They would eventually come around.

Several days passed. The cats sniffed the scratching post and writhed around on the floor next to it, but they still wouldn't scratch it. I continued to try to demonstrate to them its awesomeness by scratching it myself, and they continued to look at me like I was brain damaged.

Then, one weekend, my sister came to visit. We had just finished watching Project Runway and were discussing the ugliest pair of pants in human memory, when I heard a ripping noise. I looked up and saw Pyewackett digging his claws into the scratching post. Success! I think I made a squeaking noise and grabbed my sister's arm in my excitement.

It's been a few weeks now, and the cats have completely adapted to their new deluxe scratching post. They've even begun to destroy it by biting the sisal rope and pulling it from the post. Hooray! There's still a bit of contention over who gets to use it when, but for the most part, they've stopped scratching the furniture (Loki) and the walls (Pyewackett). I guess being a total nerd and reading books about feline behavioral psychology worked out in my favor. I'm just happy I finally persuaded them to destroy something they were meant to destroy for once.

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