Saturday, April 18, 2009

When Cats Don't Seem So Smart

We once had a big brown tabby cat who we called Spike. Spike was extremely intelligent and expressive - you could easily read his moods on his face. He was also very "tuned in" to us - he knew the household rules and respected them. (So how do you explain the picture here? Simple - the punch bowl was new, and so it didn't have a rule yet. And Spike was smart enough to know that.)

Last August, we got two kittens. Not surprisingly, Spike (and our other older cat) didn't particularly like the new guys. And a week or two after the new kittens came to stay, Spike jumped up on the couch and peed.

Now, I'm sure you can understand that I figured this was some sort of protest over the home invasion by the kittens. And I scolded Spike and "reminded" him of where the litter boxes were.

Then Spike peed on our bed. Much too late it dawned on me that there may be something else going on besides a very atypical (for Spike) form of passive aggressiveness. So I took him to the veterinarian.

Spike had a urinary tract infection. Once he started getting medicine for it, his "bad behavior" stopped.

In hindsight, it's obvious that Spike's "inappropriate" peeing in full view of me was his way of trying to tell me that something was wrong with his urinary system. I mean, how more obvious could he make it? His peeing was done knowing I would see him do it; if it had really been a protest against the kittens, it would be more likely he'd have done it in secret.

If the new kittens hadn't been part of the whole picture, maybe I would have recognized Spike's meaning sooner. Communication is a two way street: The sender has to make it as clear as possible, and the receiver has to interpret it correctly. I don't know how Spike could have made it any more plain; I should have thought more in terms of what I knew about Spike's personality instead of assuming his behavior was "typical cat behavior".

Spike died in December. He never did fully accept the kittens, although he was never mean to them. And never in his life did he actually engage in the kind of petty passive-aggressiveness I blindly assumed him guilty of that one occasion.

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