Cats or dogs? One way or another, nearly everyone seems to have a strong opinion about this debate. My entire life I have been an animal person, rescuing ducklings and fish and frogs, bringing home strays, spending hours at the Human Society volunteering, so I’ve never really had a favorite. But, I was raised with dogs, so I knew them best. They are nearly always excited to see you, greeting you when you walk in the door. They travel easier and are more social; you can go for walks or to an outdoor patio and they will happily tag along. And some even love to cuddle! I thought dogs were the bee’s knees.
Unfortunately for my parents, I persistently asked for a cat growing up. My dad, though, is allergic, and my mom just couldn’t be persuaded. Believe me, I tried everything. I even brought home 3 different kittens, all to be sent to the shelter or rehomed. Until one day, finally, I impulsively adopted an adult cat, brought him home, and no one made me return him.
The excitement lasted about an hour. He escaped the crate the shelter put him in. He screamed the whole drive home. He was terrified of my dog, (who also was not too fond of the cat) and he lived under my bed for the first week or more. I began to panic and cry; I had no idea how to take care of a cat who seemed so unhappy. I had no idea what I was doing. My cat, Marley, had to teach me how to take care of him. Here are 3 things he taught me:
For the first few months, we just coexisted with one another. He did his own thing, I did my own thing, two roommates trying to learn how to live with each other. We were not bonding. I cared about him, as a living, breathing, dependent thing. But I didn’t love him, and I think I can be quoted a time or two to have said “If he ran out the door one day, I don’t think I’d be sad”.
He would never chill out in the same room I was in, preferring solitude of an empty room, under a couch or bed. I desperately wanted to have him curl in my lap, purring and ‘making biscuits’ on my legs or chest. I missed the immediate connection I felt with my family dog, who loved me no matter what, and wanted to be at my hip wherever I was.
After what must have been nearly 6 months or more, I was sitting on the couch watching tv during the pandemic, and he joined me on the couch. Thanks to the pandemic, I sat on that couch every day for hours, and we started to spend more and more time there together. Then one day, he sat in my lap. And then he did it again. And again. And again. And then he even let me hold him. To this day, I am the only person he tolerates holding him.
Now, I’ve eaten my words. I am a cat person now. I would be gutted if he ran out the door and never came back.
Marley preferred, for many, many months, to avoid most human and animal contact. His best days were spent in empty rooms underneath beds or couches. When I would try and coax him out from under the bed, he would hiss. When I picked him up, he would wiggle away, one time even biting me. And sometimes, as is characteristic of cats, he would allow me to pet him, but when I pet him for a second too long, he would gently sink his teeth into my hand, my sign that he had had enough.
At first this was off-putting for me, and nearly unpredictable. When dogs want attention, they want it in endless supply. I could go pester my dog with a rub or a pat or a hug or a kiss or a snuggle and he would comply, sometimes with a sigh, other times with a tail wag and a lick. But Marley didn’t seem to want any affection if it were on my terms.
I remember grunting, frustrated, huffing “Just let me love you!”. But really, I was saying, let me love you on my own terms in my own way.
3. You can’t force love/a bond
Boundaries and patience went hand in hand. I first observed him, noting his body language when he did and did not want attention. Any slight sign of displeasure, I immediately released him or would back away. I started to learn his language, and it took a while. A year, in fact.
Had I forced Marley to love me the way I wanted, had I dragged him from his safe place under the bed where he acclimated to foot traffic and my scent, or had I picked him up and squeezed him the way I squeezed my 80lb dog, he would have fought and scratched and bit and hissed his way out of my arms and back under my bed. He would have learned that time with me meant fear and being very uncomfortable.
So I let him be. I let him learn to like me, just as I learned to like him. Now, I love that little grumpy, old cat. And I can confidently say he loves me….okay, likes me. He tolerates everybody else.
This may not persuade anyone to get a cat. I’ll tell you, not all cats are this tough. My second is a hyper noodle who lets me hold him like a baby for over an hour and loves belly rubs. He also gets into way more trouble than Marley ever has.
What Marley also taught me, though, was how to love others well too. People (your three-year-old, your teen, your spouse, your elderly parent) all require patience. You cannot force someone to trust or love you. But your constant gentle and patient presence proves to others if you are worth trusting or not. These same people also need their own boundaries. You may find that the way you receive love is not how your child likes to receive it, and I’m sure your first child receives love differently than your second. And none of them may speak the love language your spouse speaks. We have to learn how the people around us need to feel seen, heard, loved, safe. It is not a one-size-fits-all method. It is a living, breathing, dynamic experiment.
Same is to be said in the therapy room. I can not make a client like or trust me. I cannot force rapport building. That would take away the autonomy of the client, and I would become a looming, controlling, authority figure, rather than an empathetic, consistent, and reliable co-pilot. I’m not the expert in the room, shaking my pointer finger at you, telling you what to do or shaming you for what you have done. I’m the passenger, here to point out things along the road that you may not notice while focusing on driving, providing detours and alternate routes to your desired destination.
Okay, okay. Enough with the metaphors.
Animals are unique. People are unique. All require patience and boundaries. These create a secure attachment, and a healthy, loving relationship. What have your pets, or people, taught you?