Saturday, February 11, 2012

Members of the Family

On the website of the local animal shelter, they post pictures of the animals available for adoption, and a little bit of information about them. Often, that information includes how the animal came to be at the shelter. I can't count how many times it has said "the family moved and couldn't take the animal with them" or "the family had no time for the dog" or various other reasons people give for why they don't want their pet anymore.

I can't imagine.

Our animals are not "pets," they are members of the family.

As members of the family, they have the right to be treated with the same consideration as anyone else. They deserve to have their needs met. They deserve respect for who they are, for how they learn, for their nature.

This doesn't mean the animals "rule the house" any more than "doing what they want" means my kids run wild without considering anyone else.

It DOES mean that some things around here are a little different from other, more "mainstream" homes.

I'll give a few examples of what I mean.

Example number one:

When we got our puppy, we decided to "crate train" him. I don't actually know what most people mean by that, but what we meant was that he had a crate to be in when we weren't home, so that he didn't get into things he shouldn't get into, and I think we were also told, at the time, that he'd be easier to housetrain because he wouldn't want to soil where he sleeps.

We had a crate.
He slept in it.
But the rest was a little different.

For one thing, there was very little time when we weren't home. He was out of the crate most of the time, with one or more of us right there with him. A puppy is a baby, and needs just as much attention.

At night, he slept in the crate, and I slept on a mattress on the floor, next to him. He needed not to be alone just as much as my kids needed not to be alone when they were babies. Babies aren't meant to sleep alone. The plan was that I'd sleep there until he was interested in sleeping places other than his crate. What happened was a little different. We had a house fire, and spent the next several months living first in hotels, and then in trailers, so we didn't have his crate or our usual living situation. We adapted.

When we moved back into our house, he slept wherever he wanted. Sometimes near me, and sometimes not. He was older, and that phase was over.

Example number two:
Currently, we have a pair of kittens. They are nearly cats now, but still have that crazy kittenish playfulness. Unfortunately for us, one of them likes to chew things. Everything. Especially laptop charger cords. We could get angry. We could try to "punish" him, maybe smacking him whenever he chews something. But he's a kitten, and it is his nature to chew things, and he is incapable of understanding what he should and should not chew.  Our challenge is to respect that nature, while protecting our stuff.

We're learning. We're finding ways to keep cables up where he can't get them. We keep an eye on him and don't leave him in a room with a charging laptop. We're getting special covers that go over the cables, so they aren't the size he prefers, and so if he chews on them, it will be the cover that is damaged, not the cord. We are ALSO finding toys for him that meet that need to chew, and spending more time playing with him. Needs don't go away just because they are inconvenient, with animals any more than with kids.

Example number three:
This is a combination story, involving my cat and the dog.

My cat is getting older. We have lost two of our cats in the last year- his best friend included. He's lonely.

He also, for a while, was having issues with urinating outside the litterbox.
Most of the time, on my laundry.
Either there, or on my bed. Sometimes while I was sleeping in it.

This did not make me happy.
Not even remotely.

The question was, what to do about it.

I did some research, to see why a cat would do such a thing.
Was there a physical cause? A psychological need?

It turns out, there was both.

When my sister told me about her cat being diagnosed with diabetes, and described the symptoms, I immediately suspected we might be having the same issue. Her vet suggested that she first try to control it with diet (not successful for her cat, sad to say) so I decided to at least try that, and see what happened. If things got worse, we'd see the vet, if they got better, I'd figure it was a good choice, regardless of what the underlying cause was.

Things got better.

At the same time, I did some research to look for ideas about how to "retrain" my cat. One psychiatrist's website talked about cats using "inappropriate urination" as a way to get attention, when all other attempts failed. I didn't think I was ignoring his attempts to get attention, but you have to admit, this method certainly got attention, immediately, every time! So I wondered if it might be part of what was going on, especially because he was mourning the loss of the two cats he had grown up with. His only cat friends.

I started paying more attention to where the cat wanted to be, and mostly, he wanted to be on me. On my lap, on my shoulder, across my chest, depending on what position I was in. He wanted to sleep next to me. So that's what we did.

I also started sleeping in the couch in the living room, where he could have access to sleeping next to me, and I didn't have to worry so much about my mattress and laundry and everything else in my room that he seemed bent on destroying.

Once I made that move, I noticed another change.

The dog, who had been waking me up at o'dark thirty to go out, suddenly wasn't doing that most of the time. Before, he had often woken me more than once before I was ready to get up for the day, and with me in the living room, he was waiting later, and sometimes, not waking me up at all.

Moving onto the couch seems to have improved a number of things, including no more waking up multiple times per night, and no more cat pee soaked blankets. I'm still sleeping on the couch. It's unusual, perhaps, but for the moment, it's working better. Much better.

It can be a little harder to figure out what animals need, in order to meet that need, but otherwise, it's the same process as raising kids. We all stay flexible, and pay attention, and consider what the needs are, and what works to meet them, without worrying too much- or at all- about whether our solution is "normal" or okay with anyone other than us. All of us adjust and make allowances for what is going on for the rest of us.  I would no more expect my animal family members to feed themselves and meet their other needs, than I would an infant. We're all in this together.

The other half of this arrangement is how to deal with the kids' needs, if I'm sleeping on the couch. It's great to meet the needs of the dog and cat, but what about the people? Don't they have a say? What if they want to watch TV, or play a video game, or watch a DVD? What if they simply want to be out in this part of the house? What if they want to use the kitchen, which is right next to the couch, with no solid wall in between? Do they have to postpone it, or stay as quiet as possible?  Our answer is that no, they don't. I can sleep through most anything, and if I get woken up, I can fall back asleep easily. I recognize that by being in the middle of the house, I am accepting the possibility, and even likelihood, of being woken up by other people wanting to be in the communal space in the house, and I'm okay with that. We have an agreement that if they wake me, I won't be angry about it.

Now that the cat is no longer going outside the box, I may start napping in my room, and see what happens. I don't want to transition back too soon, but I do eventually want to sleep in there again. My bed is quite a bit more comfortable than the couch, for one thing!

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