“And no, it wasn't shame I now felt, or guilt, but something rarer in my life and stronger than both: remorse. A feeling which is more complicated, curdled, and primeval. Whose chief characteristic is that nothing can be done about it: too much time has passed, too much damage has been done, for amends to be made.” ― Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending
For many pet guardians, there is an unspoken commitment – you intend to keep your pet partnership and to care for your furry family members for life. But, sometimes, we may feel forced to consider decisions that we never dreamed we would have to make.
This was not the first time that I’d muddled over this issue, and it wasn’t the first time that I’d had to follow through on a decision this hard to make.
I arrived at Dr. Graf’s veterinary clinic at the appointed time, in tears, as I’d been in for more than the previous 24 hours since my little princess, my little sunshine, my lioness, Solstice, bit me. My two year old calico had become progressively more aggressive over the past year, though I had tried everything I could to relieve the situation. Solstice had been evaluated several times by our vet (not Dr. Graf) over the past year, and it was always determined to be a behavioral issue rather than a medical issue (though I was continually frustrated with what felt like superficial service; it never felt like they really wanted to help me solve the problem).
I had bought new toys and increased our play time, as recommended by cat behaviorist extraordinaire, Jackson Galaxy. I’d given her a separate food bowl and bought her a new litter box – twice (really, 4 litter boxes for 3 cats should be sufficient) and relocated it for her. I even created a little catnip garden over the summer. In the end, Solstice had to be separated from the other cats for nearly three months, being kept in a room most of the time. I would spend time with her separately in her room, or bring her to the main part of the house if the other cats were in the basement.
Though her territorial behaviors started more than 16 months prior, her behaviors worsened when we had a foster cat that came to us pregnant and gave birth to her kittens while here. Foosy, the mother cat, had gotten loose a couple of times and attacked Solstice last winter. I can only speculate that motherhood and perhaps a history of being attacked while outside had provoked Foosy, as even if I held her in the presence of the other cats, she would tremble uncontrollably. She was never able to adjust to the other animals, and after several acts of aggression and urinating outside of the litter box, Foosy was humanely euthanized June 18th. Her kittens were all vetted and adopted into terrific homes. This was hard enough, feeling like I failed her by not being able to make things right for her and find her a forever home. I never would have guessed that I would have to do this again, to one of my own.
My little lioness, Solstice, never seemed to recover. To the contrary, she became worse quickly. In addition to peeing outside of the litter box and biting me frequently with no warning, even while purring and giving kisses, she became progressively more aggressive to the other cats, finally attacking a foster cat with what seemed like intent to kill on September 10th. She had escaped from her room and as I followed intending to catch her, I didn’t know the foster boy had followed us. In the moment there was nothing I could use to separate them so I grabbed Solstice and pulled her off of the other cat, getting a deep bite on my wrist. I thought she’d bitten to the bone; she clamped down hard and could not let go. It was a horrific few seconds.
I know Solstice did not bite me intentionally, but I also knew it was time to make a change. We had dealt with her increasing territoriality and aggression for over a year, (bites without warning, attacking my ankles, in addition to urinating outside the litter box).
I had submerged myself in episodes of “My Cat From Hell,” hungry for any snippet of advice to fix the human/feline dilemmas. In my quest to find a way to make the whole situation better, for humans and felines, the whole family, I had consulted several sources and made several trips to the vet.
In the end, after I’d pulled Solstice off of the other cat and been bit severely enough to end up with a celulitis infection, I knew it was time. She could have bitten one of my kids or a neighbor or a neighbor’s child. She could have killed another cat.
When we arrived at Dr. Graf’s office, we were shown to a quaint, private room. Solstice was afraid, more than she usually is at the vet, though this was our first time to Dr. Graf’s office. I couldn’t stop crying. Solstice cowered, waiting for the unknown while humans discussed the matter at hand, until it was time. She was gone instantly after the second shot was given. Her life force was gone. She was no longer there. All that remained was an empty shell, and my final memory of her snuggling next to me that morning, just wanting to be loved.
I had thought that it would be easier if she had some obvious medical problem like heart or kidney failure or tumors. But, according to Patty Graf, cats can have brain maladies, mental disorders, and psychological problems, which are problems of the brain, not unlike human mental health disorders which have a medical basis. She explained that Solstice did have a medical problem, that we just could not see it, much the same way that bipolar disorder and manic depression are considered medical problems. The difference is that we can often diagnose and treat humans. Patty and Dr. Graf also commented on the fact that so much more is known about dog behavior and psychology than the same for cats. They told me that when cats become aggressive, often there is no way to determine what is causing the aggression. What we do know is that animals also suffer brain problems that result in abnormal behaviors, including violent behaviors that could jeopardize the safety of other humans and animals.
Dr. Temple Grandin states in her book Animals Make Us Human, that it is believed that cats haven’t been domesticated to the extent that dogs have, that no one knows for sure when wild cats began to evolve into domestic cats. What they do suggest is that even if cats did live with humans for thousands and thousands of years, “cats probably haven’t been changed that much by their association with people because cats and humans had a mutualistic relationship instead of the more symbiotic relationship humans and dogs had during domestication.” Dr. Grandin states further that “The result was that today a housecat is a lot closer to a wild cat than a dog is to a wolf.” She tells us that elimination disorders are truly an emotional problem, and describes how cats can have OCD-like behaviors, similar to anxiety disorders as described in the DSM-IV for humans. She also describes the cat’s FEAR system, and suggests that dominance aggression is really an anxiety disorder. Dr. Grandin tells us that the difference between classic fear aggression and dominance aggression is that a fear-aggressive animal just wants to get away, but a dominance-aggressive animal is anxious about his control over resources or behaviors. Running away won’t solve what is causing the animal’s anxiety. She suggests that a better description would be “anxiety aggression.” This manifests in a way that can appear similar to obsessive-compulsive behaviors in humans. Dr. Grandin also suggests that cat obsessions (like the need to drink water from a dripping faucet) may be a reason why cats get into “predicaments they can’t get back out of.” She says they get “mentally stuck.”
Dr. Grandin continues, saying that cats can go from “calm to intense FEAR to intense RAGE,” almost instantly, and that anti-anxiety medications can often resolve inter-cat aggression. She also tells us that cats can suffer from redirected aggression; cats that normally get along can suddenly attack each other or a human. This can happen when a cat is prevented from attacking one cat, so it attacks a different cat or a human instead. She mentions a doctor who successfully used Buspar, an anti-anxiety medicine to help his cats. Further, she thinks it likely that, since cats are not as far removed from their wild ancestors, that they have more complicated ways of expressing their emotions. An example of complex behavior might include passive-aggressive behavior, such as a timid cat spraying after a dominant or confident cat has left the room, which humans can find difficult to understand, since spraying often occurs after the incident is over and it can be difficult to find out what the cat was reacting to.
Other behaviors were less understandable: it had gotten to the point several months ago that I could no longer permit Solstice to sit on my lap or lie anywhere near my face because the slightest movement, such as adjusting my feet, would cause her to suddenly bite with no warning. Sometimes she would be sitting on my lap purring and giving kisses and would suddenly bite, with no discernible change in body language to warn that something was wrong. She would act so loving, rubbing against my legs while purring one second, and would suddenly bite my ankles the next second.
Never the less, all this still only serves only to create a sense of remorse. Because there is the knowledge that cat behaviorists recommend solutions, such as stimulating the cat’s positive emotion system, the PLAY-SEEK system, for example. I had bought several new toys since last winter, and increased play time over the past several weeks, but it is so easy to feel overwhelmed by what seems like an impossible task: how do I help the cat AND all the humans and other animals involved? Family dynamic can be a tenuous thing, and something that causes ongoing, chronic anxiety to others in the family unit can become the “black sheep,” so to speak, and the animal senses this as much as humans do. Patty did point out that Jackson Galaxy likely does not have a 100% success rate, but this offers no solace. Even now I want Solstice to rub against my ankles, to give head-bumps and sand paper kisses. I want another chance to make things right for her. Does this seem like some twisted form of Stockholm Syndrome?
So I come back to that feeling of being forced to consider decisions that we never dreamed we would have to make. Though we may be influenced by external factors, like the fact that you and your pet share your home with other living, breathing beings, who may be adversely affected by the animal’s actions, your own decisions and actions are still, in the end, your own. They are your responsibility. Your success or failure. Yours to own. Which brings me to the issue of regret, or, more accurately, remorse. Betrayal.
Web definitions include:
Regret is a negative conscious and emotional reaction to personal past acts and behaviors. Regret is often expressed by the term "sorry." Regret is often a feeling of sadness, shame, embarrassment, depression, annoyance or guilt, after one acts in a manner and later wishes not to have done so.
Remorse is an emotional expression of personal regret felt by a person after he or she has committed an act which they deem to be shameful, hurtful, or violent. Remorse is closely allied to guilt and self-directed resentment. Remorse captures feelings of guilt, regret, and sorrow. Forgiveness does not eliminate all negative feelings, but it may entail the reduction of bitter and angry feelings, not feelings of disappointment, regret, or sorrow.
Betrayal to be unfaithful in guarding, maintaining, or fulfilling: to betray a trust. to disappoint the hopes or expectations of; be disloyal to: to betray one's friends.
The sun continues to rise, the clouds to clear, but the feelings of failure and betrayal also continue to dwell just under the surface of day to day existence. Patty Graf said that I gave Solstice a better two years than she might have had if she had remained out in the streets, sick and malnourished, but we spent so much time stressed over the past 15-16 months, culminating in Solstice having to be confined in a room, rather than having her traditional free run of the house. Her constant anxiety due to new animals in the house. Solstice would be stressed if another cat used her litter box or if I switched litter… I would be stressed whenever she would get loose and have an altercation with the foster cat (brought on directly by her previous experience of having been attacked by Foosy, the mother cat, several times). The stress of wishing for a miracle that never came, of wishing that we would find her perfect home where she would be the only kitty.
In the end, I betrayed her. Rather than living in my incessant need to rescue and foster, I should have let go of those things and focused on her, protected her. Rather than focusing on the world, maybe, just this once, I should have focused on what was at home. Isn’t that the thing… I’ve read about great figures loved the world over, who did much and sacrificed much for the world, such as Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and the Dalai Lama, but neglected what was important at home. Is that not a betrayal of your family or household? A failure to protect and love enough those who are trusting in your love?
“Remorse, etymologically, is the action of biting again: that's what the feeling does to you. Imagine the strength of the bite when I reread my words. They seemed like some ancient curse I had forgotten even uttering.” ― Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending
November 25th, 2012
This past week was a dream-no, don't question how Spirit works, just go with what Spirit ordains...(isn't this what Patricia Walker learned and describes in her book "Dance of the Electric Hummingbird"-Baja Rock Pat's Voice of the Spirit)-don't question Spirit and don't second-guess Spirit's plans-just go with it) ... I had been enjoying this kitten near the Shoppe (Source Healers) who for some reason reminds me of Solstice, though Solstice was a calico and this kitten is a tiger with calico in her stripes. Remorse can be an unrelenting thing; add to that how we miss someone... well, I digress.
This same kitten, whose attention I've called in the same manner I used to speak to Solstice, using a similar voice and tonation and words, and who has been incredibly affectionate with me, allowed me to hold her when she would let no one else near her, I would have cat food or chicken and try to entice her to eat, but she would simply snuggle around me and give head-bumps and loves... This week, Solstice communicated through this little kitten. I felt Solstice through me, through my entire being in one moment through this little kitten, and as soon as that moment was done and I realized Solstice's intention, this little kitten went to a small pile of cat food that I'd put a few feet away and started to eat. She has not acknowledged me since that moment...
Today I was reflecting how much I miss and love Solstice, how I'd give anything to have her back, to have a second chance to do better, and how, when she was loving and affectionate and normal, she was incredibly affectionate and loving.... when I heard myself say this, it occurred to me that this is exactly what women who are in the middle of abusive relationships, domestic violence, frequently say... I've heard them say exactly the same thing: "when he's normal, he's incredibly affectionate and loving..." I'm not comparing Solstice, a cat, to a human who commits domestic violence; but I think the human reaction to the negatives in the relationship are worth evaluating. Solstice had been lashing out and behaving more and more aggressively, though it was difficult to determine why in some situations-she would bite my ankles out of the clear blue (or so I thought it was clear blue, since I could not understand why she would attack my ankles when I simply entered a room, or bit me if I simply adjusted how I was sitting....) But we don't 'euthanize' people, even those who commit domestic violence or other aggressive behaviors. For those of us, however, who value all life, how do we reconcile this?