Monday, April 19, 2010

Nikki, The Guarding Cat

I've found that a lot of the time with Nikki, I have to be very careful of applying any "generalized" cat-theory to her, and to be hyper-vigilant about making sure I stop doing something no matter how many books tell me "oh, cats like it!"

Nikki, you see, defies a lot of "cat-dogma", and until quite recently I found the particular combination of things she reacted "unusually" to rather odd and surprising.

Case in point: the catnip thing. Nikki is a catnip "responder", meaning it's clear she is at least somewhat affected by the stuff. However, she doesn't seem to particularly like the effects of nepetalactone, and in fact will go out of her way to avoid being "taken in" by the Catnip State.

After she'd settled in somewhat, I offered catnip to her on multiple occasions, hoping she'd find it to be a source of fun -- but instead she seemed to get angry at it, sniffing it and then either whacking the scented object away with a hiss, or running away from it in the opposite direction.

And up until now I've never seen a cat react this way to catnip, ever. All the other cats I've known either ignore it (the non-responders) or love it. But not Nikki. She has her own way of responding, and she's made it clear that she doesn't want to feel however the catnip makes her feel. So I don't offer it to her anymore (though she is free to go seek it out if she feels like it).

Another case in point: "feline facial pheromones". These are supposed to be the "calming" chemicals secreted by cats in their cheek, chin, and forehead areas -- the depositing of which accounts for the feline habit of head-rubbing on familiar objects when they're feeling relaxed.

The first time I saw Nikki's reaction to these pheromones was when I was doing the whole "scent mixing" thing I'd read was important for making introductions between unfamiliar cats. I'd taken a glove and petted the younger cats on their faces with it. Then I went into Nikki's room and let her sniff the glove. She proceeded to remove the glove from my hand with a single paw-swipe, accompanied by a hiss.

At the time I figured she was probably just not happy about smelling (then) unfamiliar cats. But then, a while later, after she'd been given the run of the house along with the others, I got the idea of trying some Feliway spray in an effort to give Nikki some "safe" areas for napping, etc., where she could go and feel comfortable and secure.

I'd read that cats will supposedly interpret these synthetic facial pheromones as identical to their own, and from my human perspective, I saw using the spray as a sort of "prosthetic" means for me to go around making certain objects smell homey and non-threatening (seeing as I don't have cat-glands in my own cheeks and chin!).

But, in what was beginning to look like yet another element in a pattern, Nikki did not seem to appreciate the Feliway. At all. Her reaction to it was very similar to how she reacted to catnip -- the "get this stuff AWAY from me!" response. And then, rather than wanting to go sit in the areas I'd Feliway-ed, she avoided those areas for weeks -- probably until the synthetic pheromones dissipated.

So, for a while those "odd" reactions to things cats are reputed to "like" really puzzled me.

I was also puzzled at Nikki's apparent "moodiness". Yes, I know cats --particularly Siamese cats -- have sort of a species reputation for this, but most of the time it's been pretty evident to me that they aren't reacting randomly to things, and I tend to get annoyed at humans who talk about cats like they're all completely enigmatic and inexplicable. And I wasn't presuming that Nikki was having "random" reactions either, but I was definitely getting perplexed by the sheer frequency and intensity of her emphatic announcements.

Sometimes she seemed to just be screaming at me (using every cubic centimetre of her formidable Siamese lung capacity) for "no apparent reason" (even though SHE clearly had a reason). Other times, she just seemed to be irritated at everything and everyone. She'd go stomping around the house, making these little "harrumph" noises and swatting at the other cats if they got in the way of her circuit.

Some of this I attributed, probably correctly, to the fact that she was still adjusting to having moved (after eight years in the same home, with the same humans), and to the presence of three other cats. But that didn't account for all of it. And I knew it wasn't a medical issue, because she'd been pronounced impressively healthy for her age at her last vet visit in January. And she always has food, fresh water, and clean litter. So I was at a loss to explain what the heck was going on. And I was feeling guilty and frustrated at myself for not knowing what she was telling me.

But then, one evening last week, something changed. Nikki found a way to communicate with me that was...pretty unmistakable (and no, it did not involve urine).

I am still not sure how she did it, or even exactly what she did to get her message across. Maybe someday I will be able to describe the mechanism (as I'm sure it was something perfectly mundane as far as cats are concerned), but I can't yet, so I will just skip to the result. And the result was that my brain completely paradigm-shifted and I realized that everything about her behavior that had seemed "weird" or "frustrating" to me made total sense when I looked at her in the vocation of a security guard.

In other words, the patrolling, the seeming annoyance at the other cats "interfering" with her work, the extreme dislike of anything that altered her perceptions or seemed to "trick" all suddenly fell into place.

So, I did what anyone whose cat has just told them the feline equivalent of "you know, you've been awfully dense about all this!" would do: I said "Thank you".

Then I am sure I visibly relaxed, because she visibly relaxed, and ever since then, there's been a whole lot more relaxedness around here, and a lot less harrumphing.

And as odd as this may sound to some, I actually do feel safer knowing Nikki is on patrol.


  1. Makes a lot of sense to me. Fey is also very serious about protecting me, and she does make me feel safer. Even my mom picked up on it and called her a sentry cat. Because guarding is a huge part of what she does.

  2. Do you think Nikki misses your parents?

    I have a cat-related dilemma which has been worrying me lately: If everything's going well, I'll be moving soon from the country to a bigger city. The problem is I'm very, very hesitant to take my 12-year old cat with me because where I'm now is such an ideal environment for her.

    (There's a forest and pastures as far as your eye can see. It's all very serene which suits my cat because she's rather shy. Feeding - but nothing more - would be taken care of in my absence by relatives.)

    To take this pet and lock her up all day in a relatively small city appartment doesn't seem right. Heck, I'm contemplating to stay because of the cat :-)

    It's a pity that I can't ship her to the FAW house because then I'd rest assured that she would have it better than with me :-)


  3. FrF: I am sure Nikki misses my parents, and Nutmeg (their other cat, who went to live with my sister -- we wanted to keep them together but there was no feasible logistic way to do that), and my younger siblings. And her old house/yard. Cats get very attached to places (something I can understand and relate greatly to). However, I doubt she misses the dog! And she has definitely settled in a lot. I don't think the guarding/patrolling thing is related to missing her old home (or its inhabitants), because my dad says she did that when she lived with them, too. I think it's just sort of in her nature and she takes her job very seriously. And she has a serious dislike of being "BSed" in any way...even though she seems to like some toys even that's a bit on the iffy side, because when she finally "catches" them (after stalking them and looking like a cat having fun) she sometimes gets mad and runs all over the yard with a fluffed tail. Which makes me wonder if maybe she dislikes the fact that the toys aren't "real".

    (Though at the same time, as far as I know she's never caught a bird or mouse or anything else actually alive in her life, she is too loud/non-stealthy when hunting not to scare off any small creatures in a quarter-mile radius).

    In any case, she's just a really really interesting cat, and it's been really cool getting to know her. I can only hope I've managed to communicate to her that I do respect her, and her work, etc.

    As for your 12 year old kitty...hmm, if there are local relatives who can take care of her, you might want to try that (if you can't stay yourself). I know some people say it's possible to "train" cats who've spent time outdoors to be satisfied with indoor life, but from what I've seen personally, what happens is not that they're satisfied but that they just eventually give up.

    I mean some cats just shouldn't go outside anyway (such as if someone has declawed them -- evil!, or if they're FIV-positive) and some just plain don't want to, but the ones that love the outdoors seem to REALLY love it, and it's that much harder for a cat who is getting older to re-acclimate to a much smaller space with a lot less in the way of interesting moving things to look at and sniff. So if your kitty loves the area she lives in a lot, she would probably appreciate being able to stay there. And I also expect she would probably like it even more if you stayed as well! Good luck with whatever you decide, though. And also if you end up having to move her, she would still be much better off with you in the apartment than at a shelter or something...cats of her age don't get adopted very often, much less if they're shy. :/

  4. Amanda: Yeah, Fey and Nikki and Cora all seem to have a sort of "serious guardy" thing about them. I've gotten the sense Fey was very protective of you for a long time, even though I've still yet to meet her in person.

    Oh and another interesting development: lately it seems like Nikki and Cora have sort of reached a very peacable arrangement. Initially they were very snippy with each other, and were leaving each other a lot of Passive Aggressive Notes (mostly in the form of scratches on each other's preferred cardboard scratching pads, and sitting in one another's favorite beds while staring pointedly at the other, etc.). But now it's like...Cora seems to have recognized what Nikki is doing, and will not challenge her for positions in the middle of doorways, etc. She gives her plenty of space now, and I've not seen any swat-hissing from either of them at each other in a long time now. The boys, meanwhile, are still doing a lot of what I'm sure Nikki sees as "obnoxious little brother stuff", like trying to paw her in her sleep or bat her tail. :P

  5. On moving your cat(s) (a comment from a bypasser, sorry!):

    One of my cats has moved from Scotland to Ireland to England and then to Australia with me. One joined me in Ireland and has done the England/Australia legs of the tour, one joined me in England and was the third member of the Australia trip, and now I have an Aussie cat making up a fourth.

    The big key to moving cats is that they must be as attached to you as to their environment. I have tried to be the biggest source of reassurance in their lives - no matter how often we move, I will always be there. They even came through a month in quarantine - a little spooked, but they settled quickly.

    They are, however, country cats - I have always made sure that I lived somewhere that the traffic was slow and infrequent, and there is plenty of space to roam. Last year friends of mine bought a house on a 100kph road and took a relative's cat for a 'holiday' - then were surprised when the poor creature got run over. I was just furious at their idiocy.



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