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Tete-a-tete: When it comes to cat toys, sometimes there are strings attached

Things that are fun are not always completely safe, and that’s a difficult lesson to impart to a young’un. A child who’s been given, say, their first smartphone doesn’t necessarily understand why its use is limited or supervised. Young pets who’ve been given new toys understand this concept even less, as Boots has so vigorously demonstrated.

I accept that my family bears the brunt of the responsibility in this matter. We were so accustomed to having an older cat who had seen everything, done everything and just wanted hugs (Cleo was 22 when she passed away), we didn’t really consider the ramifications of introducing Boots, who is now about 3, to the wonderful world of toys.

When Dad brought home a stuffed mouse that dangles from a long elastic attached to a stick, it never occurred to us that she might be encountering such a toy for the first time.

As I’ve mentioned previously, Bootsie showed up in our yard as an older kitten and decided to adopt us. Her past is something of a mystery to us, but her hunting prowess indicates she spent significant time on her own in the woods – an environment that is decidedly lacking in kitty toys.

Boots was entranced by this artificial prey that appeared to move on its own, stalking it from under the bench in the living room and chasing it down until she caught it in her paws, refusing to let it go. Given how her outdoor time was extremely limited this winter, it’s no surprise that she wants to play with Jorge (yes, we named the mouse) all the time.

Unfortunately for Boots, this requires a willing human to manipulate her prey. Jorge and other toys that incorporate strings are kept in a container in the living room for her safety, as even a skilled predator can get tangled up if left unsupervised. Some components of these toys could also be ripped off by overzealous jaws and accidentally swallowed, so she’s not allowed to play with them unless one of us is guiding her playtime.

She will therefore position herself next to the container and stare at anyone who comes within eyeshot, trying to bend them to her will. If that doesn’t work because no one is near the living room, Boots will seek out whichever family member is closest and try to bring them over to her toys.

To give a common example, if I’m in the kitchen emptying the dishwasher, she’ll approach me, meowing, as though she wants me to pet her. When I reach down to do so, she turns and bolts out of the kitchen and into the living room in hopes I’ll follow her and play with her. If she doesn’t get results the first time, she’ll try a few more times before giving up.

Should these subtler attempts fail, Boots will stand in the living room and cry, broadcasting the unfairness of her circumstances to the entire household. If she still doesn’t get a response, she’ll find the nearest family member and personally give them an earful.

It bears mentioning that playing with Bootsie is not an easy task. She expects these toys to move like real prey – speeding around, doubling back, hiding behind the furniture.

I regret to say that I have been deemed subpar in recreational prey manipulation. When I respond to the kitty’s summons and follow her to her toys, she’s excited at first but then immediately loses interest because my movements are too sluggish for her tastes.

I put forth my best efforts, making Jorge dash and dodge and dive, and Boots just sits there, angrily hunched, glaring off into space and refusing to engage. It’s gotten to the point where when she attempts to recruit me for playtime, I remind her of how bitterly I’ve disappointed her in the past and tell her she’d probably prefer not playing at all.

Regrettably, Boots doesn’t seem to have a good long-term memory, and the string of disappointments continues.

Mom is the recreational prey manipulator of choice. She has the energy, stamina and creativity to make Jorge move realistically for several minutes, which is plenty of time for Boots to feel like she’s had a good hunt. Boots doesn’t always agree with that assessment, however, so sometimes Mom has to distract her with another toy in order to release Jorge from her grip.

Aside from Jorge and other toys with strings, Boots has numerous other playthings that can be safely left out for her. Dad has made sure of that. One of her favorites is what can only be described as a mouse patootie. It’s just the lower half of a mouse – tail, rump and hindquarters. I suppose it gives her a certain sense of accomplishment as a hunter.

She also enjoys playing with a bomb-shaped catnip toy that looks like it’s straight out of an old Warner Brothers cartoon and a catnip sack shaped like a wine bottle that Mom picked up at a winery. Mom tends to put these three toys away if Boots isn’t playing with them, as it makes for a rather morally questionable scene on the living room floor.

Despite this spoiling, Bootsie’s favorites continue to be the toys with strings. Unlike a child who will eventually understand their parents’ reasons for limiting or supervising their smartphone use or even a dog who can be taught to obey certain commands in certain situations, she will never quite fathom why we’re so stingy with the toys she loves most.

And yet, when our independent feline curls up in my lap, demanding security and snuggling, I can almost believe she understands that our stinginess comes from a place of love and protection and that these toys are not the be-all end-all of kitty cat existence.

Again, I can almost believe that. Because the moment I try to stand up, Boots bounds off my lap and into the living room, ready for round two.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published April 5, 2018


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Tete-a-tete: When dealing with cabin fever, this cat’s on a roll

Cabin fever is an essential part of New Hampshire winters, and one of the things that makes spring so welcome. After months of shoveling snow and cleaning off the car, it’s positively invigorating to do something outdoors that doesn’t involve that white fluffy stuff.

This goes double for those furry family members who are accustomed to getting plenty of outside time during the more temperate seasons. When massive snowbanks interfere with their recreation for a prolonged period of time, the resulting frustration can lead to damaged furniture, chewed shoes and knickknacks being knocked off the mantelpiece – unless you (or your pet) get creative.

Pets do not always understand winter, especially young pets. When Boots, our family cat, adopted us about two years ago, the vet estimated she was about 7-10 years old based on the condition of her teeth. And then, Boots started getting longer.

Instead of a senior kitizen, it turned out we had an adolescent on our hands. The bad teeth, we believe, are due to Boots having to hunt in order to survive while she was living outdoors. To this day, when she kills something, she eats everything but the head, tail and entrails. It’s a very economical practice but makes for a lot of wear and tear on the teeth.

Once we realized how young she was, some of Boots’ behavior made more sense – like the fact that she expects snow to disappear overnight.

All winter long, she would insist on going outside, only to hurry back in after discovering the snow hadn’t gone away and was still covering over the holes and burrows of the local wildlife. Her hunting instincts thwarted, Bootsie needed more playtime to burn off her energy. When our busy schedules interfered with that playtime, she would take out her frustrations on the side of the couch.

We keep her well stocked with toys, but they don’t really last long. Anything with catnip in it is gutted in a matter of hours. After a failed period of trial and error during which we attempted to find more durable options, Boots herself unexpectedly hit on a creative solution – or, more accurately, dragged said solution to the ground and destroyed it.

Dad had been doing some cleaning, and he left a roll of paper towels standing on end in the middle of the family room floor. Boots wandered over to it and gave it a long, hard stare. She bopped it with her paw, reflected for a moment and then, to our surprise, launched herself at it as though it were her deadliest foe.

She wrestled with the roll of paper towels for several minutes, tearing through the layers with teeth and claws. Boots and the roll were about the same size, which made for a satisfying battle on her part. Since there are a lot of layers to rip through and it’s not the easiest work to do, that one paper towel roll lasted her about a week, which is far longer than most of her toys.

The carpet did end up covered in piles of paper towel confetti, but that level of cleanup was more than acceptable if it meant we could preserve the couch and keep the kitty happy.

Paper towel rolls helped Bootsie get through the long winter, and now they’re helping her cope with the disappointments of spring. Even though she was surviving on her own outdoors before she adopted us, we do have some ground rules for when she goes outside. First, she can’t go out when it’s dark, and second, she can’t go out unless someone is home to let her back in (and out, and in, and out, and …). This leaves a limited amount of time in which she can go outside and enjoy the lovely spring weather.

To the kitty’s great dismay, an entire beautiful day might pass with her only being able to spend a few minutes outside. It might even rain, which means no outside time at all. (We still offer to let her out when it rains, but she’s not a fan of precipitation.) On days like these, she retreats to the living room and shreds some paper towels.

Being cooped up all winter is rough whether you’re a person or a pet. If the weather is right for outdoor adventures but the timing isn’t, consider taking Boots’ approach. Find something inexpensive and satisfying to take out your frustrations on, and make the most of the outside time you do get.

Please do remember, though, that unlike Boots, you will have to clean up your own mess. So choose your target carefully.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published May 4, 2017


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Tete-a-tete: Walk a mile in my Boots: Viva la feline difference

When a pet you’ve had for a long time passes away and you get another of the same type of pet, there are, shall we say, expectations. You might be anticipating bedtime snuggles with your new cat or bringing your new dog on weekend camping trips. After all, that’s how the previous pet behaved or what they enjoyed, and how different can two members of the same species be?

Very different, it turns out.

It’s been a little more than two years since Cleo, our longtime family cat, passed away at the ripe old age of 22 and a little more than a year since we adopted Boots. Or, more accurately, since Boots adopted us. As mentioned in a previous column, she showed up in our yard one day (having first foraged through our garbage for leftovers) and adamantly expressed her intentions to become part of the family. Who were we to say no?

At first, we chalked up the differences in Boots’ and Cleo’s personalities to the fact that Boots had been on her own outdoors for goodness knows how long. We knew it would take some time for her to adjust to having a home and being around people. As such, we weren’t surprised when she was initially non-vocal.

Cats meow to communicate with people and use other types of sounds to communicate with their fellow felines. Given that Boots was coming from an environment without any people or other cats and where the slightest peep could cause her dinner to flee or announce her presence to a predator, it made sense that she was silent.

Cleo was always very vocal, meowing not only to express her basic needs – feed me, pet me, clean my box, open the door – but simply to have a conversation. If you spoke to her, she would respond with a sound of some sort, and you could go back and forth. Her favorite topics tended to be that cheeky squirrel in the front yard, the weather and politics. Asking Cleo who she planned to vote for in an upcoming election was a surefire way to unleash a lengthy feline rant.

It took a few months for Boots to vocalize in any form, meowing or otherwise. While she’s become a bit more of a conversationalist, she directs the majority of her communication toward filling her most important need: getting us to open the door so she can go outside.

And she’s very good at it. The crying, the wailing, the piteous meows – she makes it clear that if she doesn’t get to go outside, her little kitty heart will break due to the cruelty and injustice of this cold, cold world and it will be all our fault.

Interestingly, Boots only does this when she wants to go out. When she wants to come in, she’ll sit quietly on the other side of the door until someone happens to open it. If she’s hungry and there isn’t any food in her dish, she’ll go take a nap and check back later. Apart from her burning desire to spend a significant portion of her day outside, she’s largely undemanding.

Cleo, on the other hand, used to stick her claws in the molding around the door and shake the door when she wanted to come inside, all the while muttering like a person who’s misplaced their keys. Empty food dishes would be brought to our attention immediately – and repeatedly, until the situation was rectified.

As Boots became more comfortable with us, we began to realize how very different she was from Cleo. Boots is a committed hunter and has systematically eliminated all of the moles, mice and chipmunks from our yard. Anything she doesn’t present to us as a gift, she eats.

Cleo hunted for sport in her younger years but got more creative as she got older. On one occasion, we had a cookout with friends and extended family, and Cleo wanted to impress our company. To show everyone what a good hunter she was, she brought us a dead bird she found in the woods that was already partially decomposed and acted as though she had killed it herself.

In keeping with Cleo’s lackadaisical attitude toward hunting, her interest in toys tended to be rather limited. She would wrestle with a catnip mouse for a moment or two, and that would be about it.

Boots treats toys as prey and completely obliterates them. I once bought her a catnip snake to play with, thinking it might be large enough to withstand her assaults. A day or so later, the living room floor was covered in catnip, stuffing and scraps of fabric, with a bored-looking cat snoozing in a nearby chair.

Parenting experts say that you shouldn’t compare your children, and I’m learning that the same is true regarding pets. Even when you’re dealing with members of the same species, the only similarities you can count on are matters of biology. Personalities, temperament, food preferences (Cleo liked seafood, Boots prefers beef) – there is room for infinite variety. Each pet brings their own unique qualities to the household they join.

I must admit, however, that I certainly wouldn’t mind if Boots stopped bringing some of her “unique qualities” to our household and leaving them on the garage floor.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published Sept. 1, 2016


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Tete-a-tete: A tale of unintentional cat ownership

“Never again.” It’s a phrase most us have uttered at least once in our lives. Never again will we eat a slice of cake that big, leave a project until the last minute, or put ourselves in a position where our hearts might be broken.

Resolute though we may be, sometimes we don’t have a choice in the matter. We say “never again,” and circumstances dictate otherwise.

For example, when Cleo, our 22-year-old feline, passed away in Dad’s arms last summer, our family decided that we would never again have a cat. Our resolve held until about a month ago, when 17-year-old Youngest Brother went outside to mow the lawn and was greeted by a sweet little kitty.

We live in a typical New Hampshire small town – we’re not exactly rural, but the trees are definitely more numerous than the people. Deer, wild turkeys, foxes and fishers all make regular appearances in our neighborhood, and it’s very rare to see stray domesticated animals. We’re familiar with our neighbors’ dogs and outdoor cats, and we had never encountered this cat before.

Youngest Brother, who had been begging Mom and Dad for one of his friend’s kittens, informed Mom that God obviously wanted him to have a cat – otherwise, why would we have this feline visitor? Mom was intrigued, but maintained a cautious skepticism.

While Youngest Brother and the cat were getting acquainted, Mom went into the garage to retrieve some gardening tools, only to discover that the kitty had been foraging for leftovers in our garbage. We had some canned cat food left over from Cleo, so Mom fixed up a plate for our furry interloper.

After a few days of this, Dad warned us that if we continued feeding the cat, she wouldn’t have a reason to go home to her owners and would continue to hang around our yard. He then looked out at the darkening sky and suggested we put Cleo’s old covered litter box under the picnic table so the kitty would have shelter if it rained.

In spite of the adorably fluffy companionship afforded by Jinx, our family hamster, the lack of a feline presence in our lives was, shall we say, palpable. This became quite apparent the day Dad called me into the living room and told me that Cleo was refusing to get off the piano. He gestured with a grin to the little wooden box containing her ashes, which he had placed on top of said musical instrument.

Yeah. We missed having a cat.

We hunted high and low for the kitty’s owner, checking ads on Craigslist, posting in our town’s Facebook group and calling local police, veterinary offices, and shelters to see if a cat fitting her description had been reported missing. As weeks passed without any leads and several summer rainstorms, we began to realize that, whether by taking her to a shelter or adopting her ourselves, we needed to take responsibility for Schmitty.

Yes, the cat had become known as Schmitty. Mom had suggested we call her Smitten, because we were all smitten with the kitty, and that was soon shortened to Smitty. Oldest Younger Brother came to visit and mischievously reinterpreted “Smitty” as “Schmitty,” and it stuck for the time being.

Schmitty, for her part, expressed her gratitude and her desire to be part of the family by leaving a dead chipmunk next to Mom’s van and trying to get inside the house every time someone opened a door.

Mom and Dad didn’t want Schmitty indoors, however, until the vet had given her a clean bill of health, an endeavor in which I was recruited to participate.

We were prepared for the worst. Cleo was terrible to take to the vet – she would get carsick, lose control of all her bodily functions and growl at every other animal in the waiting room. When her carrier was opened in the exam room, she would perch arthritically on the window ledge and glare angrily at the parking lot.

Schmitty, in contrast, was a cat owner’s dream. She let the vet examine her without any hissing and took all of her vaccinations like a pro. The vet informed us that Schmitty was 7-10 years old (much older than we had thought) and that she had been spayed a long time ago. It was likely that she was a family pet who ended up on her own due to her owners moving, passing away or being unable to care for her.

With that, Schmitty officially became a member of the family. She was initially very confused that she was allowed in the house, to the point where she was anxious about going outside for fear she wouldn’t be let back in, but she’s adjusting more and more each day.

Now that we’ve become better acquainted with her personality, we’ve given her a more appropriate name: Boots. This has nothing to do with the little white socks she has on all four paws; it’s a reference to her penchant for snuggling up to shoes – particularly 16-year-old Younger Sister’s knee-high boots. Youngest Brother has also since observed that she has big, sweet eyes like Puss in Boots from the “Shrek” movies.

Based on the dictionary definition, “never again” is a long time to go without something, be it a loving relationship with another person or larger-than-normal pieces of cake. Realistically, however, “never again” tends to be a much shorter time period than we think, especially when God Himself decides to intervene and send you a cat.

And as I watch Boots play with a catnip mouse that I thought would never again have an owner, I’m quite thankful for that.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published Sept. 3, 2015


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Tete-a-tete: Sizing up a new family pet, or the difference between a cat and a hamster

Welcoming a new pet into the family is always an adjustment. Every animal is accompanied by its own particular routines, needs, and idiosyncrasies, and it takes time to acclimate.

Following the conclusion of 18 years of cat ownership, we’ve brought a hamster into the mix. And though it sounds a bit ludicrous to spell it out in this way, the thing that’s giving us the most trouble is that hamsters are much smaller than cats.

Cleo, our winsomely cranky family feline, passed away in July at the ripe old age of 22. That’s 22 in human years – in cat years, she was a supercentenarian. Over the years, our vet told us that Cleo must really love us to have persevered in the face of so many medical challenges. This is a kitty who stubbornly taught herself to walk again after suffering a stroke and insisted on navigating through the house on her own in spite of having become deaf and blind – conditions we were not aware of until the day Mom vacuumed around her and barely got a reaction.

Sadly, the hot summer weather proved too much for Cleo’s elderly ticker, and that stubborn little heart of hers finally gave out. She died at home, in Dad’s arms and surrounded by much of her family.

Seeing as Cleo was part of the family longer than 17-year-old Youngest Brother or 15-year-old Younger Sister (a fact I would occasionally point out when they complained about her stealing their spot on the couch), you can understand why we didn’t want to adopt another cat right away. Dad has also mentioned that if we got another cat and it lived as long as Cleo did, it could very well outlive some of us human family members and there might not be anyone to care for it.

The majority of the family had resigned itself to a petless existence, but Younger Sister was not so easily daunted. She is, to put it mildly, a tenacious and resourceful individual and took it upon herself to research cute, furry animals with relatively short life expectancies.

Which is how Younger Sister became the somewhat smug owner of a tan and white hamster named Jinx.

Since we are all rather starved for furry companionship, Younger Sister tends to draw an audience when she takes Jinx out of the cage to play with her. Such was the case one recent evening when Mom, Youngest Brother, Friend of Youngest Brother and I congregated in Younger Sister’s room to watch her clean the cage and let Jinx roam free in her little plastic ball.

At least, that was the ideal. In reality, Mom cleaned the cage while Younger Sister played with the hamster.

Mom asked if she could hold Jinx and attempted to cradle the hamster in the crook of her elbow, the way we used to do with our cat. Cleo would snuggle in this position briefly and then climb her way up the arm of whoever was holding her, ultimately coming to rest on their shoulder and burying her face in their neck or their hair.

Jinx, being much tinier in comparison, viewed this not as an invitation to cuddle but as a launching pad to freedom. She leapt out of Mom’s arms and into the void.

I happened to be occupying the airspace across from Mom at the time, holding the plastic hamster ball in one hand and the lid to the ball in the other. With Jinx hurtling toward me, I knew I only had one option.

Since my life is not an action movie, this option was not catching the hamster inside the ball. Fearful of accidentally squishing our newest addition, I instead permitted her to ricochet off my shoulder and onto Younger Sister’s futon, from which she was rescued – completely unharmed – before she could further broaden her horizons.

Jinx’s brief adventure led to a discussion as to who was ultimately at fault: Mom for attempting to cuddle the hamster in her arms, me for failing to catch the flying hamster, or Younger Sister for taking the hamster out of her cage in the first place. The consensus was that we’re simply not used to having such a small pet.

In Cleo’s younger years, we would often find her curled up in a dresser drawer or squeezed into some narrow crevice between a piece of furniture and the wall. Though it might take us a while to figure out where she was napping on any given day, we never worried that she may have gotten lost inside the house. Stuck somewhere, possibly, but never lost.

Jinx, on the other hand, is in a potentially perilous situation the moment we take her out of her cage. The house is unfamiliar territory to her, and she’s not big enough to really have a perspective as to which room is which. There are also far more places where a hamster can get stuck than a cat. We never had to be concerned, for example, that Cleo might get stuck in an empty mug that Younger Sister left on her bedroom floor.

It’s definitely going to take some time to adjust to the smaller size of our new pet and to learn how to handle her accordingly. In the meantime, we might want to distribute catcher’s mitts to anyone who happens to be in the vicinity when we take Jinx out of her cage.

– Teresa Santoski


Originally published Nov. 6, 2014.

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