Tag Archives: pets

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: How Mom and Dad saved Christmas (and a hamster)

Teresa’s note: I realize this topic is a bit unseasonal, but sometimes strange things happen to my family and I simply can’t wait 12 months to share them. Thank you for bearing with me, and please enjoy.

Everyone is called upon to save Christmas at least once in their lives. Sometimes this entails snagging the impossible-to-find toy of the season, salvaging a burnt turkey, or squeezing in a trip home to visit relatives you haven’t seen in years.

And sometimes, it involves performing CPR on a hamster.

This Christmas was our first without Cleo, our beloved family feline who, as I mentioned in a previous column, passed away over the summer at the ripe old age of 22. It was also our first Christmas with Jinx, the hamster 15-year-old Younger Sister convinced Mom and Dad to acquire to help ease our heartbreak. I’m sure Cleo would be less than amused to know that our current pet is, from her perspective, an appetizer, but I digress.

As a Christmas gift, Jinx received a large seed treat molded into the shape of a bell. She nibbled on it for a moment and then lost interest, so Younger Sister put her into her hamster ball to get some exercise. The majority of the family gathered around the kitchen table for a card game while Jinx scooted around the first floor, occasionally bumping into feet and furniture.

It was late and the card game was running long, so Younger Sister (who claimed fatigue but was also bringing up the rear in terms of points) decided to drop out and play with Jinx in the family room. She took the hamster out of her ball and reclined on the couch.

A few minutes later, we heard a terrified scream: “Mom! She’s not breathing!”

Mom bolted up from the kitchen table and Dad pelted down the stairs, converging on a sobbing Younger Sister and an unresponsive ham-ham. The rest of us remained around the kitchen table, frozen in near silence.

None of us wanted to verbalize the thought that was on all of our minds: If Younger Sister’s hamster – the “replacement pet” for our dearly departed feline – dies today, this will officially be our Worst Christmas Ever and Younger Sister is going to need counseling.

In true wifely fashion, Sister-in-law turned to Oldest Younger Brother and asked him if there was anything he could do. Oldest Younger Brother, who works in computer software, did the only thing he could under the circumstances and Googled instructions for how to revive a hamster. I simply sat and prayed that we wouldn’t be taking yet another family pet to the animal crematorium.

Joyful sobs suddenly erupted from the family room, and we all realized that we, too, had stopped breathing. Mom hurried in to the kitchen to share the details of the successful resuscitative efforts.

Mom had gently taken Jinx from Younger Sister and was cupping the insensible hamster in her hands when Dad, who we had thought was upstairs resting, raced into the family room and started barking orders at Mom like an army drill sergeant walking a new recruit through rodent resuscitation.

As though he had been in this odd situation numerous times before, Dad confidently instructed Mom to press on Jinx’s chest with her fingers and blow in the hamster’s face in a scaled-down version of CPR. Mom did so, adding a mini Heimlich maneuver by allowing Jinx to dangle slightly in case anything was stuck. Suddenly, Jinx started breathing again and, after a moment, impatiently indicated her desire to get back in her ball.

Upon entering the ball, Jinx ran a short distance and then stopped. Mom, Dad, and Younger Sister had exchanged a terrified look, thinking the CPR had been unsuccessful after all, and then realized that Jinx had paused to vengefully devour the rogue seed from her Christmas gift that had been dislodged during the resuscitative process.

How lovely. So had Jinx expired, it would have been because she choked to death on her Christmas present. What a wonderful holiday memory Younger Sister would have had to share with her own children – and a therapist.

The seed bell went into the garbage to avoid any future near-death experiences, and Jinx continued to roam around her ball, enjoying her second chance at life. We returned to our card game, shaken and emotionally drained but exceedingly grateful for our Christmas miracle.

Saving Christmas is not about creating a holiday celebration that puts Norman Rockwell to shame, with picture-perfect food, gifts, and family interactions. It’s about going the extra mile to show our family and friends how much we love them, just as God showed how much He loves us by giving us the gift of His Son, Jesus.

Sometimes love is driving to a dozen different toy stores to find the only gift your child asked for for Christmas. Sometimes it’s scraping the burnt skin off a turkey and eating it with lots of gravy to show appreciation for the first-time cook who prepared the holiday meal. Sometimes it’s putting up with the stress of taking time off work and traveling just to see your relatives smile.

And sometimes, love is putting your heads together and doing everything you can to save a small, furry life. Love does what needs to be done, no matter how hopeless – or ludicrous – the situation may seem.

– Teresa Santoski


Originally published Feb. 5, 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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