I worked in various veterinary clinics for over twelve years, and during those years, I met some pretty amazing cats and dogs. The memories of some of these animals, as well as the lessons they taught, have stuck with me over the years, and I thought it was time to share some of their stories. I’m calling the series “Adventures in Veterinary Medicine,” because for me, that’s what my journey in this wonderful profession was – a never-ending adventure. No two days were ever alike, just like no two animals were ever the same. In this first installment in our Adventures in Veterinary Medicine series, meet Beast.
Beast was a big bruiser of a cat. He was a brown and white tabby with a huge head, giant paws – and caution stickers all over his veterinary record. Most veterinary clinics won’t actually write “beware of cat” or “killer cat” in their records. Instead, they use a sticker system to indicate whether an animal may be challenging to work with, aggressive, fearful, a biter – you get the idea. Beast’s chart had the highest number of stickers I’d seen in any of our charts.
Beasts owners traveled quite a bit, and since Beast had some urinary tract issues, they were not comfortable leaving him at home with a pet sitter, so they boarded him at the clinic with us. Beast hated being confined in a cage. But even more than being in a cage, he hated it when anyone so much as approached his cage, and he made his displeasure known by hissing, growling and throwing himself at the cage’s door. It made taking care of him challenging, to say the least, but we did the best we could, and usually, we’d let our most experienced technicians, our “cat wranglers,” deal with him. But on weekends, whoever had kennel duty had to find a way to clean out Beast’s cage, give him fresh food and water, and change his litterbox. At the time, I worked a lot of weekends as a kennel attendant, so the odds were good that I would have to deal with Beast at some point.
I had been trained in safe and proper feline restraint techniques – techniques that made handling safe for both the cat being handled, and for the person handling the cat. But I’d never had to work with a fractious cat without another person to help me. Rather than using the restraint techniques I had been taught, I decided to try a different approach. I completely ignored Beast’s posturing, hissing and growling while I took care of the other animals in the kennel. Whenever I passed his cage, I quietly talked to him, but never acknowledged his aggressive behavior. When I had taken care of everyone else, I walked back to Beast’s cage and just stood and quietly talked to him or a while. And much to my delight, he calmed down, and just sat at the front of the cage watching me with a puzzled expression on his face. Why wasn’t I afraid of him? Why didn’t I cower in fear like all the other people he’d so successfully scared off? Eventually I slowly unlatched the door to his cage and opened it slightly. Beast didn’t react. No hissing, growling, or lunging. What I felt coming from him, more than anything, was curiosity. I slowly opened the cage door wider, talking to him all the while. He stood up. I remained calm, trying very hard not to flinch. What happened next is not something I could have predicted in my wildest dreams. This big cat who had terrorized our entire staff, put his paws on my shoulders and buried his face in the crook of my neck and started a rumbling purr. He rubbed his face against mine, never once letting go of his “hug” around my shoulders.
I was eventually able to pick him up and move him to an empty cage while I cleaned his cage and gave him fresh food, water and a clean litterbox. I was able to put him back in his cage without any fuss. He kept rubbing up against the front of the cage even after I had closed the door, purring all the while. The Beast had been tamed.
He was never this calm with any of the other staff members after this experience, but he also wasn’t as aggressive anymore. I often wondered what changed for him that day. Was it that someone didn’t expect him to be aggressive, so he didn’t act aggressive? Had he just finally reached a point where he was so starved for human affection after a few days at the clinic that he realized how counterproductive his behavior was?
Things aren’t always what they seem. A fractious, aggressive cat may simply be starved for attention. A big, intimidating tom with a name that is meant to inspire fear may be a great big teddy bear. The lesson for me in this story was to trust my instincts. It may not have been the smartest choice on a rational level, but it felt like the right thing to do. Intuition never lies.