What I learned from my cat

When my wife, Gale, severely broke her leg a couple of months back, requiring her to put no weight on it at all, I was pressed into a number of household chores that heretofore had been her province.

One such task was the feeding and care of our 14-year-old cat, Beamish. We adopted him, and his now-deceased brother, Guinness, when they were both 3. As in many households, the job of feeding them, cleaning the litterbox, etc., fell to Gale, with me only occasionally performing these jobs when she was indisposed.

But now I've been feeding Beamish: not twice a day but three times a day, because he's showing signs of kidney failure and eats smaller meals. It's not unexpected in an older cat, and with a special diet and luck, we might keep him going for a couple more years.

In the old days, BMHTFC (before Mike had to feed cats), I'd hear Gale in the kitchen, with Beamish cheering her on, and then I'd see him waddling with his sumo-like gait in front of her as they made their way to the laundry room where he eats, him casting anxious glances over his shoulder to be sure she was following with the food dish. Generally, I'd look their way and then return to my TV program, or to a magazine.

All that has changed, and I've learned a lot more about our cat. In the process I think I've learned about myself, as well as about humans in general. Likely this needs some explanation.

A typical morning finds me in the kitchen, Beamish at my heels, caterwauling in hopes of getting fed. He should know, however, that after 11 years of the routine he doesn't get fed until after I've taken my breakfast. But somehow that doesn't seem to have soaked in.

I make some toast and get out my vitamins. As I shake the tablets from the bottle, Beamish stops whining and goes to lie down. He understands by the sound of those vitamin bottles exactly where we are in the routine.

After breakfast and the morning paper, I wash the dishes. That's his next signal. When he hears the faucet, he again materializes at my feet. One of the cat's joys is being lifted to the counter to rub against me as I do the dishes. He's never been cat-agile when it comes to running, jumping or walking a tight rope, and now, at 14, a leap to the counter is out of the question.

When the dishes are done he gets fed, preceding me to the laundry room, his rear legs splaying sidewise like a tiny bovine. We're pretty sure he has abnormal hip joints.

Here's where it gets interesting-or rather, where I think I've made a discovery, with a little help from Pavlov. Thirty minutes later, his belly full, Beamish is lying comatose somewhere in the house; but if I walk into the kitchen and turn on the faucet, he's at my feet acting as if he hasn't eaten in days.

He thinks it's time to eat based on the sounds he's heard. Apparently he's oblivious to the fact that he's just been fed. He will repeat this process as many times as I go to the kitchen and turn on the faucet.

I've watched this process numerous times a day for many days, and it's got me to thinking. We humans, who take such pride in the evolution of our superior brain, aren't so different from Beamish; we have our own Pavlovian responses.

On a visual level, if we see an attractive person, we might stare or at least sneak a glance. If someone cuts us off on the road we might explode in anger-it's not a planned response, nor are we thinking of the consequences.

On an audible level, an alarm clock goes off and we go into autopilot; sirens wail and we pull the car over; we hear the hiss of an espresso machine as we walk through a mall and we want coffee.

Such sounds trigger a reaction in us because we've been conditioned by the sights and sounds in our lives-just like Beamish.

It's true that our large brains have made it possible for us to travel to the stars, invent computers and drive down freeways at speeds once inconceivable. And yet we have more in common with the animals of the world than we may be aware of-or care to acknowledge.

By observing animals more closely, we may gain a better understanding of who we are and why we do what we do. And we might just become a better species for the effort.

At the very least, we can try to understand our more negative reactions, and work to change them.

Mike Davis is a freelance writer living in Magnolia. Write him at mageditor@nwlink.com.[[In-content Ad]]