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Hell's Kitten: Learning to Love Our Play-Aggressive Cat

Comet throws herself fully into life -- also onto my legs, my toes, the top of the refrigerator. It's hard not to admire her passion.

 |  Aug 30th 2012  |   9 Contributions


"Comet! Damn it, no! Comet, get down from there! Comet --- yowch! COMET!"

These words probably come out of my mouth five times a day. Aimed at the cat who's on the spice rack, or who has gotten into the liquor cabinet, or who has attached herself to my leg with all four sets of claws and is hanging on like it's the last lifeboat off the Titanic. Aimed at the cat who, as I have acknowledged to the world, is my favorite.

Comet on the spice rack.

I have never known a cat like Comet. Throughout my life, I've had 16 cats. I've been close friends with countless more: office cats, family cats, friends' cats, neighbors' cats, lovers' cats. And I have never known a cat who was this disruptive, this adventurous, this much of a troublemaker, this adept at getting into places she absolutely should not be, this fearless, this intractably bitey, this frantically demanding of attention. I'm used to having to rearrange my life and my space around my cats, and having to tailor these rearrangements for the specific cats who are in my life. But I have never had a cat who has been anywhere near as high-maintenance as Comet. Not even in the same ballpark.

Comet is the reason that every flat surface in our house less than five feet off the ground had to be cleared. Comet is the reason we had to move all our breakables off the lower shelves and onto the higher ones, and then off the higher shelves and onto the fridge, and then off the fridge and onto the tallest kitchen cabinets. And she clearly has her eye on those cabinets.

Comet in a dresser drawer.

Comet is the reason we have to clip our cats' claws every single week. Comet is the one who, when she wants to get your attention, doesn't meow, or give you headbutts, or weave in and out between your feet. Comet is the one who, when she wants to get your attention, takes a FLYING LEAP at your leg, and clings to it with all four sets of claws. If she only gets your attention by biting your feet, she's having a good day.

Comet is the one who leaped two feet off the ground to knock the refrigerator magnet letters off the fridge and onto the floor, so she could play with them. And then, when we moved the letters higher up on the fridge to get them out of her reach, found a way to jump to the top of the fridge. And then ate the letter T and barfed it up.

Comet on the laptop -- she likes cords.

Comet is the reason I have to charge my laptop in a closed-off room. She's the reason I had to buy four different laptop chargers. Comet thinks all cords are pretty interesting, but she thinks laptop chargers are like paté de foie gras. And yes, we tried spraying that bitter stuff on the cord. Comet took one sniff, pondered for a moment, and went, "CHOMP!" She loved it. She was like, "You know, I think this actually improves it. The charger cord was delicious before, but it was perhaps a tad insipid. The bitter spray gives it a piquancy, adds a layer of complexity that really elevates it."

Wait. Make that five laptop chargers. I am not kidding. She was just in the same room as my laptop charger for less than a minute, and chewed it as I was writing this very piece. DAMMIT, COMET!

Comet is a challenge.

Honestly, learning how to love this cat has been a challenge. It wasn't any work at all to love her -- she's a ridiculously lovable cat. Wildly entertaining, if nothing else. But learning how to love her -- learning how to manage her, how to relate to her, how to give her at least part of what she wants, how to for criminy's sweet sake get her to stop biting my feet already -- that has not been easy. After the first few weeks of adopting her, we began the desperate Google search for answers.

And when we found the SPCA's PDF about "play-aggressive cats," it was like all the tumblers fell into place at once. Just seeing the phrase "play aggression" -- a phrase my wife, Ingrid, and I had never heard before -- gave us a huge jolt of both reassurance and recognition. Oh. Yes. That's our cat.

Comet and her sisters have an understanding. They're cats.

No, she wasn't being mean. We didn't think so. She just needs more stimulation and interaction and tussling during playtime than most cats. And she doesn't understand that we're not like her sisters, and she can't bite us to get our attention or play with us.

Play aggressive.

Once we got that, it became a whole lot easier.

It's not just that the techniques recommended by the SPCA have been helpful in managing her. Although they have been, enormously. Especially the part about making sure she gets plenty of playtime every day, and the part about winding her down gradually, and the part about giving her a brief time-out from attention and then redirecting her play from my feet, OUCH, dammit to toys. But even better was how this information helped us understand her. It helped enormously just to know that this behavior wasn't unheard of, that it was reasonably well-understood and not pathological. And it's helped me understand Comet's personality and what drives her. Which has helped me identify with her more, and even admire her. Which has helped me learn how to love her better.

Comet in the laundry basket.

For one thing, Comet and I have more in common than I sometimes care to admit. As I wrote in "Favorites: The Dirty Secret of Cat Ownership": "How is it fair that I got Comet: the high-energy, high-maintenance, perpetually-in-motion sensation junkie with a near-constant need for attention and ... oh. Right. Never mind. I totally got the cat I deserve." Comet is a cat who can't bear to be still, who always wants to be in motion, who has a nearly insatiable desire for novelty, who always wants something to be happening. I can totally relate.

We have a lot in common. And there is a lot to admire in her. Her courage, her curiosity, her adventurous spirit. I often wish I had a little more of that in me. Even when she first made it to the top of the fridge, she was still looking up, trying to figure out how to get to the moldings over the kitchen door. Like Alexander, looking for new worlds to conquer. I often wish she were a little less fearless -- she should be afraid of a hot stove with the burner still going, dammit, Comet, no! -- but when she takes a flying leap onto the top of a bookshelf that she's never been on before, and then looks around proudly like she's queen of the world, I feel emboldened to take a few more flying leaps in my own life.

Comet on the refrigerator.

Plus, it's hard not to love a cat who loves you so much. Comet is an unholy terror, but she's also one of the sweetest kitties I've known. This is the one thing that the SPCA document got wrong about Comet. It says, "They may be minimally affectionate and are usually more interested in play than petting." Boy, howdy, is that not true for Comet. It's true that she likes to play more often than she likes to snuggle. But she likes to snuggle an awful lot, and when she's in a snuggly mood, she is one of the sweetest, lovey-est cats I've known. She doesn't just sit pertly on your lap. She rolls around on your lap, and butts her head against your hand demanding more petting, and purrs and purrs and purrs and purrs and purrs. She's not just lovey with us, either. She will happily spend all day cuddling and tussling and tussle-cuddling with her littermate, Talisker. 

And she follows me around the house pretty much all day. Often capering around hilariously to get my attention. It's like I wrote in my favorites piece: "I don't think we picked our favorite cats. I think they picked us." As Ingrid often reminds me when Comet is driving me up a tree: Whenever Comet looks at me, she has little cartoon hearts floating around her head.

As I do with her.

Comet in her favorite place.

Comet throws herself into life headfirst. Whatever she's doing, she does full-on. Whether she's leaping onto the bookshelf like a rocket, or rolling around on my lap like a happy dog in dead leaves, or launching herself onto my leg and hanging on like a barnacle, Comet lives her life to the fullest.

It's hard not to admire that. And it's impossible not to love it.

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