When I interviewed therapist and animal advocate Michelle Wolff, she had some really good advice on avoiding compassion burnout in the animal welfare world. She also had some valuable input on the responsibility of being a pet guardian. Her words and ideas intrigued me, so today I share some with you and add my own.
Wolff put for the question of whether everyone should have a cat. In my idealistic head, I quickly raced to, “Yes, of course. So many need homes. Cats are wonderful and fantastic. They are great companions.” And of course all of this is true. But Michelle brought up some issues that made me question my idealism. Maybe some people should not have cats — and she included more than obvious examples such as people who abuse animals. Here are some questions that illustrate her ideas.
It’s easy to assume cats think like us humans, and that their motivations are the same. This is usually not true. It benefits us to learn what motivates our cat’s behavior instead of incorrectly assuming that the cat has human-like intentions. Is your cat urinating outside his box? He’s not doing it to spite you. That would be assigning human motivation. Instead, this behavior could indicate a number of other issues. For example, my Kieran occasionally misses the box. Upon checking into this further, I found that he had arthritis in his hips and that climbing into the box, or crouching, probably caused pain. This is only one of many things that could manifest as “missing” in the litter box.
Are you willing to accept your cat is a cat, not a human, and let that guide your care? It’s hard — I’m probably the worst anthropomorphizer in the world. Perhaps I believe that if I assume my cat is a human, that we will have a bond that I understand. But Michelle’s insights helped me think about this differently. Michelle believes an ideal pet guardian has a “balance of empathy,” to be able to see the world through an animal’s eyes “without slipping too far in anthropomorphizing.”
What if you have a big heart but not the resources to care for a cat or multiple cats? I’m at my limit financially with the crew of cats we currently have. In fact, I’m probably a bit overextended, given that I like to feed them good cat food and keep up with veterinary care. When something big happens (such as major surgery to remove a fibrosarcoma), it can really send your finances into a tailspin if you’re not prepared. Can you afford one cat, and give that cat the best healthy life possible? Can you provide for the cat’s care? Can you afford as many cats as you’d like to have? Be honest with yourself.
Information abounds these days, from a variety of sources. If you’re searching for information about cats, make sure the sources are credible. Michelle says she has “learned more about cats in the last five years than I’ve learned about anything else.” She says that, “This makes me feel bad because I can now see mistakes I made with my earlier pets out of ignorance, but I’m hopeful that now that I know better, I can do better and help spread the word to others.” As our knowledge continues to grow, says Michelle, “always be open to learning new ways to interact with our cats and other pets.”
Are you ready for a cat?
If you take a good, honest look at yourself, and find that you’re not ready to have a cat, or to add more cats to your home, perhaps working with cats (such as volunteering at a shelter, or working with an experienced trap-neuter-return group, for example) can help you get your “cat fix” and also help you learn about cats in the process.
What would be your criteria about whether a person should or should not be a pet guardian?
More by Catherine Holm:
About Catherine Holm: Cat Holm is the author of The Great Purr, the cat-themed memoir Driving with Cats: Ours for a Short Time, and a contributor to Rescued: The Stories of 12 Cats, Through Their Eyes. She’s also a yoga instructor. Cat love living in nature and being outside every day, even in winter. She is mom to six adorable cats, all of them rescues.