Some cats are easy to love. Friendly, affectionate, and playful, they capture your heart and make you want to turn backflips for them.
Our tuxedo cat, Petey, is not one of those creatures. Painfully shy and afraid of humans, he doesn’t like to be petted, and he gets attention by yowling to wake us up for his morning serving of cat treats. Long ago we decided we’d do our best by him, no matter how difficult his personality was. After all, we picked him out; it was not the other way around.
My husband and I adopted Petey (aka "Mr. Peabody") from the SPCA six years ago, after one of our four cats passed away of old age. We’ve had four cats since we married 15 years ago — not an easy number to manage, but worth it in light of the love we’ve always received in return — and were ready to adopt again.
Petey, whose shelter name was Frito, was a 4-month-old black-and-white kitten who had been found on the streets of nearby Pleasanton, CA. He had not been feral, and was very snuggly and sweet when we picked him up from his cage at the shelter. I remember holding him over my shoulder while he buried his face in my shirt, purring all the while. After less than an hour with him we felt sure he would make a lovely companion, so we brought him home to acclimate to our house and his new sisters and brothers: Gracie, Oscar, and Sam.
It wasn’t long before we realized Petey as a growing kitten would not be as cuddly and sweet-natured as he had been in the shelter. Many times I reached over to pet him, thinking he would enjoy being stroked if he just gave it a try. But each time I extended my hand, he would get up and move just out of my reach. Okay, I thought, he must just need to stretch his legs. I’ll try again. The second time I tried, he would get up again and sit down just beyond where I could touch him. After many times of trying to pet him it finally dawned on me: He doesn’t want to be petted. So, I stopped trying.
Petey and my husband got along pretty well, and he did enjoy the company of our other kitties. As he grew, it was not unusual to find him wrestling in the living room with one of his siblings, or snuggled on the bed next to one of them. He was so skittish, though, that we couldn’t get him into a carrier to take him to the vet. The minute he saw one of us coming, he would bolt and hide under the bed or some other unreachable place. We decided the best plan for Petey would be to leave him alone and let him enjoy his best possible life in our home with Oscar, Gracie, and Sam.
Then, on the morning of my birthday, two years after we adopted Petey, he urinated on our bed. We had a lot going on that day, so as soon as I realized what happened I pulled off all the linens and replaced them with fresh sheets, blanket, and a comforter and vowed to puzzle about this later. What could have caused him so suddenly to take this behavioral turn? When my husband and I arrived home that evening, we found Petey had urinated on the bed again.
My husband recalled that he had seen Petey scratching quite a bit the last few days, so he applied Advantage to him as well as our other three cats in case he had fleas. Sure enough, that did the trick, and the urination behavior stopped immediately. For Petey, all was as well as it could be for the next four years.
Then it started again. I walked into our bedroom after getting ready one morning and smelled the familiar stench of cat pee. The bed was warm and wet, and Petey was nearby. I pulled off the sheets, put everything into a wash of hot water and bleach, and once again began to think through the possible causes. Was the litter box dirty? Was Petey upset about something? Did he have fleas? Was he sick? We wanted to take him to the vet but knew how upset that would make him, which could mean an increase in urinating. We were stumped.
As we thought through the causes of his behavior and did our best to address them, the urination continued. Twice a day for two weeks he would empty his bladder on our bed, sometimes while I was still in it. I ordered a waterproof sheet and laid it on the bed so I wouldn’t have to change the bedding each time he wet it, but still ÔÇö this was not a habit we could live with for very long.
In a desperate moment, I called the SPCA and inquired about returning Petey. I knew that the shelter would take back any animal it had adopted out, and I never thought I would want to take one of my pets back. But we were at the end of our rope.
The person I spoke to at the SPCA was kind and said yes, the group would accept Petey, though I needed to know that because his behavior could be considered severe and might not be treatable, there was a good possibility he would be put down. With tears in my eyes I said I understood the situation and made an appointment to return Petey.
It took days of plotting to get Petey into a carrier for his return trip. We were sick about what was probably ahead, but we knew we couldn’t continue to live with a cat that peed on our bed over and over.
A few days before the fateful day, I received a call from the SPCA with a proposition: Would we be willing to work with a behaviorist, at the SPCA’s expense, to see if Petey’s urination behavior could be stopped?
Yes! I told the caller, we most definitely would.
So we booked an appointment with renowned animal behaviorist Jeannine Berger. She and her staff observed Petey for five days. After checking him medically, watching him interact with other cats — noting that he did not urinate outside of the litter box once — then testing various types of litter, she came back to us with a diagnosis: Petey had apparently changed his litter preference, and we should now use unscented, clumping clay litter that was at least three inches deep.
In addition to this, we should place a litter box near the bed, which we were then to move gradually closer to the rest of our litter boxes until he stabilized. We agreed to try this plan and brought Petey home.
We jokingly said he had been at the Betty Ford Center for Cats, because he returned to us a completely rehabilitated cat.
It’s been five months, and Petey has not urinated on our bed once. In addition to the change in urination behavior he has generally become a much more relaxed and happy kitty: Just yesterday he ate treats out of my hand and let me pet him on the head and belly, something he never liked before his stint with Dr. Berger.
We made a donation to the SPCA to thank its staff members for the expert care and counseling they provided us, and we look forward to many more enjoyable years with our cats. We believe Petey is looking forward to those years, too.
We’re looking for purrsonal stories from our readers about life with their cats. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org — we want to hear from you!