Growing Up with Cats Taught Me About Being Human


I essentially grew up as an only child. My much older half sister was way out of the house for my entire life, and the cousins that my family lived with, then later lived down the street from, were left behind when my mom, dad, and I moved to Texas. So it was just me.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. I grew up with three cat siblings who taught me the ways of the world. My mom, being the original Eccentric Cat Lady, treated us all rather similarly, thus the question of, “Mom, do you love Angel/Mew/Sammy more than you love me?” was not an uncommon one around our house.

Being a kid who came home to an empty house (well, empty of HUMANS) after school, it was just the kitties and me passing the hours between school and dinner time. My mom likes to say I was raised by cats, and while this usually elicits a laugh from most people, there’s a lot of truth to it.

I owe so much of the, uh, “functional” adult you see before you now to those cats. Sure I didn’t have to share my toys or much of my parent’s attention, but I learned what it means to respect life — “all creatures great and small” — from my kitty siblings.

I don’t have kids, and I don’t know if kids are part of my husband’s and my future, but I can’t help but think that parents who get rid of their cats or decide to forego pets when they have children are denying their kids a rich, vital learning experience. For an only child especially, cats provide a form of socialization that goes beyond verbal communication.

So here are a few of the lessons my kitty siblings taught me. When I find myself in difficult “human” situations in life, my mind and heart very often go back to those wonderful years with those cats.

1. They taught me compassion

Sammy was a huge silver tabby who came to us when his elderly mom couldn’t take care of him anymore due to failing health and the death of her husband.

As much as we loved him, he missed his home next door and took every chance he could get to run away and go back to his old home. He would sit outside of his first mom’s kitchen window and cry and cry to be let back in. Even now it breaks my heart to remember him staring into his old home, not understanding what was going on.

It was my job to retrieve him, bring him back to our house, and comfort him. Anyone who thinks that cats cannot mourn or be depressed has never seen a confused, homesick kitty.

For those first few weeks, I would sit on the floor with him and stroke him, talk to him, even cry with him, until he’d calm down and submit to eating something.

Sammy also taught me about loyalty, because after that experience of mourning together, he never left my side for almost 12 years. Of all the cats in our house he was “my cat,” and even when I was a teenager coming home at all hours of the night, he always waited for me to go to bed for the night.

2. They taught me about aging

Mew was our first cat. Mew got old. Mew had tumors in her throat. Mew had surgery and she became croaky and then mute. Old Mew scared me a little.

But because I was the first one home in the evening, it was necessary that I gave Mew her medicine. Stubborn, independent Mew needed my help, and no matter how much it freaked me out, I had a responsibility to her.

Mew was my first experience with aging, then death. I watched her go from a agile, wild kitty, with a spirit that survived dog attacks and infections, to a thin little bag of bones that could barely make it from one side of the bed to the other.

More than anything, Mew taught me what it meant to live on your own terms. Her body failed her, but her eyes stayed bright and determined up until the very end.

On her last day, she faded in and out of consciousness and we knew it was the end. She said her goodbyes to us, and we to her, a solemnity settling over the other kitties in the house. On the drive to the vet’s to end her pain, she quietly died.

Mew had come into our lives on her own terms — having chosen to appear on our doorstep one day politely asking for food, never begging, never demanding — and she left on her own terms. Not with a needle, but with her family, when SHE was ready.

3. They taught me about rivalry

All right, human sibling rivalry and kitty sibling rivalry aren’t exactly the same thing, but growing up there were indeed times when I would stand, mouth agape at my mother’s side, and whine, “That’s SO not fair!”

More often than not, those times involved Angel.

It would baffle me that my mom could be barking at me to do my homework or finish my dinner or take a shower, in that special, shrill tone she reserved for her human daughter, then turn on a dime and coo to chunky, little Angel what a good girl she was for simply flipping on her back to ask for “tummy rub rubs.”

To this day I swear that Angel, our youngest and sassiest cat, would glower at me from my mom’s loving embrace as I trudged off to do accomplish some awful business.

“She’s the favorite isn’t she?!” was something my bratty little prepubescent self would throw at my mom with zero irony, when I’d be ordered to bed while Angel smugly snuggled with my mom on the couch for Late Night with David Letterman.

This is just a short list. There were so many lessons I gleaned from those cats that when I reminisce about my childhood, I “hear” their voices and words almost as clearly as I hear those of my parents.

Thank you Sammy, Angel and Mew. It’s remarkable how three cats could teach me so much about what it is to be human.

Read more by Louise Hung:

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