Pets That Don’t Fulfill Your Expectations of Their Anticipated Role

Dr. Laci Schaible

Today I have no advice to offer, only my thoughts to share. Perhaps I am not supposed to have these thoughts, perhaps the suitable pet parent would never wish their pet was something they aren't, but my thoughts still exist. I write to you not as a pet expert or veterinarian, but reach out to you to see if you have had any experience with this or advice to offer. I can't be the only one this happens to.

When we adopt pets, most of us have an idea of what type of relationship we would like to have with that pet. Of course, it will never be exactly what we envision, but sometimes a pet's temperament turns out to be not what we were looking for. Each instance is unique, and luckily my “surprise cat” is not a danger to anyone where I would have to reconsider her place in our home. However, I do know that sadly this too happens, sometimes even despite all the training, behavior therapy, and happy pills in the world.

I remember having a conversation with my husband, and fellow veterinarian, not too long ago about why anyone would have a cat that they couldn't hold. We had undoubtedly both had our share of clients over the years that confessed they couldn't hold their cats. Neither of us could understand this. We had the most wonderful and affectionate relationships with our cats. I thought half the reason of having a cat was unlimited snuggles and purr sessions.

Fast forward several years and allow me to introduce Mackenzie, a feral kitten we took in with a horrific case of ringworm. Mackenzie was the first pet we adopted as a married couple, and she truly healed our hearts after losing our pets the year prior (all three within 12 months; it was a devastating year in which we almost swore off pets entirely).

When you haven't had a kitten for years, you forget what joy and laughter they bring to your heart. Mackenzie was no different. She melted away our pain instantly with her purrs and she seemed to be just as thankful for us as we were for her. She was a normal, friendly kitten who loved affection and human interaction. But as she started to grow up, she became shy and now, at two years old, we can hardly touch her.

Having a cat that won't let you catch her, much less pet her, is a new experience for me. I recall the now-hilarious scene of my husband diving across the floor to catch Mackenzie to induce vomiting after she ingested a single Tylenol capsule—a deadly mistake for a cat. Literally, he dove and slid across the bare wood floor (while taking out a couple couches and tables) in an attempt to catch her, which he successfully did. It must have been traumatizing for her, but it was an emergency situation that called for desperate measures. We were able to induce vomiting before any damage was done, but my point is that this is the extreme level we must go to if we want to catch her.

Our relationship with her is a frustrating one. On one hand, she is a very easy, low-maintenance cat. She requires very little beyond food, water, a flushed toilet (not a typo), routine grooming and medical care, but I find myself wishing she gave a little back. Petting her is a challenge and picking her up is near impossible, unless you are in a cat scratch-proof suit of armor. Perhaps we did something wrong with her socialization as a kitten, but she wasn't the first kitten for either of us. She wasn't even the first calico kitten with ringworm—between the two of us we've had our share of felines and all their finicky behaviors.

You can follow the guidelines of how to select a puppy or kitten, and sometimes you just end up with a surprise. We do love her. Our other cat is incredibly needy and affectionate, so sometimes it’s nice to have an easy kid who demands very little. But I do wish that she would show us some sign of happiness or love. Though I know she doesn't hate us, sometimes she makes us feel that way when we enter the room, she sees us, her pupils morph into black saucers, and she darts away.

She will be part of our family for all of her life; we have never considered anything else. We adopted her and she is ours. She is just not the cat we were looking for. I have had patients, though few, who suffered from tendencies for aggression and were a true threat to others. Luckily, our Mackenzie is nothing like this, but I now can begin to empathize with the people with those pets. Before I wondered, perhaps from a narrow background, why keep a pet that is a danger to yourself and others when therapy, behaviorists, and veterinarians all have failed to make your pet a safe and suitable human companion? Now I understand those people feel a deep obligation, as that is their pet.

Perhaps Mackenzie will one day open up and show us some trust. Whether she does or not is really beside the point. You can choose your pet, true, but you never can know what you are going to get—medically, temperament, and appearance. You can follow all the expert advice and still get a wild card. Perhaps I still need to learn the lesson to stop trying to change those around me to what I want them to be and just let them be who they are. 

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