Friday, March 27, 2009

Housepets: It's Them or Us

Speaking as someone who knows exactly the range of squalling sounds my two cats make when they're stepped on, this news is a bracing reminder that more is at stake than hilarious cat-in-distress sounds:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that every year, more than 86,000 fall injuries are caused by pets. Dogs are the biggest culprits, causing 88 percent of the injuries. Cats cause 11.7 percent of the falls, according to the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. ... "Many of them occurred while people were walking their dog or chasing either their dog or cat," said Judy Stevens, an epidemiologist with the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.
The pets will destroy us all -- it is a question of when rather than if.

I will restrict the following remarks to cats; it's an enduring mystery to me how people manage to keep housepets that chew and defecate indiscriminately, vocalize at all hours, and cannot be trusted to manage their own food intake. Dog, bird, chimp, and rabbit owners have somehow mastered this, so they obviously don't need my advice.

What's a cat owner-proprietor to do? The article offers three suggestions, each poorer than the last:
• Put your animal in another room or different area of the house before carrying groceries or heavy things into the house. This will protect both the animal and human, so the dog or cat won't knock you off balance, and you will avoid stepping on an animal while distracted.

• Keep stairs and hallways clear of clutter.

• If you get up frequently in the dark, use night-lights so your path is lighted and you can see your pet. Also consider removing the animal from the bedroom to prevent stepping on it.
No, no, and no.

The first suggestion sounds very inconvenient. I have to conduct a preliminary cat patrol before carrying my heavy things? I'm already buying the cat food, refreshing the water supply, cleaning out the cat box, and providing for medical care. These creatures are already suckling at my teat, and now I have to make extra trips to and from the garage? Not in this life.

As for the second, the same objections apply. Besides which, I will keep my own counsel with respect to the degree and kind of clutter in my stairways and hallways.

The last borders on the insulting. I have a gray cat that almost perfectly blends in with the carpet, and a black cat that blends into the darkness (visual and spiritual). I refuse to try sleeping in the kind of movie set lighting that would be necessary to illuminate these beasts in the dead of night.

What then? The key is to perfect a cat-sweeping walk in which your feet never get high enough to come down on the cat from above. Instead, any cat foolish enough to be in the way is kicked at a gentle horizontal. So long as you're moving at a moderate, indoors-appropriate pace, this kick won't do any serious harm, although I will recommend an exaggerated kicking motion for the first few weeks with your new cat, which will serve to show the cat the natural consequences of placing itself in your path.

Which brings me, at last, to the delicate question of culpability. Cats possess a definite but rudimentary moral sense. Evidence? Well, does your cat tear chunks out of the sofa while you're in the room? No, and yet the chunks go missing, and the cat hacks up bits of fabric that resemble partially digested couch fabric. Does your cat immediately jump down from the kitchen counter seemingly every time you enter the kitchen? Naturally. And yet it never seems to jump to the counter while you're watching. These illustrate the fact that the cat knows how to calcuate right and wrong, it just erroneously counts your presence/absence as relevant to the calculation. It's a common enough mistake in moral reasoning, by no means limited to cats.

The point is this: no small thanks to keen low-light vision and extremely sharp hearing, the cat knows where you are. It tracks your whereabouts at all times and with great precision. It knows how heavy and large and graceless you are because you've probably tripped over it several times, and because like every other animated object it observes, it constantly assesses whether it can successfully hunt, kill, and eat you. The cat is obliged to stay out of your way as much as vice-versa.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Since I'm not a "pet person" my demise will doubtless be caused by something other than cats.