Orange cat

The Hairy Chap

I was sitting at the dining room table, working on my computer, when my biggest cat Itchy The Fluffinator sauntered across my keyboard, slapping me in the face with his enormous feathery tail, before hopping down to perch upright on a stool and gaze at me without blinking. I wondered if he was demanding that I entertain him, but after a while he lost interest and strolled toward the kitchen, and at that moment my pen rolled off the table and skittered across the kitchen floor. Without a second’s hesitation, I asked him, “Itchy, could you get that for me?”, but he just kept strutting away. Well, what did I expect, anyway? It’s one of those moments that startle me out of a distracted dream state, a different reality in which I write about ocean trash and then people stop using plastics, and my cats retrieve the pen that I dropped on the floor, if I ask them nicely.

Cat sitting on pillow

Master of His Domain

Cat yawning

*laughs in cat*

A cat napping on files

The Bureaucat

Wow, I must have been really overworked and exhausted to make a slip like that. The veil between this reality and some other had thinned; maybe I was beginning to go insane. I wondered, does anyone else do this? Do distracted moms ask their dogs to pick up their kids at school or take out the trash? Does some overworked housewife ever ask her kids’ hamster to do the laundry? I imagined hundreds of people, all scratching their heads because their pets didn’t do their bidding and wondering what on earth they had been thinking in the first place. Oh, the cumulative disappointment, and the shocking realization that of course their animals had no idea what they were talking about, and the expectation of such behavior from their pets was, at best, ridiculous.

How much do our pets actually understand? We’ve all seen dogs, either on the internet or in real life, looking hilariously sheepish when their person comes home from work; they betray their dirty deeds with guilty sidelong looks. And sure enough, tipped off, one finds the pillaged garbage can, the half-defrosted dinner strewn across the floor, or the pile of excrement in a shadowy corner. Animals do understand what we like and dislike. They also learn to obey a number of commands, including “sit”, “stay”, and “heel”; police K9s, military dogs, and service dogs learn incredibly complex tasks. Some dogs have even been known to sniff out cancers, pressing their snout on the spot where they find the tumor. I actually know a woman whose dog suddenly started poking his muzzle under her arm; he couldn’t be stopped. It turned out the woman had a lymph tumor.

I’ve read articles stating that dogs can learn up to a hundred and fifty human words, and cats can learn about fifty. They know and respond to their names, even when I call my husband and he puts it on speaker so that I can talk to them. My cats certainly know “wet food” and “down” and “off the table” (though they ignore most words except those having to do with food). It is possible that they understand a lot more than commands. Perhaps my cat Angela gets her feelings hurt when I affectionately call her my “little fatty”, or Poppy has self-esteem issues because some family members have said she’s a little dumb. They may know a lot more about us than we realize. I read in a book by Simone de Beauvoir that the slave understands the master better than the master understands the slave. This makes sense, considering that the slave’s life depends upon correctly reading the master.

Orange cat

The Hairy Chap

Light orange cat outside


Orange cat sitting next to a squash

Poppy and the Squash

Gray cat with green eyes


In the spirit of understanding the one whose life depends on you, ask yourself, how many words of dog or cat do you know? I’ve learned that I should close and open my eyes very slowly when meeting a cat for the first time, and I understand that they rub their cheeks on our belongings as a claim of ownership: “This shoe is MINE! That table leg was rubbed by that orange imposter across the room, but I claim it now.” I’m flattered when a cat lets me rub his belly, an immense sign of trust. I do wonder why my big fluffy cat meows so much? I meow right back at him, but I have no clue what he’s saying to me.

Rosemary Gladstar wrote in the text of her herbalism course, “I marvel at the adaptability of creatures that can be removed from their mothers and siblings at such an early age, placed in a foreign environment, and be expected to learn the rigorous rules of living with human beings. Even the language spoken is foreign. Most of what animals do to show affection, hunger, anger, distress, is not allowed in our human culture. We don’t like animals licking, barking, meowing, sniffing, clawing or chewing, all natural tendencies. So the animal must find new ways to adapt, to learn new communication skills, to be happy in an environment that is almost, if not totally, foreign to all that is genetically natural to it. I don’t think I could do it. I would die of loneliness, yearning for the companionship of just one other human being to speak a common language with.”

Orange kitten sitting on a rug

Baby Poppy

This observation stunned me. I thought of the two-month-old kittens we’ve adopted, and the three-month-old bunny. Once we brought home twin kittens, so at least they had each other, but our other cats were singletons, and the same is true of the rabbit. I remember how our kitten Poppy cried constantly during her first days with us, and I imagined a toddler being torn from her parents and sent to live with giant creatures who don’t learn her language. How could Poppy know what was in store for her? All she knew was that she had lost her family. How utterly terrifying! And how heartbreaking! Gladstar’s statements make me really take a look at my animals and learn more respect for their ability to stay sane in an alien environment; I realize I need to try to understand their point of view.



a cat outside


a cat outside


two cats laying on the couch

Itchy and Scratchy AKA The Fluffinator and the Hairy Chap

a cat outside

The Hairy Chap

When I try to imagine how domestic cats experience the world, my stomach turns a bit. Most commercial Cat Food is utterly disgusting, consisting of the cheapest cuts of meat, lots of gristle, gmo grains, and other things I can’t identify or pronounce. Some companies actually use euthanized pets in their food, which is horrifying not only because it makes the eaters into cannibals (which cats are not), but also contains traces of powerful barbiturates used in euthanasia. The cynicism of it makes me shudder. I order non-gmo grain free soft food for our cats, but best would be to learn to make their food from scratch. I once tried switching them to a raw meat diet, but they wouldn’t eat it, so I gave it up. Dogs are a bit easier, as they are omnivores. Assuming one has a wholesome diet, one can give dogs a variety of good quality leftovers, which may be better for them than some of the commercial dog food brands out there. Rabbits are easy to feed. They eat carrot tops, dandelions, lettuces, kale, a few vegetables, parsley, and weeds. I just grab something from the yard, and our rabbit is happy. Cats, however, are more difficult, as they have specific needs; they are primarily meat eaters. We need to remember one thing; our pets are not garbage cans. They deserve the best we can give them.

Three cats being fed

Feeding Frenzy

I can improve the life of my pets. We all can. So often I hear people complaining or joking about how spoiled their dogs are, and how scornfully their cats look at them, but when I think deeply about it, I find that the idea that we spoil our animals is just a superficial fancy. How well are most cats and dogs actually living? I won’t even go into the huge number of animals that are abused. When I look into the eyes of any of my cats, I see a beautiful wild animal that is gracing me with his presence, adding something feral and mysterious and wondrous to my life. The idea of trusting a foreign-speaking creature, as a cat or small dog trusts me, is astonishing. We should be  compassionate with these marvelous beings and try to understand them a bit more. They have something to teach us. They are magical.

Black and white bunny

Grown Up Lola

Orange and white cat on a couch


A gray cat sitting on a shoe

Angela is well shoed

Orange cat sitting by a coffee maker

Poppy, keeper of the coffee