Her beloved husband Ben had just been buried, when the very next day, deep in her sadness, Bobbie Banks was handed the gift of a tiny handful of white fur, a Bichon she would name Maggie. Four years later, she calls “Miss Maggie” a “godsend” in her life. “She means everything to me,” she said. Maggie, a “rotten to the core” and affectionate lapdog, “is as close to being human as a dog can be. We talk about everything, and she never gives me any backtalk,” Bobbie laughed.
It was a transformation with which most dog owners will enthusiastically relate, this writer for sure. Our dogs, two now-deceased German shepherds and our shelter border collie Sonny, taught me unconditional love, patience, loyalty, the truth in nonverbal communication, forgiveness and responsibility in ways exceeding upbringing and lessons learned from human interaction. They have filled our homes with all-pervasive love. But there’s a warning that comes with the way our dogs love us without restraint: “Don’t accept your dog’s admiration as conclusive evidence that you are wonderful.”
One’s ego can be checked by the simple addition of a cat or cats, as happened in this household when we were adopted by two orphan gray kittens: “In order to keep a true perspective on one’s importance, everyone should have a dog that will worship him and a cat that will ignore him” (Pamela Wallin). You’ll make a mistake if you think your loving touches, gentle words and faithful attention to a feeding routine will insure you get their attention when you want to snuggle down for a nap or sit by the fire with a sleek bundle in your lap. They’ll have other plans.
Actually, our cats are far more affectionate that I ever imagined, but their affection runs hot and cold. Their habits and schedules can be predictable, but they are guilty of mixed signals as to their fluid mood swings. For example, the girl cat will prostrate herself on the floor before us appearing relaxed and wanting a belly rub. Well, sometimes she does, but the pose can also mean she’s upset and ready to strike. Just count my puncture wounds.
Cat behaviorists say “meow” means different things: it’s either hello, a command for food or an open door, an objection, an announcement (as in “here’s your mouse!”) or the cat is just talking to itself. Purring usually indicates contentment, but it can also mean the cat is feeling sick. (Look out for hairballs!) And you might be familiar with the look a cat gets when its pupils appear restricted: It can mean either “I’m content” or “I’m about to go on the offense.” Tricky characters, these cats are, but there’s one signal that can’t be taken more than one way: The faster the tail is moving, the madder the cat is.
A little bit mad is what you might become when you’re at the computer and a deadline looms. Just about that time, your cat will decide he or she wants some time on the keyboard and will parade back and forth across the keys, totally obliterating whatever you might have been writing. I’ve occasionally had that as an excuse when this column failed to make deadline, but it sounds, true or not, as ridiculous as “the dog ate my homework.”
We learned the relationship between dogs and cats isn’t as comically portrayed. “Fighting like cats and dogs” quickly conveys the image of two opposites duking it out, but it never happened in this household. After Sonny got over wanting to carry them around by their heads when they were little, he settled into the resigned role of the older brother. He bears up rather well when the little girl cat rubs him up one side and down the other, but for the look of sheer embarrassment he turns on me. A border collie’s playbook does not include playing boy toy to a little gray cat.
Just for fun, I looked up some famous cat and dog owners. President Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain and Sir Winston Churchill loved cats; Sir Isaac Newton invented the cat flap so as not to be disturbed at work. There’s even a list of people who abhorred cats, and what a line-up: Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Mussolini and Hitler.
Famous dog owners include President and Mrs. John Kennedy and their German shepherds, a fondness shared by Hitler, unfortunately. Curiously, Gen. George Custer owned a greyhound and should have taken some tips about fast get-aways.
And dig this: President George Washington kept a pack of eight hounds, among them Mopsey, Searcher, Taster, Tipler, Vulcan and Sweetlips. Yes, Sweetlips.
Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics. She chairs the Newton Advisory Committee.