Keep the Claws in the Paws

When he arrived a few years ago, he was barely 9 ounces but already close to 6 weeks old. Every rib was visible, and where rib met veterbrae was frighteningly obvious. He had ticks, fleas, ear mites. Dehydrated, starving, but still, looking me right in the eyes.

Our vet tried to be clear with me. This kitten was starving, or more accurately past starving and in serious trouble. “Kittens like this sometimes just can’t make it. He’s in pretty bad shape, Suzanne.” I nodded my understanding, and asked what could be done about the fleas. They were everywhere, making my skin crawl as they crawled around the kitten’s eyes and lips and ears.

The vet’s answer dismayed me: “Let’s see if he’s still alive tomorrow, and then we’ll worry about the fleas.” A boost of sub-qu fluids, some ear mite medicine and a shot of antibiotics was all we could add to the food and support needed.

Home we went, and I carefully hand combed the fleas out, picked off the ticks, gently cleaned the ears. Set up a crate, added a heat lamp, built a soft bed, and steeled myself to providing small amounts of food throughout the next few days on an hourly basis. It is so hard to restrict a starving animal to just a half teaspoon of food in each serving, but I knew that starving animals have severe physiological shifts that must be dealt with carefully. Too much “kindness” in the way of food, and I could literally kill him instead of helping him.

Amazingly, the little guy we named Marco never hesitated – he grabbed his chance at life with all four paws, and never looked back. Never once did he develop diarrhea or any GI upset so common to starvation cases. He just ate one half teaspoon after another, and then more, and more, and he kept eating.

Fast forward to March 1, 2013. Marco is now 3 years old, and far from starving, he’s a bit pudgy. I now restrict his food to keep him from turning into a little pumpkin cat. He has singlehandedly trained all 11 dogs in the house to be respectful of cats, something that a few had forgotten as we had quite a few years without a house cat. To our delight, he also has taken it upon himself to train each litter of puppies. We are not quite sure how he knows exactly when he is needed, but he chooses to make a considerable effort to climb the gate into the room where the puppies are. And then the lessons begin.

Our single puppy litter is easier for master teacher Marco than previous litters have been. He is watchful but tolerant, returns friendly greetings and investigations with head bumps, but can also use those little cat feet to bap-bap-bop-bop an errant dog or puppy faster than the eye can follow. Little Kestrel is surprised by the speed of the cat who otherwise moves with slow, almost insolent grace. She has learned dog/cat lesson #1 – never underestimate the speed of a cat.

I’m so grateful to this orange cat for what he can instill and install in our puppies, who go out in the world with a notion that respecting cat is a wise choice indeed. I do not know how or why he undertakes these lessons or how he knows the puppies are ready for them. But I admire his teaching style.

But it is far past the benefits to the dogs where Marco offers his greatest lesson. This time, the lesson is for me. I know that those velvety paws contain razor sharp claws. And many hapless mice and fiercely attacked toys have demonstrated that Marco can indeed bring those claws to bear in painful ways. But for the puppies, he relies on perfectly calibrated taps or bap-bop-bop-baps! to make his point. Sometimes, he’ll growl under his breath, but only when an unblinking glare of annoyance hasn’t done the trick. Rarely does he use his weaponry.

Learning how to “keep the claws in the paws” is a lesson I study often. While I do not wish to hurt people around me, sometimes I do. In retrospect, I can see that I chose to use my claws when there was no need. Studying Marco, I see a beautiful orange cat, a strong life force, a gift from the animal gods, a beloved friend, and a teacher who teaches by living the lesson.

NOTE: Sadly, Marco died in his sleep a few years after I wrote this post. We will always miss this beautiful soul.