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When Your Cats Don't Get Along: Author Brenda Kwon Discusses Life with her "Catty" Gir

I’ve never liked the word “catty.” It’s always felt sexist to me. I mean, men can compete, insult each other, and fight physically. So why, when women do it, are they likened to cats hissing, scratching, and biting? “Catty” is one of those words that can launch me into a lecture about the way language reveals bias—in this case, in the area of gender.

And that is exactly why I’m so conflicted right now.

Because I live with two cats who more or less hate each other. And they’re both female.

Mila and I found each other outside a mall restaurant where she charmed the workers into feeding her chicken and sausage every day. She wasn’t part of a colony, and she lived in a little nest she’d made on a tree branch. Her marbled black, grey, and tan markings combined with her coy and playful way were purely enchanting, and it wasn’t uncommon to see small crowds cooing over her. The story was that several people had tried to catch her, but no one succeeded; that is, until three friends and I made it our mission to give her a home and earned her trust after six consecutive days of visits, wet food, cat treats, and dodging mall security.

Given her loner lifestyle, I should’ve expected that Mila would love being the one and only cat. No one else got my attention, and that’s exactly how she liked it. We lived peacefully together until four years later, I brought home another rescue: Patch, a black male stray. Although at first Mila was less than accepting, she seemed to make up her mind fairly quickly to tolerate Patch and forgive me for ruining her set-up. Okay, I thought—this isn’t so bad. Mila just never had the opportunity to have a friend.

After Patch passed a few years later, there was Maddie, a one-eyed orange tabby kitten who’d been terribly abused. Since Mila hadn’t had much of a problem with Patch, I didn’t think Maddie’s joining us would be a big deal. But one sniff of the new kid and Mila was vexed. Indignant and betrayed, she hissed dramatically before slinking into a corner to sulk. The next thing I knew, Maddie, began retributive yeowling, spitting and clawing in Mila’s direction.

This was going to be interesting.

There’s a lot of great advice out there about how to introduce cats, my favorite being a YouTube video from “Cat Daddy” Jackson Galaxy, the cat whisperer from the show My Cat From Hell. He advises keeping cats separated by a door so that they can smell but not yet see each other. After a period of time, humans can incorporate “site swapping”/switching the cats’ areas briefly, then work toward simultaneous feeding together on opposite sides of the door, visual introduction (baby gates are great for this), and play therapy. His is a solid approach that may challenge your time and patience, but it works. It’s tempting to shortcut and rush the process—who doesn’t want to see a pride of kitties together in the house?—but I can’t emphasize enough how important it is not to do that.

Think of how you’d feel if one day, against your will, some random person showed up in your house to live with you forever. You’d need some time, too.

With Mila and Maddie, I did everything by the book. Twice in fact, since that’s sometimes necessary. Given that, I was discouraged when the hissing and marking continued. I incorporated pheromones and calming essences. Still no progress. The barest proximity to each other upset them both and they’d start acting…well, catty. Their responses were theatric, as if each were in a post-apocalyptic fight to the death, but without ever having to touch each other. Even more frustrating was that Basie, a senior black male cat, joined our household with little to no reaction from either of the girls. Half the time, he’d watch the tension with the expression of a bored teenager. It was the girls who were being…”catty”.

I was left with no other option: Mila and Maddie would need to be permanently separated. Maddie could have my rather large bedroom, and Mila, the rest of the house. But Basie enjoyed free reign and got confused when confronted with closed doors, so I had to experiment with rigs that were mere suggestions of barriers, like empty cardboard boxes and low baby gates. The set-up was far from ideal, but what choice did I have?

The thing about slow progress—you can either give up, or you can take advantage of the opportunity to watch closely and learn. While everyone was adjusting to the new arrangement, I started noticing that Mila would become much more affectionate with me when other cats were nearby. I wasn’t sure why I hadn’t really seen it before—probably because I was too busy making sure no one would slash anyone else—but it made perfect sense. In Mila’s eyes, I was her human. Hers. Alone. It was just “Mila” until she became “Mila and Brenda.” She didn’t do that with just anyone; she did it with me. And I repaid her by allowing “derelicts” to move in and invade her precious space, her upgraded nest.

Then, there was Maddie. Whenever the bedroom door was closed and we were alone, she pranced happily like a baby deer, but the moment the door opened, she hid beneath the bed and locked her gaze on the doorway in case something unpleasant was headed her way. She’d been abused, abandoned, then taken into a foster home with a host of other dominant cats before she chose me. My house was supposed to be her sanctuary, her safe and comfortable forever home. Things would have been perfect were it not for the large, hissing thing that promised trouble after trouble had been aplenty. No wonder she wanted Mila out of the picture.

So the solution became abundantly clear: Make sure both cats are happy and loved.

I started giving lots of dedicated time and affection to Mila, assuring her that she was still my number one girl. I spent more time in the living room cuddling and napping with her on her beloved flannel blanket. I showered her with her favorite salmon treats whenever she caught sight of Maddie but didn’t flatten her ears or coil up for an attack. And I sang her the song I’d made up for her when she came home with me: “Mila Is a Punk Rocker,” not quite by the Ramones. I wanted her to know I was still her human, no matter who was in the house.

With Maddie, I tried to make her feel as safe, relaxed, and content as possible. Together, we did what she loved most: play with a ratty old string attached to a stick, the remnants of a destroyed cat toy. It was when she played that she was the most at ease. Slowly, I would trail her toy outside the bedroom and into the hallway that led to the living room so that it became familiar. We even ventured into a part of Mila’s turf. All the pouncing, biting, and clawing gave her a way to channel her aggression and anxiety. And of course, there were lots of treats and kisses, probably more than she sometimes wanted.

One day a few weeks later, I couldn’t find Mila. In a panic, I searched my closets and under the furniture. I even peered over the balcony just in case she’d figured out how to open my screen doors and leap. Thankfully there was no cat-shaped hole in the bushes below, so I figured she’d found a new crawl space. Then, when I walked in to the bedroom, I saw the most spectacular scene: Mila, Basie, and Maddie all sitting together. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was idyllic. In fact, the whole thing had the air of a Mexican standoff. But no one was fighting, and that was a sheer miracle. And one that keeps making an appearance.

The Kwon cats standoff.

Things are definitely getting better. Although Mila and Maddie still have the occasional “cat fight”, there’s no fur, no blood, and I’d like to think, no more than the feline equivalent of a lot of cussing.

One could argue that all of this is just anthropomorphizing the situation, and I might be tempted to agree. But there’s a difference between using human behavior as a starting point to project onto animals, and beginning with animal behavior to see what it reveals. Animal lovers understand that animals are beings with cognizance, reactions, and responses. If we let go of the idea that they’re “less,” there’s a lot they’re trying to tell us. We just have to hear it.

One day while I was walking around campus, I overheard two young women cutting down someone else they knew. I won’t lie and say that I didn’t want to start a conversation about the commodification of beauty and its toll on sisterhood, but judging by the content of their criticisms, I could tell this other woman was in some way a threat. Since it wasn’t feasible to follow them and suggest baby gates and essences to bring peace to the situation, I just caught the eye of one of them and smiled.

When her friend turned her gaze to see what was going on, I smiled at her too.

They seemed a little confused, and continued on their way.

I guess I just wanted them to know that I saw them and I heard them, and that the last thing I’d ever do is dismiss them as just two catty girls.

Brenda Kwon is a writer, spoken word artist, English professor, musician, and yoga teacher in Honolulu. A recipient of the Elliott Cades Award, she has been published both nationally and internationally. Her most recent book, The Sum of Breathing, earned Honorable Mention in the Ka Palapala Po`okela category for literature. She is currently owned by three rescue cats, Mila, Maddie, and Basie.

Purchase Brenda’s book here, through Bamboo Ridge Press, and support Hawai‘i literature and arts!

Photos courtesy of Brenda Kwon

Note: Always check with your vet before making any changes to your pet’s diet or lifestyle. The Calvin & Susie Blogger always researches to the best of her ability, but she is not a vet. This blog is not in any way meant to replace veterinary advice or care. When in doubt, always ask a vet.

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