Apr. 13th, 2015

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I started working with Precious almost two years ago at the shelter "tricking" her into realizing that petting was awesome; before that, she'd been there three years, and a few people occasionally "petted" her with a brush, but I don't know that even that happened that often. When I started working with her, I began by brushing, and learned that if you made her purr, she drooled. She drooled even more extravagantly once I could pet her for real with my fingers. I adopted her a little over a year ago, so I could now spend more than 15 minutes at a time with her, and two things happened: (1) I coined the term "spitsicle" for the up-to-two-inch strands of drool that would sometimes hang from her mouth; and (2) I discovered that if you petted her for about half an hour, she would eventually stop drooling — not, it seemed, because she stopped being happy, but because she would figure out to swallow occasionally.

Precious does not drool anymore. Maybe a drop or two when I first start petting her, but she no longer ends up with strings like a Saint Bernard. She's taught herself to unthinkingly swallow WHILE she purrs, like, you know, any normal cat.

One theory about why some cats drool when they purr is that they were weaned too early, so their brains are still stuck associating happy/purr with food. Makes sense; I mean, that's why adult cats knead, that leftover association with nursing. But then, why do most kittens learn not to drool when they are kittens? Is it because most other cats purr a lot OTHER than when they are nursing as kittens? Do housecat kittens learn because they purr more because they get petted all the time? Precious, before she was in the shelter, and then for three years after that, did not get petted. And so, apparently, other than maybe an occasional snuggle with another feline resident at the shelter, she … she didn't purr. And the occasional snuggle was likely not as marvelously ecstatic as petting. Is she that unusual? Are most cats wired such that nothing makes them happier than human petting — not food, not mutual grooming, not being nursed on by their kittens? Maybe when they themselves are kittens, their mother grooming them is equally wonderful; maybe, for the brief time "the act" takes, copulation brings an emotional ecstasy along with the physical. But other than that, maybe for some cats — most? — nothing in the world compares to an ear rub or a chin scritch by a human being. Maybe that's because we domesticated them and they evolved that way, or maybe part of why they were able to be domesticated is that we humans happen to caress them in a way that is reminiscent of their mothers' grooming. Either way, the result is this: perhaps many cats — most cats? — can never achieve their highest potential happiness without a person. Contentment, yes; but not unrestrained joy, not half an hour at a time of rolly-squirmy-kneady return-to-kittenhood when the world was perfect and safe and nothing bad had ever happened and never would.

Precious used to drool. I thought it was because her brain was miswired. But now she doesn't drool. Because she learned. Because in the last year, she's had an opportunity to learn — to learn something that she apparently didn't have the opportunity to learn in the previous six years or so of her life. I'm so happy for her it makes me cry. And at the same time, I grieve for the countless cats — feral, stray, or just "benignly" neglected — who will never return to kittenhood and never be nearly as happy as they could have been.


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Violet Wilson

October 2016


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