For the Love of Cats

Annabel Shay

I made one of the best decisions of my life in September of 2010, when I adopted Annabel.

I’d been thinking about getting a pet for a while. But my long work hours and high-rise apartment building wasn’t really conducive to having a dog. A cat seemed like the obvious solution: a pet that was a little more independent and easy to maintain than dogs tend to be, yet still could be cuddly and affectionate.

Here was the problem: I was terrified of cats.

Years earlier, I was attacked by two Siamese cats that belonged to my then-boyfriend’s brother and sister-in-law. I was getting ready to take a shower, and their litter box was in the bathroom. The cats were all freaked out by the addition of a dog into their household, and I’m sure the two strange humans (i.e. me and my boyfriend) who were invading their territory didn’t help matters. To this day, I don’t know what triggered it specifically. One second, I was getting ready for my shower, and the next, I was shoving two bitey, clawing cats away from me and taking refuge behind the shower curtain. If I said it was like something out of a Hitchcock movie—cue the blood running down the shower drain—I wouldn’t be exaggerating much.

After that experience, I avoided cats. For years. If I entered the home of someone who owned a cat, I’d be hugging the wall at best and zipping out of there at worst. I still can’t explain why, after all that, I decided it would be a good idea to adopt a cat is beyond me.

But I went to the shelter, specifically the Animal Welfare League of Arlington in Arlington, Virginia. I explained that I wanted to adopt a cat, but that I’d had a bad experience and I was a little nervous around them sometimes. (I may have downplayed exactly how nervous I was.)

I’d seen Annabel’s profile on the shelter website. They described her as shy, sweet, and affectionate. She was what they call a dilute calico—a calico with lighter colors than a regular calico—and she had this little smoosh face and emerald green eyes that I just fell in love with.

How could I not fall in love with Annabel? She is ridiculously adorable.

How could I not fall in love with Annabel? She is ridiculously adorable.

When they took her out of the cage and set her in my lap, she immediately started rubbing up against me and purring. She had claimed me, and I knew I would be taking her home.

The first few days weren’t easy. She didn’t eat or use the litter box at first, and that freaked me out. Then, even though she had a soft, cozy cat bed on the floor, she decided that the best place to sleep was on top of my chest. Have you ever tried to sleep with nine pounds of cat on your sternum? It’s not easy if you’re not used to it, particularly when you’re terrified that you’ll roll over and crush the poor thing.

But then, after a few bribes with wet food and tuna, she started to eat. And when she ate, she used the litter box. And then eventually, I got so tired that I fell asleep with her on top of my chest…and as it turns out, cats are pretty fast, and they can move out of the way if you roll over in your sleep. Things got easier from there.

Fast forward almost five years. Annabel is my best friend. I don’t know how to describe it better. When she was diagnosed with kidney disease in 2013, I was devastated. Kidney disease is degenerative, and incurable, and at the time she was diagnosed my vet said the longest they’d managed a cat with kidney disease was two years.

So I switched vets. She passed the two year mark in March. Between a wet food diet, and vigilant monitoring, her primary kidney value (creatinine) is actually lower than it was in 2013, back down in the high normal range. She gets sick more than I’d like, and I’ve spent literally thousands of dollars on her in vet bills…but she’s a trooper.

But the story that I’ll always tell to explain why Annabel means so much to me is this one: my mother died in November of 2013. I spent that day on the phone with relatives and friends, and later that evening I had a friend come over so I wouldn’t have to be alone. But around 10:00 or so she had to go home to her family and kids. By that time, the barrage of phone calls I’d been getting all day had stopped, so I was left truly…alone.

Except not really. That night, as I struggled in vain to sleep, Annabel stayed with me. By then, Annabel had learned that I tossed and turned too much to be a comfortable sleeping location, so most nights she spent the night on the end of the bed after her evening cuddles. But that night, she plopped herself on my chest and wouldn’t leave. Even when I rolled over on my side, she’d just dig herself in next to me and burrow into my body. She didn’t purr at all—Annabel normally purrs at the slightest bit of affection or attention—but she stayed next to me until morning. It was like she knew I needed her to be there.

She’s a sweet, affectionate cat. My boyfriend says she’s the most affectionate cat he’s ever seen—and he’s much more experienced with cats than I am! Speaking of my boyfriend, she adores him, and the feeling is mutual. She’s got him wrapped around her paw like you wouldn’t believe, and some of my favorite pictures are the ones I get of the two of them cuddling together. (Note to men: cuddling with animals = super-duper sexy.)

I could list all the reasons why Annabel is an amazing cat, because she is. But for that night after my mom died, I can never repay her.

Shay, on the other hand, was a harder cat for me to fall in love with. My boyfriend “inherited” Shay from his mother, for lack of a better word: Shay had originally belonged to his sister, who was away at school. Their mother was watching him, but when she adopted a puppy she realized that the two could not live together. The puppy was exuberant, playful, and big, and she feared he would hurt Shay. So my boyfriend ended up taking care of Shay, in an arrangement that was originally supposed to be temporary.

So when my boyfriend and I moved in together last June, we had two cats—and we didn’t know how long we’d be keeping Shay. Annabel had been the only cat I had ever owned, so I was used to her personality, her temperament, her behavior. Unfortunately, Shay was almost the exact opposite of Annabel.

Where Annabel was very cuddly and affectionate, Shay was rarely patient enough to be petted. Where Annabel had always been very low-key, Shay was energetic and playful. Whereas I never worried about Annabel eating or drinking anything she wasn’t supposed to, Shay has a bad habit of putting anything into his mouth, including pills that have dropped on the floor, Post-It Notes, aluminum foil, and—my favorite—dry pancake mix. Like, he didn’t bother going for actual cooked pancakes, but the dry mix that had fallen onto the counter during cooking was irresistible.

Yes, Shay will eat aluminum foil. He's not ashamed.

Yes, Shay will eat aluminum foil. He’s not ashamed.

Shay and Annabel quickly developed a big sister/little brother relationship. Shay was the little brother who wanted nothing more than to play with Annabel, and Annabel is the big sister who only grudgingly tolerates him. Annabel has never been a very playful cat, and at 11, she’s definitely on the low-energy end of the spectrum. Many times we’ve seen her hissing or swatting at him when he tries, insistently, to play with her. Plus, he has a bad habit—which we still have not been able to break—of eating her food. (He gobbles, while she tends to nibble slowly.)

I am, as you can imagine, very protective of Annabel, and so at first I worried that the stress of having another cat in the household would hurt her, particularly a much younger, more playful cat. Instead, something else happened. Yeah, she’d hiss and growl at him sometimes, but other times they play with each other, chasing each other back and forth across the apartment. Shay’s food habits are persistent, and annoying, but feeding them in separate rooms with the doors closed has pretty much eliminated it as an issue.

I tried to get to know Shay on his terms. While he’s not cuddly like Annabel, he loves to be the center of things, and will demand your attention by rubbing against you, meowing loudly, and even sometimes jumping on top of you. His tendency to put things in his mouth stems from curiosity: he sees or smells something new, thinks, “What’s this?” and then proceeds to investigate it further by tasting it. It’s part of how he explores the universe. He loves to play, and he’ll play fight with my foot and ankles if I don’t give him enough playtime.

When I leave for work in the morning, he plops himself down in front of me and rolls onto his back, demanding my attention and affection, and I’m always a little disappointed in myself when I don’t have time to give it to him. And Annabel may be the more outwardly affectionate cat, but it’s Shay who greets me at the door first when I get home in the afternoon.

At approximately three years old, Shay is considered an adult cat. Everyone seems to know this…but Shay. He’s got the personality of a five-year-old boy, packed into the body of a gray-and-white cat. He’s a little bit Dennis the Menace sometimes. But then as soon as a stranger comes into the apartment, he hides as if someone is trying to kill him. It’s quite funny. He goes from being bold and brave to the biggest scaredy-cat I’ve ever seen. (On the other hand, Annabel—who’s eight years older and three pounds lighter than Shay—has a tendency to plant herself in strangers’ laps and demand to be petted. I told you they were opposites.)

Shay, I realized finally, was this incredibly funny, sweet, affectionate cat…in his own way. He wasn’t like Annabel, but I couldn’t expect him to be. My experience with him helped widen my understanding of cats.

About six months after we moved in together, I said to my boyfriend, “I think we should tell your mom and sister that we’re keeping Shay. Forever.”

He agreed. And now Shay is one of us.

Maybe this is my imagination, but I felt like there was a shift in Shay after we decided to keep him forever, like he finally decided to let down his guard and really warm up to us. (Or maybe the change was in us, and Shay was just sensing it with whatever animal intuition he has.) But in the last several months, Shay has become warmer, friendlier, and more affectionate with us. He tolerates being held, and he likes to be petted…sometimes. He’s never going to be a cuddle-monster like Annabel is, but he’s just as warm and loving in his own way. He’s a cool cat, and I never tire of laughing at his antics and his kitten-y meow.

Adopting Annabel and Shay changed my life in more ways than I ever realized it would. I went from being just tolerant of animals to being an animal lover. I’ve volunteered in a couple of local shelters, and I’m currently volunteering at the AWLA, where I adopted Annabel. I love knowing that I get to be a small part of making sure local animals find their way to their forever homes.

June is National Adopt-a-Cat Month. In honor of that, AWLA is waiving all adoption fees on cats six months and older until June 29. So if you’re thinking about it, and you live in the DC/Northern Virginia area, now is a great time to adopt. Even if you’re not, there are probably some great animal shelters and rescues near you where you can find your own Annabel or Shay.

Adopting Annabel (and then Shay) changed my life for the better. I don’t know what caused me to walk into the shelter that afternoon in September, but I’m so glad I did. It was the most worthwhile decision I’ve ever made.

3 thoughts on “For the Love of Cats

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