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Fascinating changes

I adopted my second cat Phoebe almost a year ago. Bringing a new cat in to the home is always stressful for the animal and I can only imagine how she felt coming in to mine, with the smell of multiple dogs and another cat everywhere. I followed the protocol of introducing two cats – keeping the Phoebe in a safe spot that Osito couldn’t reach for the first several days – but the relationship between the two of them was rocky from the start. Whereas Osito and his former roommate Bat got along pretty well, chasing each other down the hall and playing the “door game” trying to get each other’s paws from either side of a door, he quickly assumed a new role as head cat. He would bully Phoebe when she was eating or sauntering around the apartment. He wouldn’t let her up on the bed so she made herself a nest underneath it. Not surprisingly, Phoebe, though sweet as could be when approached, wasn’t interested in getting close to Osito’s humans.

Fast forward to three weeks ago. Phoebe spends a lot of time outside, presumably getting some exercise, but it was clear she had put on some weight. Since finding Osito, I had left a bowl of dry food out for him, rather than feeding him a set amount at mealtimes. This is a no-no in the kitty health world but, at the time, Bat was such a food monster that I felt if I left him only the amount of food he was supposed to eat, she would gobble it up instead. When Phoebe came in to our lives, I continued the practice, now setting out two separate bowls so they could eat at the same time if they wished. But newly fat Phoebe needed a change to help her shed the extra weight so I decided to switch the cats to mealtime feeding only. I left the food out if they didn’t finish what was in their bowl, but once gone, they received no more until the next mealtime.

Almost immediately, we noticed a change in Phoebe. All of a sudden she was approaching myself, my roommate, and visiting friends on the couch, purring and rubbing against us. Before this, I had seen Phoebe do this so infrequently, I could count the number of snuggle fests on two hands. But new Phoebe not only solicited our attention, she laid down to nap next to me and collapsed in to my side in a heap of soft fur.

So why the change? Because the only difference in her life is the way I feed her, and the change is a positive one (i.e., not a sign that might encourage me to take her to the vet), it is logical to assume that it is in fact the feeding that has changed her behavior to make her a sweeter and more loving cat. I suspect this follows a similar principle to one used in the dog world – Nothing In Life Is Free. With dogs that are controlling or overly excitable, trainers often recommend that the owner change the way a dog is fed (and receives other things it likes such as toys, going outside, etc.). Instead of just giving food and treats away, the dog must work for their meal every time. In other words, dog wants dinner, you make him sit and wait first. A more advanced version of this is never putting out a bowl of food but instead feeding a dog its kibble one nugget at a time in exchange for obedience like sit, stay, come, down, leave it, and so on. In this way, the dog comes to understand that good things do not happen unless the owner makes them happen; and the only way the owner will do so is if the dog is obedient and well-behaved.

In Phoebe;s case, I believe that by changing her access to food, she has realized that food doesn’t just grow on trees (or in her food bowl, at least), it comes from me and if she solicits my attention, purring and acting all cute, I may be more likely to feed her. And in the midst of that thought pattern, Phoebe realized something else: getting pet and snuggling is pretty great and worth doing whether she is hungry or not.

Unfortunately I will never know exactly what Phoebe is thinking; all I can do is theorize based on observations of her behavior. But either way I hope this new Phoebe is here to stay!

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