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When Animals Mess with Our Minds

Posted Jul 22 2008 8:22pm

Do you ever get the feeling that your dog or cat is trying to drive you crazy? I’m not referring to the way you feel when your dog rolls in maggot-infested dead animal guts 5 minutes before your boss arrives, or when the cat pees on your $75 French bra just because it’s new. I’m referring to more subtle behavior of the things-that-go-bump-in-the-night variety that makes you think neurons are leaking out of your brain when you’re not looking.

Such has been my experience for the past week or so. At first I attributed it to the fact that my shitzu mix, Frica, is in heat. She’s normally a laidback, fun-loving dog, but you’d never know it if you saw her around the other two dogs lately. When BeeBee, the deaf, brain-damaged corgi does something Fric doesn’t like,and I admit BeeBee does a lot of things that would try the patience of a saint, canine or otherwise, Fric’s snarling response gives new meaning to the word “bitch.” When her young son Ollie tries to check out the strange scents emanating from his mom’s nether regions…

Well, a rough translation of her response would be “Get away from me you disgusting male pervert pig-devil or I’ll rip your heart out!”

Still, even though Frica’s testiness has me yearning for large volumes of chocolate, I don’t consider her behavior abnormal. And while the other dogs vacillate between staying out of her way and baiting her unmercifully, I consider that well within normal limits, too.

The only animal who really worried me was the cat, Whittington. He’s 14 and showing his age. Several months ago I started putting a chair next to the kitchen counter where his food dish is because every once in a while he’d have trouble jumping up there. It’s the kind of thing people do to accommodate an older arthritic animal that’s so common, I didn’t even think about it when I did it. But then about a week ago I realized I was filling Whit’s dish a lot more, and yet he seemed to be losing weight.

Being a vet, several possibilities went through my mind.

I didn’t like any of them.

That same day, I put Ollie in his crate, and let the other dogs have the run of house because it was too hot to take them outside with me while I worked in the garden. Normally when I come back into the house, BeeBee is sleeping against the door, I startle her when I open it and bump her, she gives out her godawful deaf-dog screech , this which wakes up Ollie who starts barking the equivalent of “Take me out, take me out! My bladder’s gonna burst!” and Frica yawns from the rocker where she’s been sleeping.

But not that day.

That day Bee wasn’t by the door and Fric wasn’t on the rocker. Fric was sitting on the chair by the counter and Bee was in the floor below her. Ollie was in his crate and he immediately started barking about his limited sphincter capacity as usual. In my rush to get him out, the meaning behind the other dogs’ deviation from their normal routine didn’t sink in…

…until later when two things happened. The first was that I noticed that the cat’s dish was licked clean. Although Whit keeps himself impeccably groomed, he has never stooped so low as to lick his bowl clean since I’ve had him. If anything, he leaves little pieces of kibble around as if to point out how inferior what I feed him is to the locally grown rodents he catches himself, even at his advanced age.

That triggered the memory that there have been other occasions when the cat dish had been similarly tongue-scoured.

I then turned to Frica to see if she looked guilty because BeeBee couldn’t have made it onto that chair and then the counter unless Fric put her there with a forklift.

But expecting Fric to feel guilty is like expecting two suns to rise in the morning: it might happen, but it doesn’t seem likely. In behavioral terms, she’s much more in tune with her most ancient roots than I am mine: She accepts that does what she does because it represents the most energy-efficient way to get what she wants.

Just like we all do.

If I want her to act guilty about that, that’s my problem not hers.

I never got the guilty look, but the circumstantial evidence was plentiful enough, I didn’t need it. The most damning piece was something else I’d previously noticed, but dismissed. In spite of cutting Fric’s food way back since she weaned her puppies several months ago, she still hadn’t regained her girlish figure.

It a classic example of human projection, I rationalized this saying that it’s harder to loose weight as one gets older.

Hah! My dog did have the same problem I did, but it had nothing to do with our ages. We were both eating too much.

OK, my part of that was sort of depressing, but I had to admire Fric’s intelligence for getting that food, and convincing me that I was losing my mindandthat the cat was seriously ill.

With a triumphant look in Fric’s direction, I moved the chair back to the table beyond little-dog counter-jumping distance. Convinced I’d solved the problem, I took a quick shower to get rid of the gardening grime. When I finished, and returned to the kitchen, I discovered Ollie grazing on the table.

Being the learned professional I am, I also handled this with great skill.

“What do you think you’re doing?” I shouted. “Get your puppy butt off that table right now or I’m going to sell you to a laboratory.”

Or something like that. Whatever, it had the same result as Fric snarling at him and he disappeared under the couch. Unfortunately, the cat was also under there and they immediately started playing so I’m not sure how much of my message got through.

Be that as it may, this told me that Ollie hadn’t been spending all of his time sleeping while Fric was raiding the cat food. Instead, he had been watching and learning.

And making plans.

Sometimes I wonder how long he’s been browsing the contents of my kitchen table, the place where I and others eat. Most of the time, though, I decide I don’t want to know.

So, no ghost snarfing up cat food, no seriously ill cat, one dog on her way to regaining her figure, one human who is probably no more insane or thinner than she was when this started, and one puppy and one brain-damaged corgi who still think that all of life is a game.

Not a bad day’s work.

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