The more I work and live with cats, the more I realize how little I know. After years of fostering and having a house full of cats, you'd think I'd be an expert, but today I learned yet another valuable lesson.
At the beginning of my rescue career, I volunteered with a rescue group in southern Connecticut. I did some design work for their events and eventually began to naively foster cats, as well. After all these years, I have no interest in bashing how they do what they do, but I can say that it was very tough to get my foster cats adopted once they came to my home. Now that I have to approve applications for my group, Kitten Associates, I realize how difficult it is to find just the right adopter...but I also don't let my cats languish in foster care for YEARS, which was a common occurrence back in those days.
©2003 Robin A.F Olson. Gracie with Annabelle, Scooter Pie and Petunia.
My first foster cat was Spencer and he's our CiCH Mascot . When he joined the family, I only had two cats and one had just passed away. On Christmas of 2003 Spencer's adoption was formalized. It was a meaningful adoption because not only did I help rescue this cat, but now he would be mine for the rest of his life.
The next cats I fostered were an abused mama cat and her three newborn kittens. Two of the kittens were confident, playful, easy to love. They got adopted together, but their sister, didn't show well and would run off and hide. I didn't understand at the time that I should have shown her in a small room where she couldn't hide. She was perfectly friendly with me, but in a big room with loud people talking away, no wonder she ran off.
Since applications weren't coming in and I was still quite the sucker for taking in cats, I said I'd just keep her. What the heck. Her Mother wasn't getting any interest because she was an adult already, so I kept her, too. I felt like I didn't have any other options at the time. Their adoption wasn't very meaningful.
Those cats are Gracie and Petunia.
I don't often write about Petunia. She's 8 1/2 years old now and I'm reluctant to admit, is not my favorite cat. She pees around the house some times. She's neurotic. She gets attacked by Spencer, Blitzen and now, even the DOOD. I've taken her to the Vet MANY times; dealt with any health issues as they come up. I spoke with a cat behaviorist. I tried homeopathy. I changed things around in the house so Petunia would have a place where she could feel safe, but I was always bitter about all the fuss I had to make over her when all she did was flip out over the littlest thing, drool on me if I petted her and sneak attack some of the cats while they slept (because they attacked her when she was awake).
Over the years I've come to resent her being here. She just causes trouble. I HATE that I have to admit this and I feel very guilty. I never should have kept her. I didn't have that bond I had with her siblings or her mother. I felt like I got stuck with her and I've been trying to make the best of it ever since.
Even though it was right in front of me, I couldn't see the good things about her; the way she would “talk” to me if I talked to her. she could do some tricks, she loved to play if she could be on her own to do so, she really loved me, but I was indifferent. How cruel I have been.
I considered re-homing her. She wasn't happy here. We weren't happy she was here, but her mother, Gracie, has to be with her. They are far too bonded for me to separate them now. Gracie is skittish and has health issues. Who would want these two cats?
So Sam and I made an concerted effort to be kinder to Petunia and she did respond, but the same group of male cats kept going after her! We would yell, try to break it up, but every night this would go on and the stress on ALL of us was not good.
©2008 Robin A.F Olson. The girls.
Then I met up with a friend of mine who is also a cat writer. Her name is Wendy Christensen and she's the author of MANY books about cats. She's also an artist and jewelry designer. Her ETSY page is HERE  and HERE  are illustrations and some of her books .
Wendy told me that she had a similar problem-male cats going after her female. She took her cats to the vet. The vet couldn't find anything wrong. He kept thinking about this seemingly mysterious problem, some might call it Pariah cat, where one cat seemingly for no reason gets picked on by the other cats in the home. After all I've read on the subject, my short comment about that is I'm not sure it's a fair description or even that it exists at all (more on why another time).
He called Wendy and asked her to bring her female cat in to have its' anal glands expressed. He had a theory that if the glands were very full that the cat might give off an offensive odor that made the male cats react to.
Sure enough-the cats glands were full up. He expressed them and the cat stopped getting attacked!
Once I heard that, I knew I had to try it. Now, remember, Petunia is NOT easy to handle. She overreacts to getting her claws trimmed. It would not be easy to get her to the Vet, but it had to be done.
This morning I took 'Tunie to see Dr. Larry. Because I know that a small, dark place helps cats feel safe, I kept Petunia in a covered cat carrier and tried to keep her very quiet until it was exam time.
Dr. Larry and I discussed what was going on. He agreed that anal glands could give off scent that the males went after. He also confirmed something else I'd heard-that cats with urinary tract infections/issues can also emit an odor that other cats can smell. Petunia has had UTI issues, but was currently clear of them. I had to hope, which sounds weird, that her anal glands were full up.
I asked Dr. Larry if we could turn off the overhead lights, then keep Petunia covered during his exam. By the dim light from under the cabinets, Vet tech Amber held Petunia's scruff and Dr. Larry went to work at the other end.
We all kept quiet or just told Petunia it was “okay” and that she was a “good girl.” 'She was fairly relaxed until Dr Larry hit the right anal gland. Petunia started to writhe and screech. I asked Dr. Larry if he could take a break and he replied that once you start, you have to finish. He worked quickly. I couldn't see if he was expressing anything or not. If it did smell badly-which it should, I wouldn't have known. The day before a dog had come into the clinic. He was bitten by a SKUNK and BLASTED by the same! The whole clinic smelled like skunk a day later.
In a few minutes, the procedure was done. Petunia relaxed and Amber and I both petted her and told her she was such a good girl! She reacted so well. Normally she would have been climbing the wals, but this time she was calm. I realized that how I treat her definitely affected how she responded at the Vet. Keeping the lights low; keeping things quiet-that really did wonders.
I couldn't wait to hear the results. Did she or didn't she?
Dr. Larry described that normally expressing the anal glands results in a watery brownish discharge. Petunia's was black, thick and tarry-and very difficult to express. It's VERY LIKELY that Petunia has been in quite a bit of pain for a VERY LONG TIME.
On one hand I was thrilled at the news, but on the other hand I felt very guilty and ashamed. My poor cat-all this time I've been thinking she's a royal nuisance and I wished I could just re-home her. I was tired of all the fights and her screaming in the middle of the night. Maybe a lot of what was going on had to do with the fact that she was in PAIN and that she smelled bad to the male cats.
I took the back road home, driving slowly along the river. The sun was brightly shining and I pulled the cover off Petunia's cat carrier and glanced over at her. She didn't make a sound. She rubbed against my finger when I pushed it through an opening on the side of the cat carrier. I told her again what a good girl she was and for the first time in a long time, I believed what I was saying. I felt real affection for her and real hope, too, that maybe, just maybe she was on the road to a better life.
When we got home, instead of running off in a frenzy, she jumped on the sofa and laid down in the sun. I checked on her a few hours later. She was still there. Normally, if she saw me, she'd sit up on alert, ready to run off. This time I could see contentment in her eyes. She was relaxed and happy. I reached out to pet her and she rubbed her head on my hand, again, instead of running off.
©2011 Robin A.F Olson. Petunia this afternoon.
I sat on the loveseat a few feet away from her. I saw Blitzen come over to her. Normally he'd sniff at her, then do this strange sort of dance where he'd rub his head against the leg of the table, then in a few moments, charge Petunia and corner her somewhere. This time he just sniffed at the air, then seemed to change his mind. He walked away.
I don't know if we've solved the problem. It's way too early to tell and I don't know if the cats are so used to going after Petunia that they'll still do it or if she has other issues we haven't yet discovered.
What I do know is I love my cat and I'm so very sorry. I'm sorry for her pain and her unhappiness. I've always felt she deserved a better home and maybe now she'll have one here.