Honey And Pepper – A Cat Tale

I live in the hills just east of San Francisco Bay with my human family, and for some years with two feline brothers, neutered, who we purchased from the Feral Cat Foundation when they were kittens five months old. They were American Short Hair kittens that were just too cute to separate. “Honey” is a yellow tiger-striped with a white nose (to each side of the pink nose-pad), chin, chest, belly and paws; and “Pepper” was a speckled-striped charcoal-gray with white chin, chest, belly, legs, paws and a bit of the face, with an island of the gray pattern on his right foreleg. Pepper was sitting up in their cage at the pet adoption site, squeaking when approached, and Honey was laying down huddled up to Pepper, doe-eyed and seeming to seek protection under his brother’s forward stance. The people of the Feral Cat Foundation find cats and rehabilitate them to reintroduce them to domestication, by having them live in foster homes till their health and behavior are good and stable. Pepper was noted to be particular and preferred seeking out affection on his terms and timetable. Honey was always a willing sponge of affection, once he had approved of a human. (He’s yowling at the door now, must interrupt).

The first night, we kept them both in a bathroom with trays of dry food and kitty-litter (they had been trained in their foster home), and we all jammed in there and scrunched onto the floor so they could approach, then crawl all over us, eventually seeking to curl up and purr with their little vibrator motors on full throttle, suckling our fingers. As kittens, both had been very attached to suckling our fingers, and kneading us with their outstretched claws. Female cats must have insensate mammaries because kitten teeth and claws are sharp! Honey loved sucky-suck so much he would follow us and yowl for it till well over a year old. Pepper liked it too. Clearly, from the first night in the bathroom, we were the new mothers.

After probably two hours in the bathroom with them that first night, we left so they would sleep (babies of all types need plenty of sleep). The next day we let them explore bits of the house, and both quickly scooted off to find hiding places deep behind and under furniture. After extracting them (by moving a lot of stuff) and letting them unwind in their bathroom haven for a few days, they were ready for wider adventures, and soon explored every room. The Feral Cat Foundation people had urged us to keep them as indoor cats, but this house is too small for that and we live in a forest, which is too tempting for a cat not to explore. So, after about two months indoors we got body-harness leashes (kitten necks are too delicate to yank on) and let them out tethered, following their first furtive and excited forays around the house and property. They quickly discovered how to crawl under the house to hide.

Within about two weeks of their first tethered excursion, on a beautiful bright mid-summer day, we opened the door and they cautiously, curiously, and quite determinedly went out. They stayed near the house, and at even the hint of a twig snapping would make a mad dash under the house. For each of them on separate occasions, we had to wait one or two days before they would come out from hiding. A cold night alone outdoors without food can make anyone bolder the next day. Very quickly after these episodes, they gained the confidence to come and go; they had mapped their little domain.

By their first birthday, in October, they were ranging off into the woods past our property, and getting chased back by tomcats and older females. Over time they each became more confident, and fierce hunters. Up to this time, they had hunted indoors, consuming numerous spiders and moths. Once they began ranging outdoors, they became great hunters of field mice, deer mice, rats, moles, birds, and crickets. Honey is our ace hunter, and emerged as the alpha male.

Our young mature cats had it good: their own wooded hillside, comfortable safe billets and good grub. Sometimes Honey would reward us with a live mouse brought into the house, or perhaps a decapitated one. During any season they could decide to take off for a jaunt of two days, and come home quite self-assuredly looking just fine. A few times they came home with some battle scars, but it seems both had enough good sense to take flight before confrontations became too dangerous. They have each gotten skunked (very unpleasant), and they have each run into larger wildlife that lives here in the hills, like raccoons, opossum, foxes, skunks and deer; the raccoons are a danger to them (and they wreck havoc with the garbage cans; the deer eat the garden and drop nasty ticks).

It is interesting that my wife would always speak of cats as being female, and snakes as male (my pet snake, Beaujolais, was female). Somehow, in her mind Honey and Pepper were so ingratiating and yet childish that they were always “she” and “her.” After a while she’d witnessed enough brawls and began calling them affectionately her “brat boys,” and they love her as mommy number one. Perhaps the human female identification with cats is related to some Eve archetype deep in the psyche. It turns out that both my wife and I can think of all the other creatures living here, bugs, arachnids, snake, cats, child and each other as “the beasts,” and we are. Honey certainly also thinks so, when he jumps into a lap at dinner time and bends his nose down into a dinner plate hopefully, which he never stops trying despite always getting dumped for it. Brat.

Honey and Pepper get on quite well, and often groom each other (cat tongues are rasps, designed by nature to scrape flesh off bones). These wholesome scenes usually devolve into dominance games, with one or the other, most often Honey, straddling the other while biting the back of the neck or the throat. Cats are all fang and claw, even when they say “I love you” it’s a choke-hold short of murder. These dominance rituals can further devolve into furious balls-of-fur chase scenes punctuated by hiss standoffs with ears back, fur up and deep throaty yowls. This is usually the time to open the door to let one or both dash out and regain composure.

Since Pepper is the beta, he feels it necessary to establish his claim on the things he loves: a cozy carpeted corner, the laundry bag, the bathroom rugs, piles of clean laundry, our bed pillows, even our laps. Claims are marked by urinating with an additional discharge of pungent brown fluid from anal glands. I did not appreciate this behavior and thought to bisect Pepper with an axe, however my wife and daughter disagreed with this proposal. One learns to soak and sop up marked things quickly to minimize deep absorption that leads to lingering odors (and they do linger); also, bicarbonate of soda is a safe deodorizer to sprinkle directly onto the target zones. Naptha balls or flakes are much more effective, but release toxic vapor (a liquid form is used for “dry cleaning”). We learned of a pheromone-laced vaporizer that plugs into any household outlet; it is quite similar to other plug-in scent dispensers made for household use. The pheromone is a cat-calming chemical that “makes them feel good” and prompts them to groom themselves (a calming ritual for cats) and exhibit a more relaxed demeanor (and less fighting). So we got them a few dispensers to fill the main room of the house with vaporized feel-good drug (it doesn’t work on humans). Not cheap, but it beats getting your pillow pissed on.

A few years ago, one cat tussle resulted in a deeply bitten paw for Pepper. This became infected and swelled (big!), so we had to take him to the veterinarian. Pepper had not been to the vet since he was a kitten at the Feral Cat Foundation. He had put up such a furious resistance to being placed in the big cardboard “cat carrier” box when we tried taking him in for some shots, that I had given up, being badly bloodied with multiple claw scars (these hurt and itched for a while). One of my fingers remained painful and not completely usable for months. Again, the axe was deferred. So, it was only Honey who received further inoculations for the disease hazards of outdoor life. This time however, after about four days of infection, poor Pepper was so quiet and huddled and feverish and frail from not eating that he was easily “box-able”. My health insurance does not cover non-humanoid dependents (I noticed my 1040 tax form didn’t offer a deduction for them, either), and veterinary medical costs are non-trivial, so I began wondering if cat replacement was not a cheaper option to veterinary medical intervention. Pepper came home after a whole series of shots (deferred previously), with a drain tube in his newly bandaged paw, and a vial of antibiotic pills.

I had to pill the cat. The idea was to wrap some fish-laced paste around the pill (canned anchovies or sardines might work, and probably cost as much per unit of mass as these “pill pockets”), and then gingerly shove it down the cat’s throat with a finger, immediately stroking his throat to induce swallowing; the cat himself having previously been wrapped into a “cat burrito” with a towel, so as to control his motion and confine his claws. I got two pills in him the first two days, the treatment required daily doses for a week or two. By the third day home, he was recovered enough to resist swallowing anything he did not want to swallow (pill number two had almost been spit back out), or being bundled up into a cat burrito. Numerous pills shot back out, and my finger was too uncomfortably situated in relation to Pepper’s agitated dentation to proceed further. So I declared him cured, which he wholeheartedly agreed with, and proceeded to go outside against medical advice. Within another day or two he’d licked the bandage off and the drain tube out of his paw. Pepper liked eating the pill pockets out of a bowl, without pills in them, but only for a few days before they started to become rancid. The rest went into the garbage with the antibiotics.

I realized that it was impossible to explain to Pepper that the tube, bandage, pills and restrictions on his galavanting were for his own good — as we saw it. His view of his own good was quite different from ours; he wanted his freedom, and control of his life. After all, he would never know the difference between living for 3 years or 13 years, and he had no capacity to even conceive of such a choice. He was only concerned to live his present moment — and the continuous succession of such present moments traces out that period of time we call “always” — without restraints and without restrictions. It was his life, after all, and why should I presume to force him to live it other than he wished to? He obviously valued his independence quite highly, and more so than our efforts to restrict his life to extend it. So, we stopped patronizing him, and let him manage his own affairs. This would also be better for my fingers and everybody’s stress level. The vial of antibiotics was dumped. His paw healed perfectly and he went on to enjoy his excellent woodland cat life for quite some time.

Honey had grown somewhat larger than Pepper, and is a beautiful, athletic, quick, observant and exquisitely fit cat. Both have very fast reaction times, as we have observed dangling a mouse-sized soft lure on the end of a length of yarn tied to a rod. It is a mistake to use your hands to play with them by moving or snatching a lure away, they will always be quicker and you will always bleed. Both cats learned our work schedule, because they had to make a choice each morning on going out for the day or staying in, as we went off to work and school. They had to make their prognostications about the likely weather and decide between enduring a long boring day inside but with easy access to food bowls and water, or being outside with either balmy, dry and exciting hunting conditions, or a cold and rainy day without food and water. When we drove up to our parking spot after school and work, we would often find them waiting for us, like faithful dogs, ready to race to the house and dash in as the door opened, to dive into their food bowls. Honey is most vigilant for our return, and so he is our dog-cat. We’ve tried playing fetch with him, but he doesn’t return the lure, still he likes the game. Since he is such a vocal dog-cat, meowing and yowling for his many wants, and because of his yellow-orange coloring, I call him Old Yowler, recalling the canine hero of the Disney film Old Yeller, about a boy’s yellow dog whose barking helps save the day.

Honey uses his meowing and yowling to train us, these are his signals to induce us to do things for him: put fresh water in the water bowl, fill the food bowls as soon as the plastic bottoms become visible, open doors (for entry or exit), to drop something soft and fishy or meaty onto a bowl in the kitchen for a treat (an exceptionally bad habit, don’t start it), to wake up so he can go out at 5:30 AM, to wake up so he can come in a 1:00 AM, to get petted. If he can conceive of wanting it, he can yowl for it. When in bed we can try to pretend we are asleep and don’t hear him, but he has ways of creating a disturbance. He’ll jump up to a ledge or item of outdoor furniture near a bedroom window and paw it, dragging claws against the glass, or clawing and climbing on the screen (of which we now have fewer). He will also jump up and down repeatedly from such ledges near our sleeping selves, ensuring his full weight lands with a resounding thud, so one has the impression of a slow velvety jackhammer or pile driver working away in the not sufficiently far distance. Since these techniques have worked many times to gain him late night entry, he has cemented them into his memory. When he wishes to leave during our sleep, he paws the bedroom doors till one gives way and opens, or till a sleeper awakes and lets him out. If he was allowed into one particular bedroom to sleep on the covers, he likes to signal his readiness for a morning outing as the first bird starts to sing, by jumping up to a cabinet next to the bed, then pouncing down to the unwary sleeper below. Once he has access to your prone body, he sticks his wet nose in your face or paws your hair and cheeks. What a punk. His entire attitude is one of majestic entitlement; our little lion.

Pepper also squawks for what he wants, but is more reserved vocally. Both cats love to sharpen their claws by scraping down along exterior corners, and rough surfaces. One such favorite spot was my prized, large stereo speakers; the fronts are mats of cardboard covered with rough cloth, and the cabinets have a walnut finish. Scratching my speakers is an “ax-able” offense. We had water guns and spray bottles to deter speaker and screen clawing. Eventually the screen clawing subsided, because the favorite screens were wrecked (so I must rely on my spiders for some degree of indoor mosquito abatement), and because we trained each other to be more observant about each other’s signals: communication with alien life forms.

It happened I was making dinner late one balmy afternoon, and Pepper decided he’d saunter out. To signal his desire, he just displayed a favorite preparatory behavior, the sharpening of his claws before proceeding to the door. However, instead of using the cardboard clawing structure (another waste of money at the pet store) or a prominent jutting corner of the walls, which we’d relinquished to their clawing, Pepper just went over to the speaker and sunk in his fully outstretched front claws. I immediately threw the empty plastic salad spinner I had, which sailed from the kitchen, whisked by Pepper’s ear, and rebounded off the wall next to the speaker. He leaped straight up in a fright then shot away to hide behind a couch. I walked over and opened the door, pointed and said “out!” and he dashed out.

The next day, while making dinner, I heard a tinkle I couldn’t place, then noticed Pepper sitting right up against the door. I took it as a signal and immediately opened it for him. I thought “boy, that was quick training,” but later came to realize I, too, was being trained. It soon became clear that the tinkle was Pepper stretching up to claw the metal doorknob before sitting up against the door. To save my speaker, I was quick to open the door for Pepper whenever he presented himself before it. Within a few days, Honey mimicked this behavior, and my speakers are now infrequently assaulted (they are still brat cats). Honey has less patience than Pepper, so he almost immediately accompanied his door presentation with meowing and a bit of a walk around. Pepper just walks up to the door and waits for quick service, and Honey walks up to me and yowls; both cats and I know that I have been trained to be prompt, so most of their door-opening signals are directed at me. My sitting at a computer and writing is not seen as reason to deny prompt service, even if others are in the room. Similarly, late at night, the cats meow at a nearby window, and they know I can hear them, so more interruptions. (I just got a claw across the glass from outside, Honey wants in).

A few summers ago, Pepper developed some illness, which we couldn’t determine, but which seemed to leave him very fatigued. He stayed in his one little resting spot on the top of the back of a padded reclining chair (Honey just bugged me to go out. He’s coming in and out hoping to get “special food” of tuna or salmon, I’ll explain why in a bit). Pepper just seemed to get weaker and thinner, and even began to shiver a bit; he stayed put. Previously, he seemed to get over his little colds or other low energy spells after a day or two of sleep and relaxation indoors. This time it seemed he was getting much weaker and the spell was much longer. We kept Honey away from him because Pepper seemed less able to defend himself, and I began to consider a visit to the vet. I just had to wait till he was half-dead enough to box for the trip. Even in this state, he trotted off to his food and water bowls and visited the litter box when he needed. Honey had long ago adopted a purely outdoor policy for his toilet needs.

One day I came home to see Pepper hobbling with his right paw folded back, limp. I guessed it might be broken, perhaps he had gotten so frail it had broken on landing from a jump. He let me examine it and seemed very sad and pitiful, so I decided he was half-dead enough for a trip to the vet. I put a clean towel he knew into the cat carrier box, and then set him in without incident, he was nervous, but too worn out to actively protest, he immediately settled onto the comfort towel, and off we went.

The veterinarian office has two doctors, one male and one female, and a predominantly female staff of animal technicians and office staff. Many of these people take their dogs (and bird) to work, and some sat with their mistresses in the reception area. Our cats’ doctor is the woman (both are good vets). She pointed out that Pepper’s nose-pad was nearly white (a grayish white), as were his paw pads. This indicated loss of blood or a low red blood cell count. His paw had no sensation, demonstrated by pinching it with sufficient force that the old Pepper would have scratched your eyeballs out before putting up with it. They took a blood sample and had lab work done that day, which revealed that Pepper’s blood cell count was 6 on a scale where a normal feline level would be 30 to 40. The lab noted they had never measured such anemic feline blood. The limp paw was the result of a clot cutting off circulation. Subsequent blood tests eliminated a number of feline diseases that can result in low red blood counts; some kind of cancer was guessed at but testing shed no light on this conjecture. A transfusion was arranged for, with the donor being one of the doctor’s robust cats.

Pepper stayed at the clinic for two nights, first getting his transfusion and then building up strength and having periodic blood tests. The major fear was that the underlying disease (some type of feline leukemia?) might just eat up the newly transfused blood. So, “30 plus” weight blood went in, and after a few days Pepper’s count stabilized to about 10 or 12. Despite many blood tests and his examination, they could not diagnose the illness. We got several prescriptions for potential causes, as preventatives while analysis continued of his blood samples. The treatment avenues presented were: a biopsy to collect a bone marrow sample for analysis, and if diseased then consider a bone marrow transplant, or a painless termination; or wait and see. Pepper was in much better spirits after three days at the clinic, he was obviously feeling livelier with his richer blood, even if still at about a third of normal red cell count. He had always had an enlarged heart and very fast heart rate, and now we knew it was because he had to circulate far fewer oxygen carrying cells (blood is liquid rust) to convey the oxygen exchange his body mass required. The good sign was that his blood count, while in the low double digits, did not continue to drop. The clinic staff had lavished affection on him, and he had been treated to meals of tuna, which it was noted “he loves.” He came home less skittish about other people, and with a relatively mellower (but not actually mellow) disposition. Transfusion, plus lab work, plus overnight stays, plus drugs all came to a total of over $1000. So, we owned “The Thousand Dollar Cat” with the mystery disease, which we didn’t know if it had passed, or was cured, or in remission, or just getting started. The drugs proved useless, Pepper rejected the pills, which were very big, and the liquids whether shot into his mouth or mixed into food. We didn’t belabor this point.

Pepper was a nice affectionate little neurotic cat, but I began to think that cat replacement might be a more affordable expense to more treatment. I know cat lovers will say each cat has a unique personality, so the expense of saving any one cat is worth it. But, you can buy an awful lot of cat personality for a thousand bucks. I wonder if corporate executives for health insurance businesses and government policy-makers for healthcare think about human personalities in the same way? In any case, we decided to trust to luck, and asked Pepper’s vet what people did in the old days for conditions like Pepper’s. Wouldn’t you know: aspirin. The recommendation was to grind (use a mortar and pestle) an 81 milligram aspirin (the dose used for daily blood thinning to counteract hypertension in humans), and give one quarter of this powder to Pepper, mixed into a guaranteed swallow like tuna or salmon, every three or four days. Pepper took to this regimen, and looked forward to his soft “special food” fish treats. To hide the grit of the aspirin powder, a good amount of salmon or tuna was used, to the cat’s delight.

Naturally, Honey quickly learned that special food was available. He was always conscientious to give Pepper the mouth and butt smell check whenever Pepper came home, so as to divine what had gone in and come out. It became too difficult to divert Honey into going outside when Pepper was getting his aspiring-laced fish meals, so a parallel feeding became necessary. Anything Pepper failed to lap up Honey would devour. Since these delicious meals were only offered every three days, Honey has become a complete neurotic, an addict waiting his fix. He wanted to be sure he was in when the special meals happened, but he was uncertain when that was, and he also wanted to go out to play, so he can oscillate between in and out many times during the day if allowed (I’ve taken to not letting him in sometimes), and he yowls for the special food every time he comes in. I point to his bowl of “crunchies,” and he looks at me and yowls. Then he nibbles a few, wants out, and we continue to cycle.

Pepper steadily grew stronger and more active over the following weeks, and after about two months used his paw as before. However, he never completely recovered his original vitality. The veterinary clinic asked us to let them study Pepper at their expense, to learn what was going on. We declined the offer because it entailed boxing the cat for weekly trips to the clinic for the taking of blood samples and brief exams. I’d like to know, but we already had an understanding with Pepper about the whole question of mortality versus freedom. The vet was entirely amazed that any cat could live with a middling single digit red blood cell count, it was thought to be impossible. So, Pepper became our Miracle Cat.

About a year of happy cat routine followed. Then, over the course of several weeks, Pepper became increasingly forgetful and absent-minded even though he had regained the full use of his limbs, and had returned to daily outdoor activities. On a few occasions he has been away for one of two nights, and I wondered if he might not wander off and forget how to get back, or have a stroke or heart attack out in the woods and never return. He would huddle by his plastic cup of water in the bathroom-haven with the litter box, all day or all night, as if guarding his water from Honey or whoever. He had the blank look and slow mental processing of an aphasiac, or of geriatric or post-stroke dementia. He didn’t act oddly, just very little, as if confused about what to do next.

Honey, being a normal amoral feline alpha male would exert dominance over Pepper, and now, despite the feel-good drug, Pepper’s foggy little brain had found it necessary to mark his claims to favored spots. The vet recommend placing multiple litter boxes, and keeping them very fresh, so Pepper would find them inviting at all times. Maybe this helped, it’s hard to tell. Pepper would mark the piles of clean laundry, so we had to fold and/or sequester it immediately. One day with Honey out, Pepper spent the morning sleeping on the couch on top of a nice big towel, while I made good progress on a big article (for my fabulous Internet publishing career). After a productive and quiet period of hours spent in this manner, I heard running water and was horrified to see Pepper calmly urinating right over his resting spot. I rushed over to bunch the towel around the center of the spill, and when finally discharged I scooped up the towel with cat and tossed him outdoors (not roughly, he landed easily on his feet), closing the door after. He took a moment or two to get his bearings, then sauntered off down the hill, maybe under the house. I started a wash. We haven’t seen Pepper since. Maybe he decided this was Honey’s house and he was out of it. Maybe he burst an aneurysm. Maybe he didn’t even remember from one minute to the next. Having known older people with advancing dementia, I think this latter was the case.

So, that is the story of Old Yowler and The Demented Miracle Cat.

I can’t say if there is any significance to this story. It is about the big crises of little lives. Perhaps we are drawn to such animal stories because we sense our own stories are generally similar. What are for us major events are insignificant to the rest of humanity, and yet we ourselves are not insignificant because consciousness is a most remarkable phenomenon and always a unique experience. It is three years now since Pepper left, and I still find his grey-striped hairs on my jackets.

Memory is a practical and unsentimental things for cats, within a month Honey carried on happily without looking for his brother, and by then we had removed the kitty litter boxes and the second feeding station.

Honey is a jealous lover with a guilt-free Oedipus complex. A few weeks ago my daughter was away for the weekend, and my wife and I enjoyed each other’s company at home without any distractions or interruptions. Honey had gone out, and we did not bestir ourselves to open the door to let him in. Honey has had long practice in determining from outside the house where the people are in its interior. Eventually, Honey was yowling and pawing at the window nearest us, and gazing in with consternation to see that he was missing out on a pile-up in bed. From his first day in our home, Honey had learned that the body-piling he and Pepper had done as kittens in their birth den was also the practice here, which they could do together with the humans in those very ample and comfortable beds. On this occasion Honey’s pleas and protests were to no avail.

Later that day, we decided to dine out, and before dressing I opened the door to let Honey in. He entered yowling and seeking reassurance, which he got as usual: pets, freshened bowl of crunchies, and fresh water in his bowl (he also stalks our showers to jump in as soon as we emerge, and lap up fresh water). While dressing, I noticed that Honey was in one of his frisky moods, chasing imaginary mice in the house. My wife often plays with him, sometimes with the lure on the string tied to a rod, and sometimes hide-and-seek, which he loves and involves cycles of her chasing him and then he ambushing her feet. When frisky, Honey will usually wind himself up to such an excited state that I have to open the door so he can shoot out and “get that mouse!” as my wife will urge him. On this occasion he seemed to settle down to pacing about before finding a resting spot.

Ever vigilant for his true-love mama, he yowled at my wife as she positioned herself in front of a large mirror to dress, then suddenly pounced at her feet as if to start up their game anew. In another instant, Honey had circled her leg, rearing up on his hind legs against her calf, wrapping his front paws with claws outstretched around the calf and into her shin, and sinking his fangs into her calf. Just as quickly, he bounded off in a frisky frenzy. He had drawn blood, but neither the bite nor clawing were deep, they were the clasp of passionate cat love, not the death grip of the rat-killer that severs the spine at the base of the neck. Honey was jealous, and he wanted his true-love mama to pay attention to him! Since that day, Honey has spent numerous languorous hours sleeping in my wife’s lap while she read her book in her reclining chair.

Honey lives in magnificent little lion self assurance, hunting daily with great success (mice, rats, moles, birds), and yowling nightly to his true-love mommy for tuna, or leftover salmon, snapper or chicken. He feels happy and safe. Brat.


Originally published at:

Honey And Pepper, A Cat Tale
4 June 2012