I've always prided myself on my connection with animals. In my family, I was the dog-trainer, the horse-whisperer, and the wild-animal-rescuer. My mother always said I was our pets' favorite, and I took it as the highest compliment. I secretly thought of myself as Snow White, and all the woodland creatures could sense my inherent goodness.
True story: As a kid, I'd walk outside and hold up my two fingers as a perch, fully expecting a songbird to alight.
I was an only child with an active imagination — yeah, I was weird.
I've gone my whole life believing in my special understanding of animals. Until one.
My cat, Mimi, bites me.
Not all the time, but often enough. Not viciously, but not playfully, either. She bites me casually, which is the most insulting of all.
And I have no idea why. Because otherwise, the cat seems to adore me. All day long, she demands to sit in my lap. As I type this very sentence, she is nuzzling my hands, purring, rubbing her face on my laptop so I'll move it to make room for her. All night, she sleeps in my bed, often on top of me, and she doesn't get up until my alarm goes off.
The only times she bites me are during cuddle sessions that she initiates. One minute, I'm rubbing her ears, and she's purring, drooling with pleasure (drool sounds creepy, but it's a cat thing), and then, all of a sudden —
… my heart.
It hurts my feelings.
Not all wounds leave a mark.
I love my sweet little cat, and I thought she loved me back, I thought I was making her happy, I thought we were on the same page, and she bites the rug out from under me.
I'm a single lady who feels rejected by her cat.
Mimi is sorry-not-sorry about the whole thing. She feels no remorse whatsoever. She doesn't even have the decency to jump off my lap after biting me. She'll stay where she is and slow-blink in satisfaction like, "And let that be a lesson to you."
But what is the lesson, Mimi? Why do we hurt the ones we love?
It took me a long time to mention the problem to my veterinarian. I was ashamed! And I didn't want her to think my cat was badly behaved, even if she is.
I'm an enabler.
Finally I did, and my vet was shocked, but she had a great idea. She surmised it could be dental pain; perhaps I was inadvertently touching a sore molar when I scratched her cheek.
I loved this theory. Maybe I am still the animal-empath I always thought I was, and my cat truly loves me. This is a medical issue; it's nobody's fault.
An expensive dental surgery later, my cat's teeth are much cleaner and healthier.
For biting me.
At our next checkup, I confessed that the problem wasn't entirely resolved. "She's still kind of bitey."
I use the word bitey to make it sound cute, like it's a fun inside joke between Mimi and me, instead of a behavioral problem that's giving me an inferiority complex.
My vet nodded. "She probably gets annoyed with you petting her, but you're misreading the signs."
Another blow to my ego.
I'm a person who misreads signs? Do I come on too strong? Am I living a lie?
So I've become a student of this animal. I'm highly attentive to the attention I give her. I perform Mimi's favorite "chin scratchies" with the focus of a surgeon. When my leg falls asleep beneath her, I readjust with the caution of a nuclear physicist. I've tested many hypotheses — Mimi doesn't like being touched near her shoulder, or late at night, or when she's hungry, when she's bored, when Mercury is in retrograde — and after a painful process of trial-and-bitten, I've concluded there are no circumstances that consistently provoke Bitey McBiterson (another nickname that makes me feel better), nor are there warning signs.
I now have a Ph.D. in Winning My Cat's Approval, and Mimi bit me yesterday.
I'm never getting tenure.
At our most recent annual checkup, my vet was the one to bring it up. She listened and gave me a sympathetic frown. "I guess Mimi's just not a very good communicator."
Oh, I'd say she's too good. I hear her loud and clear. She's like that relative who posts on social media in all caps. Here's Mimi's message:
ENOUGH WITH THE PETTING, BUT YOUR BELLY FAT IS COMFY, I'M GONNA KNEAD IT, LOOK HOW MUCH THERE IS, WOW, YOU SHOULD CUT OUT PROCESSED SUGAR.
It's like, you're right about the sugar, but why are you yelling?
But the truth is, I don't mind it anymore.
I accept that occasional bites are part of our relationship. It's not perfect, but I appreciate Mimi for the complicated feline she is.
I love my cat, even though she bites me.
My cat loves me, even though I annoy her.
Maybe that's Mimi's lesson on love:
No one has all the answers.