Sometimes a particular animal, of any species, makes a certain mark on you and leaves you the sadder for its loss, even if in life it was sometimes problematic. Such an animal was Gatto, our third cat.
Gatto came from a questionable background and I was not pleased at first when he was foisted onto my wife, who had already developed a soft spot for him. He also needed regular veterinary attention, including a diet of special biscuits. Yet we both came to love him greatly and his sudden death, at less than three years old, left us the poorer for his passing.
Gatto was brought into a pet shop one day as a kitten by a lady who used to breed cats on a private basis for the two owners. He was supposedly the offspring of a mother known to them, although we have since wondered whether there was some inbreeding, or at least bad genes passed on. He was ginger apart from his belly which was white, with a sort of light tiger striping on his back, and rather doleful looking eyes. Fiona took a liking to him, but I was unconvinced of the wisdom of having any more cats and so I played down the prospect of having him.
Without going into details, at the time we were very friendly with the owners and Fiona sometimes dropped in to see them at home. One night after they had had terrible problems, one of the owners simply thrust Gatto at Fiona, in essence giving him to her for nothing. She felt she could not refuse, so she brought him home.
Unfortunately it soon became obvious that Gatto had problems. Among other things, the most visible was that his eye ducts oozed a sticky black substance which would encrust around them. The vet advised us to quarantine him, so we kept him in a cage in a room in the house. Thomas did not seem to object to him, but straightaway Kissä made her feelings known. She would go into the room, look at him and hiss loudly at him before skulking off in dismissal. Whether she felt threatened by him, or simply wanted to establish her dominance over him in the hierarchy, was never really clear. In the event she could never be the dominant cat, simply because Thomas was too big and strong for her, and not afraid to pound her if she became over-assertive: a state of affairs which ironically might have led to her picking on Gatto.
We had to take him back to the vets again, and this time there was a fairly large bill to pay. At this point we were not sure if any illness he had was contagious to the other cats or any other of the animals, and I remember tentatively having to ask the vet whether it might be necessary to have him put down to protect the others. In the event it turned out after a few days that it would not be necessary, but Fiona was quite displeased with the people at the shop and the lady breeder, and since then we have not been back there very often.
Having taken him on, however, we agreed that we would try to do our best for him.
Finally released from his isolation cage, Gatto now had to make sense of his new home. Although he had Thomas and Kissä to learn from, he was somewhat slow as a learner. It took him a while to learn how to wash himself, and he never mastered the catflap. The closest he got to doing so was standing at it and tentatively pushing the flap with his head, but despite the fact that the other two used it frequently, he did not seem to grasp the need just to keep pushing until he was through. This meant that we had to provide a cat litter for him. Early on it became apparent that (like most cats) he disliked being watched while "doing the business", so we ended up giving him a covered one, which was much better and also stopped faeces being expelled from the litter tray when he dug a hole for them.
It didn't take long for him to earn the nickname "lovable chump". I think he first got this when one afternoon he attempted to jump from the kitchen table to the kitchen work surface. He made as if to spring a couple of times and then kept recoiling backwards as if hesitant, and then finally leapt. Instead of landing on the work surface he went smack into the door of the microwave oven and dropped onto the floor. Groggily, he stood up and staggered in a wavy line for a few moments before recovering and working off. Fiona and I were convulsed with laughter and agreed it reminded us of the coyote in the Road Runner cartoons. He soon became notorious for these hesitant attempts at leaping, head alternately straining forward and pulling back before committing himself to the act. He was not a fat cat by any means, and on occasion could be quite agile, leaping nimbly over Thomas or Kissä if he wanted to get past them. Judging accurately where to land, though, seemed to be a problem at times.
His relationship with the other two cats was interesting. Thomas he seemed to regard as a playmate as well as a mentor. Thomas did not seem to object to his company, except on those occasions when Gatto wanted to play and Thomas just wanted to be left alone. What then started out as a playfight would end up in Thomas having his patience exhausted and seriously wrestling Gatto into submission, sometimes with the scruff of Gatto's neck in his jaws, at which point Gatto would begin howling in earnest and bring us running to break it up. By and large, though, they got on well. Kissä was much more prickly and at first barely tolerated him. If he walked up to her to sniff her, as cats do, she would wail or snarl and smack him on the head several times in rapid succession with one of her front paws. If he still remained there (her beatings never seemed to deter him), she would again wail or snarl and go bounding off in disgust. Oddly enough he never seemed to show any sign of remembering this sort of treatment and would go happily springing up to her the next day to play with her, usually to get the same thing again. Slowly she came to tolerate him, however, not least because after a long time he began to tentatively whack her back, or would go chasing up and down the stairs after her. It was not unusual to find all three of them sitting in reasonably close proximity to one another, usually on the landing during the day when the sun made it quite warm at the top of the stairs.
The other animals he found it interesting. While he was never a hunter like Thomas, he seemed at times a little too interested in rodents or small lizards, and oddly enough he did not seem to be afraid of Digit the savannah monitor, unlike our other two cats who were distrustful of him. Sometimes we would find him sitting on top of a rodent cage or lizard tank, and he soon learned to jump off if he saw us coming. Thomas did try to teach him how to hunt, mainly by bringing him live or dead mice to play with. Unfortunately Gatto never really did get the hang of what he was supposed to do with them. The dead ones he would sit and gnaw until they were sometimes dismembered: at least one live one managed to escape from him, and we found him looking puzzledly around the hall trying to find it again. As I got bitten by the offending rodent when I caught it, I was not best pleased. Occasionally he would be allowed into the garden if we were outside or in the kitchen, and on one such occasion we watched Thomas and Kissä trying to show him how it was done, sniffing around under the rabbit hutch where a small number of mice would sometimes take up residence. He just did not have the instinct for it.
What was interesting was his relationship to us. Although some cats do become very friendly with their owners and turn into "lap cats", being happy to sit with the human, Gatto was so much so that he was almost like a dog. He would come running up to my wife when she came home, and would often sit for ages on her lap. Even though I was not his "primary human", he would often come up to me in bed to have his cheeks rubbed. It was almost as if we were a pride, with me as the alpha male and him as the cub. After having his cheeks rubbed for a few minutes, he would then lay on my wife for ages before we put the light out, at which point (eventually) he would go to find a place in the bedroom to sleep, or else out on the landing. When not sitting on my wife's lap, he would often sit with us in the front room, paws out in front of him and eyes closed as if asleep while sitting. When he was really asleep, especially during the day, he would often lay on his side curled up, his front paws pulling around his back legs. Latterly, when he found his cat basket in the front room, he would often go into that and sit there. We were worried that he might be trying to hide, but when we observed that Thomas also did this, we guessed it was just another aspect of the way cats like to sit in boxes and the like.
As I have mentioned, Gatto had various health problems, and the vet suggested that his immune system was suppressed. Although he ate meat, it was considered essential following urinary problems to put him on a special diet of biscuits. Even then he continued to nibble at meat, although not much. A routine developed where he learned he would be fed in the morning, and whoever was first out of bed would be miaowed at plaintively until the biscuit bowl was refilled.
Another problem he had, and one whose root cause we never did manage to discern, was that of licking patches of fur bare until the skin beneath showed, sometimes rather raw. There were about three or four such patches, and when they were bare he continued to lick them. Whether it was a stress symptom is unclear: certainly Kissä was not that well disposed towards him, but by the time he was two years old he was at least as big as her, and he did not mind roughhousing it with Thomas, who was much bigger than him. Did he miss us when we were both out working? Certainly he seemed quite emotionally attached to us.
We had often thought that Gatto would not live out a normal cat lifespan, but even so his death came as a sudden shock to us. One Bank Holiday afternoon we were at home when I saw Gatto come tearing down the stairs and into the hall, at which point he suddenly lay down with his legs trailing out behind him in a strange way. I went up to him to see what was wrong, and it became obvious that he only had the use of his front legs. He was barely able to drag himself into a sitting position, and when he had done so he began meowling loudly. At this point we placed him in the cat carrier and rushed off to his usual veterinary clinic. We had to wait a while to see a vet, but in the event it probably made no difference: the veterinarian made a quick inspection and announced that he had had an embolism which had robbed him of the use of his back legs. Furthermore there was nothing they could do to save him, and euthanasia was the kindest - probably the only - option. It was a terrible blow to us both, particularly my wife. I signed the consent form and the nurse rubbed a patch on his foreleg before injecting him with an overdose of pentobarbitol while we held him. In the event the release of death took only a few seconds.
The subject of the death of companion animals, and the grieving process, really merits a separate discussion. Suffice it to say that we were both in tears, and we remained with him for some while before making a decision about what to do. Since burial in our small garden was not an option, we opted to have his body cremated separately and the ashes returned in a casket with his name on it. At some point we will place this in a suitable spot in the garden.
Gatto was not the easiest cat to keep. He could not do some things that we take for granted in cats, he needed a special diet and veterinary attention, and he fretted in the absence of his owners. Yet he was also very loving and affectionate, and both amused us and warmed our hearts. When we called him "lovable chump", it was with affection. He leaves us with many happy memories.
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