“Bad Boy” was a bad cat. His chart was marked with a clear “WILL bite you.” Note, this is different from “MAY bite you.” We knew from experience that Bad Boy didn’t think twice about drawing blood from us. Heck, Bad Boy wouldn’t think twice about drawing blood from his owners! A typical visit with Bad Boy usually at some point involved taking him back in his carrier, looking inside and seeing a really upset cat hissing and swatting at the cage door. “Who wants to help me with Bad Boy?!”
So what makes cats like Bad Boy so “bad” and why in the world do their owners keep caring for them, despite the danger in doing so?
The first step in handling “bad” cats is to accept that they aren’t truly “bad” or aggressive, but rather scared out of their minds. When Bad Boy is somehow captured and shoved in his carrier, then driven to the vet, I truly believe that in his feline mind, he thinks he is being taken to his death. So what would you do if you were being taken to the gallows? Would you fight back? Bad Boy was definitely not going down without a fight.
As to why some cats just freeze up and behave when they are scared vs. others who act more aggressively, this is just a personality difference, and may be influenced by some past experiences as well. Why some cats will allow us to draw blood and give shots without protest is perhaps as puzzling as why some cats are crazy balls of teeth and nails at the vet. Bad Boy was essentially a feral cat who wandered up to a caring home that offered food. He had a strong mistrust of “others,” much like a wild animal. Despite kind words and offerings of food, Bad Boy remained defensive and protective all of his life.
Once we realize these “bad” cats are just scared, we can handle them more effectively. Instead of roughly grabbing them by the scruff and telling them to “stop that!” we calmly and quietly put a towel over them and try to immunize them or listen to their hearts without grabbing or hurting them. This is difficult–both immobilizing a scratching/biting ball of fury, but also keeping calm when something is trying to attack you.
Many cats are so bad/scared, that we simply forego any try at examination and bring out the drugs. We can usually get them into a tight cage and give them an injection of a sedative, which finally allows us to examine them. This is safest and easiest for everyone, including the cat.
It was not too long ago that Bad Boy, now 17 years old (but still bad!) got into a terrible fight. We don’t know what happened, but one day he was not moving much and when he came in, he had terrible infections in three of his paws. Because of his advanced age and some other health problems, Bad Boy was not responding to antibiotics as we expected. He couldn’t walk. He couldn’t go outside. His owners hand-fed him and he had to come into the office several times a week for continued care. Many times we were forced to ask if now was the time to put him to sleep, but something in me could tell that he still had life in him. Perhaps it was when he would still muster up a hiss and a swat at me that I knew we should keep going.
But through this process, by far the worst illness that Bad Boy experienced in his life, he started to change. This was the first time in his life that he was kept inside, for he came to his owners as an outdoor cat and would never accept being an inside cat. But now here he was, stuck inside because he was sick and couldn’t walk. He was rather helpless, even being hand fed. For the first week of this condition, it seemed like he refused to believe the state he was in and still kept up his bad boy behavior. But soon enough, he seemed to relent.
Eventually, he would start purring when being fed. Was this a “nervous” purr? Could he really be enjoying our presence? In the office, I no longer had to bring out the towel and leather gloves. I was careful, but I could examine Bad Boy with my bare hands and eventually he even starting purring in the office.
It was as if after 17 years of “being bad,” keeping up a wall to protect himself from being hurt, he finally realized that the world was perhaps not such a bad place, and that some people could be trusted. We seemed to see this wall removed before our eyes, revealing a cat who for the first time in his life appreciated a cheek rub and a warm house.
After 6 hard weeks of care, Bad Boy actually did heal almost completely. He could stand, his infection was gone, and his feet had returned to normal size. However in an ironic twist of fate, just a few days before Christmas Bad Boy suffered a massive stroke. His owners found him completely unable to stand, and seemingly unable to move out of a curled up position.
When I examined Bad Boy, it was clear that he had indeed suffered a stroke and had major neurological impairment.
Here we had another hard decision upon us. Was it time to let him go, or would Bad Boy make it through another fight? We decided to care for him that day, and it was a touching day we had with him. He was completely disabled, laying down in a somewhat contracted position. Yet he purred all day. I hand fed him and he ate vigorously while purring all the way. He was allowing some major head petting and truly seemed to be enjoying the attention.
However it was obvious that he was not going to survive. He was having some trouble breathing and was terribly disabled. Given the other medical conditions he had and his 17-year-old age, his prognosis for recovery was grave. The very difficult decision to put him to sleep was made.
As his owner and I met and talked about this decision, Bad Boy purred and let us pet him. He even would allow us to touch his feet and would seemingly reach out with his paw just to touch our hands. It was a special moment to see such a strong, bad cat so weak, yet so appreciative of human contact.
In this heavy moment we let him go.
There is clearly a human parallel that Bad Boy teaches. Bad Boy put up a wall for nearly his whole life to protect himself. This made him untouchable. When he finally let that wall down, he ultimately found that the people who care for him did not mean him harm, and he purred.