According to an evolutionary time-line exhibit at Wyoming’s Fossil Butte National Monument, dogs and cats shared a common ancestry until 42 million years ago. Factions from both groups ultimately took the plunge into domestication, so what drove them apart to begin with?
My musings on this subject are rooted in the reference to “42.” As a fan of the late British sci-fi writer and satirist Douglas Adams (1952 – 2001), I treasure any mention of the number. Actually, I’m obsessed with it. The first paragraph in this article, for instance, contains 42 words, but that was an accident. Wasn’t it?
In Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a BBC radio production turned into a ‘trilogy’ of ‘five’ novels, “42” turns out to be the answer to “life, the universe and everything.” I collect such references, and wrote an article in homage to Adams in 2009. He has yet to properly thank me for it … unless, of course, it was he who sent the cat.
Cats and Dogs: Irreconcilable Differences?
My interest in cats and dogs and their relationships with us and each other comes from a lifetime of living with dogs and a good little while of living with one particular cat named Goofus.
Some rifts in the ancestral dog-cat community seem painfully obvious — especially from the cat’s perspective. Grace, for instance, though not entirely lacking in the canine, reaches the level of an art-form in felines.
Some dog-cat predecessors preferred a unilateral gait, both right legs stepping forward together and vice versa. Others — “plodders and klutzes,” as our cat would call them — adopted a bilateral gait — right front and left rear. Humans do this with our arms, a point which pretty much seals the inferiority of it in the cat’s view.
Then, there’s the collarbone. Humans and canines apparently agreed on this one also.
“Yes, of course we want collarbones; see how big and strong they make our shoulders look?”
We might assume that the cat would have taken the plunge into vanity on this point, but for the cat, survival is the most attractive thing on the menu. Proto-cat valued the ability to squeeze through narrow spots — a feat which is compromised when the limitation is the width of your shoulders and not your head. Cats have “floating” collarbones, buried in their shoulder muscles.
Several other features ensure the feline’s survival. Sensitive and functional whiskers, adjustable and independent ears, and elliptical pupils make hunting at night a viable option. The dog yawns and wonders why anyone would want to go out at night, when everyone’s sleeping.
There is also the whole “sniffing the butt” ritual. Though it is one of the canine’s greatest pleasures, it remains unseemly to the feline. The cat is also offended by the whole obedience thing. Tolerating the propensity of the dog to throw all dignity to the wind for the sake of trifles is, as I am assured, one of the thankless burdens of being a cat.
“And those tales! You look like you’re being followed by an invisible oscillating fan. Is that why you chase them? Just trying to get them to slow down?”
Animal Abandonment & Rescue
Despite the cat’s self-proclaimed superiority, it was the dog who saved the cat, at least in our lives. According to the ASPCA, a pet is beaten or neglected every 60 seconds.
One such victim was a six-month-old strawberry-blonde, neutered male tabby, who was dropped off in the middle of nowhere in the summer of 2010. With shelters filled to capacity during the recession and embarrassment no small factor, many animals were abandoned along rural roads to survive or die by their own wits.
The middle of nowhere is where we live. The first thing we noticed was a beautiful cat watching Rich from afar as he worked in the barn, on the vehicles and preparing firewood for the upcoming winter. His coat was so thick and luxurious that we assumed he had a home. Then, as I walked our trails with Hunter, my black Lab guide dog, I heard a small animal following us.
“These rabbits are getting really brazen,” I thought, but it wasn’t a rabbit. It wasn’t a squirrel either.
One night, with a stone wall between us, he talked to me, and I was smitten. As winter approached, he started hanging around more often. We began suspecting that he was a stray. We didn’t really want a cat. I was allergic, and how fair would it be to Hunter to bring an interloper into our little family?
We put food out for him, and somebody ate it. Toward the end of November as the temperatures dipped below freezing, he approached Hunter and me with the most mournful and urgent tale. Animals don’t generally want anything to do with me. They must see that I have one of their kind in harness and don’t want to risk a similar fate. But, this cat was desperate and, in all fairness to his dignity, he had been vetting us for months.
The Reality of Goofus
When we finally got our hands on him, we realized that he was all skin and bones, infested with worms and covered in ticks. We thought he had been declawed; even when Rich spread his toes, he could see nothing resembling a claw.
“We’ll just get him cleaned up and healthy. Then we’ll give him to the shelter.”
Yeah, right. Our local Humane Society is a “no kill” shelter, and they were full. By the time they had room, we loved him, and Hunter decided that kitty could stay.
“He’s OK; he’s just a little trouble.”
We supplemented his food with homemade turkey breast. We got him a litter box, which he refused to use. Having spent so much of his short life outdoors, he wasn’t comfortable staying inside. For months, he continually flexed his claws, trying to get his strength back. As his health returned, he began shunning human food, running to leave the house whenever we showed the slightest inclination to eat.
Goofus became a skilled hunter, ridding our barn of mice. And my allergies? Not an issue; he smells like the great outdoors.
Cat and Dog: Brothers and Friends
Goofus maintains a curiosity about Hunter’s diet. He is allowed to stick his head in the bowl while his brother eats. More amazing than Hunter’s tolerance is that Goofus, who is fastidious to the extreme, is willing to risk being pelted with bits of flying food and that Hunter, who enjoys the stereotypical Labrador fondness for anything remotely edible, never touches kitty’s food.
Hunter likes to run up to whatever chair Goofus is in and smash his snoot into him, sneezing and slobbering. Goofus, who is still wary of most dogs and humans, accepts these overtures without hesitation or complaint. They head-butt and sprawl on the floor together, and they keep each other’s confidences.
Many times, when I can’t find kitty, I have asked Hunter to find him. Hunter, who dug my glove out of a foot of snow and who comes running at the sound of me dropping anything, will not show me where Goofus is.
Only once did he break from this policy. Goofus had been gone for three days. We were convinced we’d lost him. One evening after lots of tears, I took Hunter out for a break. In a last-ditch effort I said, “Can’t you find kitty for Mama?”
He led me into the high grass where I found a cowering, but otherwise unharmed Goofus, who allowed himself to be scooped up into my arms and returned to the house. He’d probably been treed by a neighbor’s dog.
Nowadays, Goofus spends most of his time in our laps or at least keeping our chairs warm. My knitting is out in the open all over the house, and he never touches it. He still enjoys accompanying us on our last walk of the evening. In summer, he escorts us to the door and then peels off into the night.
Dogs and Cats in The Heart of Applebutter Hill
Curly Connor, half black Lab and half Golden Retriever, and Emmett, a rescued orange tabby kitten, each play a prominent role in my novel, The Heart of Applebutter Hill. Curly Connor works as a guide dog for the fourteen-year-old heroine Abigail, a shy singer-songwriter.
The Fluffer-Noodle, as she often called him, was over two years old and had long since developed specific ideas about how things should be. When something was not to his liking, Abigail and her best friend Baggy Brichaz would say that it had “offended his delicate sensibilities,” and the prospect of spending a splendid May afternoon indoors was threatening to do just that. (The Heart of Applebutter Hill, Chapter 1)
Abigail and Baggy attend the Plumkettle Learning Center. Emmett shows up during the headmaster’s speech on the first day of the summer term.
Abigail, who was sitting midway back along the center aisle with Curly Connor at her feet, lost the thread of the headmaster’s speech as people around her began to whisper. Several girls a few rows ahead squealed, as one of them picked up the orange kitten that had been outside when they arrived. All over the auditorium, heads turned toward them.
“Ah, yes,” said Cinderbin back at his microphone, “You have discovered Emmett.” He paused as everyone looked toward the squealing girls. “Stand up, Miss Brown,” he said to the girl holding the purring kitten, “Emmett has adopted the Plumkettle Learning Center. He started showing up at Transition House a week ago. After they succumbed to feeding him several times, Mrs. Shafer and Mrs. Ervy thought it would be prudent to name him.” (The Heart of Applebutter Hill, Chapter 26)
While Curly Connor provides a glimpse into the working relationship between human and canine, Emmett’s role shows humanity’s dark side. He is targeted by a group of students who take more pleasure from hurting animals than loving them. Does Emmett survive? Come find out.
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“In a way, the tale acts as an all-encompassing guide to childhood, as it details the struggles of bullying, consumerism and being cast from society.”
1/1/14, Michael Wintermute, Wyoming County Press Examiner
‘Meshoppen author pens mystery novel’ http://wcexaminer.com/?p=39493
“It was a great adventure story with likable, well-rounded characters with lots of different abilities and struggles — many of which kids rarely get to read about! My favorite was Curly Connor, not many writers write dogs this well! …”
10/22/13 Max Ray, Comments on homepage http://DonnaWHill.com
“Hill believes The Heart of Applebutter Hill will help sighted readers understand the reality of blindness as well as give blind youngsters a character with whom they can identify. Reviewers agree.
‘Hill has done a superb job conveying the impact of going blind, as her heroine finds refuge in music and fantasy,’ playwright Uke Jackson wrote.’
‘I believe Hill has a gem here,’ wrote University of Scranton professor emeritus Patricia Gross. ‘I particularly savored the poetry and songs that underlay the action.” “I believe Hill has a gem here,” wrote University of Scranton professor emeritus Patricia Gross. “I particularly savored the poetry and songs that underlay the action.'”
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This was a very enjoyable read. I didn’t know that cats and dogs were once related, and like you and Rich, we ‘adopted’ a stray (my daughter named him Salem) 14 years ago. He spends much more time indoors these days than he used to, and his hunting skills have given way to a liking of Friskies, but he still prefers to do his business outdoors.