Dear Max,

You were an affectionate kitten, but you were shy with strangers and loud noises.
I know now that this is because you weren’t socialized enough when you were very young (about 7-14 weeks of age), but back then this kind of knowledge wasn’t readily available. We figured part of the problem was that we lived in an old wooden house and when anyone came to visit there was a lot of noise from the doors and the stairs as they came up to the living area. We knew you were sensitive to noise because you hid even when we got loud.
Because I was trying to get into veterinary school, volunteering was an important thing for me to do. They like to see volunteer time spent working with different types of animals as well as with people. What better way to spend time with people and with my beloved pet than to visit a nursing home to share my wonderful kitten?
Once a week I packed you up into your carrier and off we went to spend an hour touring a local nursing home. The staff was welcoming and they would pat you as I carried you from room to room. Some of the seniors were thrilled to see a cat; their faces would light up when I arrived at their door and asked, “Would you like to visit with my cat?”
I remember one lady in particular in the activity room. She was in a wheelchair with a tray across the front, slouched down with her chin almost on the tray. When we came up to her, she patted the tray, and I set you down on it. You sat quietly as her arthritic hand stroked your fur and she told me a story about the kittens she remembered from the farm when she was a child.
As we left the room, a staff member touched my arm, tears in her eyes. “I heard that story she told you.”
I smiled and nodded.
“Sweetie, that lady is non-verbal.”
Max, just sitting with you for a few seconds, just the feel of your soft fur under her hand was enough to bring that lady back for a few seconds; to compel her to connect with someone. You gave her something the staff thought was lost, even if only for a few moments.
When I look back now, with the knowledge we have about stress in cats and how they respond when they are afraid, I think of how much trust you put in me. You were probably terrified every time we went out to tour a building full of strangers, but you stuck with me. Instead of taking off down a hallway or hiding in a closet or clawing to escape, you just let me carry you around.
Even so, it didn’t take me long to realize that these visits were too hard on you, so we stopped them. But I think about that lady who had lost the ability to speak until she spent a little time with you. I hope that nursing home has a cat living there now, for people like her.
From our nursing home visits, Max, you taught me things I’m still learning about:

  • Pets can reach people and touch our hearts and minds in ways we can’t predict and still don’t understand.
  • Sometimes you have to be really observant to see the stress in your pet’s (especially cats) body language.
  • Young kittens and puppies have a time in their lives (around 7-14 weeks of age) when you can expose them to new experiences and they will learn to accept them quickly.
  • New experiences later in life are harder to accept, but now we know more about how to help our pets through them. If you have a nervous pet, your veterinarian can help.