Animal Tales: A cat from a shelter slowly taught me a lesson in pet love

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I am an avid supporter of animal rights -- to be specific, of homeless pets waiting at shelters for their forever homes.

In the summer of 2005, I moved to Oakland to transfer to the University of Pittsburgh's main campus. Even though I was only an hour from my family's home, with our two dogs and one very old but very surly calico cat, I sorely missed having a pet.

There wasn't much money to spare then, but I was more than happy to pay the $75 adoption fee to the Animal Rescue League for a furry feline companion. I adopted Mackenzie -- Kenzie for short -- a gorgeous cat who became the first real test of my transition to adulthood.

She was 2 1/2 years old with big, bright eyes and oversized ears, and a small, white, diamond-shaped patch of fur in the middle of her back.

The first couple years were rough. I quickly learned there was no way I was keeping my bedroom door shut at night anymore; Kenzie would sit outside the door and cry. All night long. She would stop for a little while, but as soon as she heard any trace of movement, she was right back to it. Needless to say, my first roommate hated her.

The next several months were a mixture of crying, incessant meowing, scratching the furniture, peeing on the furniture (good thing we only paid $15 for that couch), hiding, more crying and jumping on the countertop/table/etc. And we're not even going to talk about her reaction to my starting a full-time job after college. That was bad.

I didn't know what to do. I had never had a pet who was so afraid. She didn't know how to play. She apparently never had a reason to be happy before, so she never purred. Three roommates and two years later, Kenzie was doing better but was nowhere near what one would call a normal cat.

I learned about Feliway, an odorless plug-in that releases calming pheromones into the air. I had kitty valium to use on car trips and extended absences, so the cat wouldn't drive herself crazy with anxiety. My family still makes fun of me for having a cat that needs to be on drugs. "Not all the time," I tell them.

Then, nearly three years ago, I bought a house in the South Hills, away from the constant noise of Oakland. With four days' supply of kitty tranquilizers, my cat and I moved to the suburbs. The vet told me to keep her on the drugs for a couple days while she adjusted to her new home; after all, here was a cat who needed routine and sameness like you and I need air to breathe. What happened next amazed me.

Kenzie spent the first few hours exploring the house, but after everyone left, she was ... calm. I never needed the tranquilizers. She curled up beside me, purring; she jumped in the windows; she ran up and down the stairs. She was happy.

City life, as it turned out, was not for this cat. She took to the quietness of suburban life instantly. It also didn't hurt that I had been dating my boyfriend, now my fiancé, who had become a mainstay in her little cat life. To this day, Kenzie absolutely adores him.

She has opened up in ways I never thought possible. That's not to say we don't still have our issues: I still keep a Feliway plug-in during the winter months; Kenzie tends to get stir-crazy when she can't sit in an open window and listen to the birds. She is still the most vocal cat ever; I really don't know how she doesn't lose her voice after all that meowing. And for rare occasions, I do keep a small supply of kitty valium on hand to "get her over a mental hump," as my vet would say.

Kenzie now loves to be held (though I'm the only one allowed to pick her up), she actually plays and she purrs constantly. What have I learned through all this? Pets, especially cats, require owners to adapt to their habits and needs; it's not the other way around.

Adopting a homeless pet from a shelter can be one of the most rewarding experiences, but it is a serious decision and not for the faint of heart. Kenzie, like many shelter pets, had a lonely, unhappy past, and some pets may never fully get over that. However, with a great deal of love, patience, kitty or dog whispering and people training, both pet and owner come away with a relationship that can only be defined in purrs and tail wags.


Julia E. Johnson of Baldwin Borough, a marketing manager, can be reached at PG Portfolio welcomes "Animal Tales" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.

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