The Pee Problem: Making a Mockery of My Horror

I’ve got a cat pee problem.

The cat in question is Putter (pronounced “put-her”), an 11-year-old tortoiseshell female we adopted the day before I found out I was pregnant with Andy. At the time we had a Doberman and a business of ferrets–four, to be exact. She was a tiny kitten and she took her share of abuse from the weasels who thought she was one of them. Ferrets have tough skin and bite each other hard, and they used to drag her around by the scruff of her neck. They toughened her up. Then Andy arrived and rocked her world. The dobie died, we adopted Nugget, our collie mix, and Gimli came along as a stray kitten shortly thereafter. And then–Heaven help her–Ben was born. A few months after Ben came along we rescued Maya, our German shepherd. Now, Panther has moved in too, and through it all Putter has been more tolerant than I’d have expected a cat to be. She does seem to try. She bonded with Gimli, ignores Nugget, hates Benjamin, and hides from Maya. She despises Panther and adores both Shawn and my electric blanket.

Needless to say, the cat has endured a lifetime of inconsistency. Animals, children, and chaos all coming and going. It’s not ideal. But the urinating is only a recent development. She’s hung on for a long time. Like all female cats, Putter’s been under the impression that this is her house and that she’s the monarch. At times she appeared so stately that we were convinced the urinator was Gimli. I’d yell at him and run him off and grumble about selling him down the river, and I feel pretty bad about this, in hindsight. Only in the last year did we figure out who the real culprit was.

There’s always a reason for an animal’s physical attributes, and evolution had a plan for cat pee. Unneutered male cats have a high concentration of Felinine in their urine so that when they mark a tree in the wild, the scent can power through rain and still act as a stinking, blinking beacon in the yard for any other dude who decides to wander through. Nature, you sly genius. However, Putter’s girly urine still contains more than enough Felinine to ruin my carpet.

The pet stores are happy to sell me a variety of cat pee products. Things that crystallize. Things that de-funkify. Things that repel. The Nature’s Miracle people would have me believe that their enzyme formula is the way to go, that enzymes are really the only tool for combating the smell. I’m not so sure. I’ve spent several hundred dollars on big gallon jugs of Nature’s Miracle, saturating the carpet over and over again. The smell always remains. And if I can smell it, Putter can smell it. That stink is a big flashing cat sign: Liked it the first time? Come on back! 

While I’m fighting this battle with the world’s rudest amino acid, I’m also going slowly insane. The pee has gotten into my head. In the first few months, I could easily detect the smell of cat pee. I’d walk up the stairs and get a whiff. I’d announce to Shawn that there was fresh cat pee somewhere. He’d never be able to smell it, but I’d get down on my hands and knees and crawl around with my schnoz smashed into the carpet until I found the wet spot. Then, like a pointer, I’d tense and alert the family. Pee! I found pee!

But after a few months, I guess I went a little nose-blind. In Pavlovian style, I learned to associate the smell of Nature’s Miracle with the presence of feline urine, and the two scents blended together to form a ball of confused frustration in my sinuses. Had I or had I not treated that particular swatch of carpet? Was it damp because I had just cleaned it the day before or was it damp because Putter had peed on it again? I started spending more time on the floor, bloodhounding my way around the room, baying when I thought I found another wet spot.

These days, it goes like this: Walk up the stairs, stop in my tracks. Do I smell something? Is that cat pee? Enter Ben’s room, drop to my hands and knees. Smush my nostrils into the carpet and proceed to hoover around the room. Sniff. Fresh pee or old pee? Damp or dry? Felinine or Nature’s Miracle? Can’t decide. Get in the car and drive to Petco. Purchase a gallon of enzymatic cleaner for $42.99. Return to the room and pour the entire bottle into the corner. Sit and watch the puddle. Sniff the puddle. Sniff my pants. Ask myself if they smell, too. Remove my pants. Sniff the knees of the pant legs and decide they reek of pee. Wash the pants with enzymatic cleaner. Sit in Ben’s room with no pants and watch the puddle dry. Open a window. Air out the room. Sniff the cuff of my shirt. Imagine it smells like pee. Remove the shirt. Wash the shirt. Sit in Ben’s room in my underwear and watch the puddle dry. Leave the house in clean clothing to go to Ben’s Halloween party at school. Ask my friend if I smell like cat pee. When she says no, decide she’s wrong. Subtly remove myself from the group and retreat to the corner of the classroom so nobody can smell me. When Shawn arrives, ask him if he smells cat pee on me. Tell him he’s wrong when he says no. Go home. Notice the yard smells like cat pee. Take off my clothing again. Notice the dog smells like cat pee. Notice the shower smells like cat pee. Drive to Petco in clean clothing. Buy another gallon of enzymatic cleaner. Pour it on the rug and watch the puddle dry in my underwear. Sniff my hair. Wash my hair. Ask the mailman to come upstairs and tell me if he smells pee. Argue with him when he says no.

I bought Putter an expensive self-cleaning litterbox. She likes it. She uses it. There’s no evidence that she’s peed on the rug since I gave it to her. She seems to be happy.

But I still smell pee everywhere. On me, on you. It clings to the curtains, to the trees. It blows in on the wind. I smell pee in the car, on the kids. The plates come out of the dishwasher reeking of urine. When people come to the house I turn on fans and open windows. I light candles and flick on my Scentsy warmers. I bake a turkey so the house smells like roasting bird flesh rather than cat whiz. I ask Shawn and the children to smell the rugs, the wood, and my own body over and over again. I inhale until my lungs hurt and I get woozy.

And nobody else can smell it. Nobody believes me.

They say that if you can question your sanity, then you’re still sane, but I’m not sure if that applies to someone who spends half of the day on her stomach inhaling a faceful of ammonia.


The Problem With Panther

Another cat post. Boy, this lady must really dig her cats, huh?
Honestly, I don’t think I’m a true cat person. I like cats. I enjoy cats. But my beating heart is 100% dog. While the rest of you are watching cat gifs, I’m watching dog gifs. I think perhaps it’s because my OCD brain–which tries so hard to figure each and every one of you out, and analyze why you just said to me what you did, for better or worse–needs a dog, an animal who, though not simple by any means, is not complicated in a moody teenager way. I understand dog. I speak dog. For years I’ve read about dog behavior. On a most fundamental level, dogs truly want to belong to us. Dogs are no longer wolves. Their society is our society; we came together 40,000 years ago. And though it was a mutually beneficial relationship that eventually spawned the collie mix snoring on the pillow beside me as I write this, let us not ever believe that the dog is a foolish creature because she is not a cat.

The domestic doodle

The dog showed up in wolf-form at an ancient human encampment, or more likely on the edge of it, to scavenge the scraps. In so doing, they deterred other predators from approaching. Gradually, both canid and hominid recognized the potential benefits of this relationship, and as braver and tamer wolves got closer to humans, the two species forged quite possibly the oldest interspecies relationship built on trust and love. It’s foolish to say that humans domesticated dogs; I think it’s far more likely that dogs saw humans as a very workable project. They’re a most opportunistic species–just look at the way Maya can’t stop herself from snatching a hot dog off the counter, the way Nugget cleaned out a bag of butterscotch chips the other day. If a dog sees a benefit, she’s not about to wait around, and no matter how much she wants to please, her dogginess tells her that she needs that wiener, just in case there won’t be another meal coming. Eat while you can, and trust that your soft ears and wagging tail will earn you the forgiveness of your person.

The dog fits well into our lives because she chooses to, because humans and dogs grew up together over the last forty thousand or so years. And thus, I think humans are good at speaking dog. I understand dog. I know why a dog does what she does. They fundamentally make sense to me, and the dog wants to make sense to her human. (Because if she makes sense, the human is happy, and a happy human offers food and love. And food.)
Cat, on the other hand, doesn’t give a shit. 
This is where cat loses me. Why, cat? Why don’t you give a shit?
Cats are opportunistic too. It’s just that ancient cats didn’t see us as a necessary part of the equation. William S. Burroughs wrote that “the cat does not offer services. The cat offers itself.” How true. And while dog genetics are distinguishable from wolf genetics, cat and wildcat genes don’t offer the same level of distinction. They’re blurrier, indicating that the cat is only kinda, sorta domesticated. Any cat owner will confirm this. I have a cat-loving friend who refers to herself as her cats’ staff.
Cats don’t need us, really. They’ve been content to drift in and out of human lives, to cross paths with us when coincidence so dictates, making appearances on pyramid walls and in oil paintings from eras bygone. The dog in those paintings sits at the side of the monarch, his head in a lap, leaning, as they do, on a human leg. The cat in those paintings is off to the side, and probably disappeared long before the artist even finished opening his paints.
I have cats. I had two, until recently: Putter (Put-her, as in putter tat) and Gimli (Son of Gloin). I like the cats. They’re soft and meowy. Gimli is neurotic; Putter is more of a cuddle bug. She has moments of catly joy. But Putter also likes to pee on Ben’s rug when she gets angry. She likes to play and play and play and then bite. She gets offended when I sneeze and stalks out of the room with her butt parts exposed in my direction. 
She’s a cat. 
Now, enter Panther, who is a different sort of beast than my family is used to. The other two cats live strictly indoors, but Panther came to us as a homeless chap who had been living outdoors. He uses the bathroom outdoors. Like all indoor/outdoor cats, he must roam. He simply must. His urge to come inside is driven not by his desire to find love and physical contact with his humans (who have grown to love him) but to find his bowl filled upon demand. Let us not kid ourselves by thinking that Panther would have stayed with my family if we weren’t providing piles of food. 
And I do mean piles: he’s 18.5 pounds. 
I really do enjoy Putter and Gimli, but not on the same level that I love my dogs. Hence, the “dog person” label I’ve always worn. If the kids are the heart and soul of our family, the dogs are the lungs. We need them to help us take a moment to breathe. They’re right there in our midst, rolling on the floor with and snuggled up to our precious children. And now, suddenly, so is Panther. Unlike Putter and Gimli, Panther has inserted himself directly into the middle of the family unit. He’s here with the dogs. He doesn’t see any reason why he shouldn’t be involved in our activities, in our living room moments. And like the employee who makes himself invaluable to the company by refusing to leave the office, Panther has so become a member of the inner sanctum in fewer than two months.
No matter his motives, that’s very dog-like, in a way.

But Panther isn’t a dog. Though he’s made it onto the living room couch, he still succumbs to his need to do cat things. The problem with Panther is that he’s a killer. In the last week I’ve pried a (sort of) live Goldfinch from his mouth and discovered a quivering, chewed chipmunk under the television stand. I hate this part of cats. I’ve always fed wild birds and squirrels. The activity at the feeders gets me through the long winters. Now, I hesitate to fill them up, as it might be akin to a flashing arrow that reads: Buffet Line Begins Here. Our yard, a hidden acre in the middle of Wheeling sheltered by silver maples, poplar, pine, and oaks, provides sanctuary for a huge range of wildlife, most of which is edible. As I mentioned in an earlier post, statistics indicate that domestic housecats kill between 3.7 and 6 billion wild birds each year. Billions.  
Frantic chipmunk in the bathroom

I don’t like those numbers. At times I think that Panther’s presence in our lives has ruined the chance for a healthy wild bird population out there. At times, I wish he’d bypassed our house altogether. 

He didn’t come home yesterday morning. Nightly, he vanishes into the yard when Shawn goes to bed, and I welcome him home in the morning with a bowl of meat. So when I blindly opened the door in the foggy dark and no warm form came barreling past my legs, announcing himself with a loud squawk, I was surprised. The sky lightened, and I drank my coffee and waited for him. As the kids ate breakfast I kept a vigil at the door (as much as I hate to admit that it was a vigil, I would be lying if I said otherwise). When the sun rose high, I walked the neighborhood, looking for a carcass on the streets around the house, but I found no trace of Panther. 

Since his arrival in our lives, I’ve warned the children that cats who go outdoors rarely live as long as indoor cats. They must run the nightly gauntlet of cars, coyotes, and other cats. Things happen. Some never come home, leaving their families always uncertain of their fate. But Panther is New Hampshire Cat: he chooses to Live Free or Die. And knowing this gave me a tiny but palpable slice of consolation as I waited for him to appear in the kitchen. At 2pm he finally limped in, crying. His breakaway collar was gone and x-rays revealed no visible fractures but did show a twisted ulna. He purred while they worked on him, while the techs shaved his paw and wrapped him in a splint. I saw a burly, furry-faced vet tech carrying him like a baby. (Cats purr when they are happy and content, but they also purr when they’re injured. This article in Animal Wellness talks about the idea that the vibration of the purr may actually induce healing in the cat body. “Interestingly, research has shown that exposure to frequencies at that same 20 to 50 Hz [as a cat’s purr] induces increased bone density, relieves pain and heals tendons and muscles.”
Miserable cat still manages to find his appetite

There’s nothing more pathetic than a cat in a cast. He hobbles around the house, desperate to get outdoors, back to his catly routine, but his pain levels keep him subdued. The evening after the injury, his breathing was sharp and ragged. He panted and drooled until his pain meds kicked in, and yet, every time I moved him, he purred as he endured the process. Thankfully, he’s accepted the litterbox as a substitute for the neighbor’s garden. 

The real problem with Panther is that I’ve developed feelings for him, stronger feelings than I expected. He gives me no indication that I am particularly high on his priority list. My number one job is to be at the back door no later than 6am with a can of Fancy Feast dished out and waiting. (The price for tardiness is steep: he trips me as I try to prepare his meal.) And yet, he appeals to me in a way that no other cat has before. He’s huge, and he’s butch, with his testosterone-fueled stud jowls. In every way he’s disrupted our lives. But he’s got a quality that my other cats lack, and I wonder if it’s a product of his former life as an orphan. There’s something about Panther that’s genuine, a quality I don’t see in a lot of cats. It’s not that they’re necessarily disingenuous because cats don’t pretend to be anything they aren’t. Panther, however, seems to possess a quiet gratitude for his recent adoption into our lives. Sometimes he looks at me, his eyes constantly runny and watering from what the vet thinks are allergies, and I see acknowledgment. And when I bend to kiss his forehead–something I have never done with Putter and Gimli because I’ve never been much of a cat-kisser–he bows his head down and parts his ears and offers up a robust purr. I think it’s a thank you.
Blissful domestication
and uneasy tolerance

Panther and I both feel uncomfortable with labels. I’m not willing to commit to a cat-person label, and he’s not sure he wants to wear the mantle of semi-domestication. As I type, his pupils are huge because he’s watching falling leaves and mistaking them for fluttering songbirds. Though he’s comfortable here on the couch, it’s only a matter of time before he’s back out there looking for his inner wildcat.

Things Happen

I like even numbers. They comfort an OCD, Type A adult like me. I never have to worry about an extra element. Four members of the Roberts family. Two adults; two kids. Two in the back seat, two in the front.

I repeated the pattern with our critters. We had four ferrets, four guinea pigs. (Don’t get me started.) Two cats, two dogs. It’s just enough. No more than any couple needs. Shawn and I have a house full of life that can be paired off, divided up, and simply calculated. Sometimes I wonder if we stopped our family at two kids just so I could ease my brain with soothing numbers.

That, and the terror of accidentally creating another Ben.

My time in grad school has ended, and over the summer, life began to show me hints of settling into normalcy. Ben has largely stopped trying to kill himself. Andy’s Tourette Syndrome is under control. Work for me is slow but steady, and the household budget has become predictable and even now that I no longer have to write tuition checks.

But nature doesn’t like things to be all wrapped up in a neat package. It prefers entropy. A gradual descent into chaos.

Enter: the monkey wrench.

We returned home from our Fort Myers Beach vacation in the dark due to delays and storms. The pet sitters had left the dog bowls out on the porch, and as we lugged suitcases in the darkness, a round form humped its way off the deck and into the shadows. Whatever the varmint was – no doubt one of them trash pandas – it had been snacking on leftover chow, as varmints do.

But my mom reported a cat sighting to me the next day.

“Your dad saw a big, gray cat on the porch before dawn,” she said.

“No,” I corrected. “That wasn’t a cat. It was huge. Definitely a raccoon.” No feral cat would be so large or so bold.

Gargantuan cat

But it was a cat, and the next evening as we worked on dinner, I went out onto the deck and there he was. He was a great beast of an animal, one of the biggest cats I’ve ever seen. He had what the cat books refer to as stud jowls: puffy cheeks and the solid block of a head that come from a lengthy exposure to testosterone. Though Maya, the ever-vigilant critter-catcher was lurking nearby, waiting for her chance to terrorize him (our own cats live on the second and third floors of our house while Maya occupies the first floor and basement because she’s such a notorious cat-chaser), I put her inside before she had a chance to attack him. He followed me and the kids up onto the back porch and quite literally dove into a bowl of cat food, face-first. He ate for well over half an hour. Though he was enormous and solid, his spine and hip bones stuck out and he was flea-bitten and wormy. Unloved.

When he was finished with his enormous meal, he stayed with me and the boys, purring and soliciting attention. Shawn, who is far more of a cat person than I, came to the doorway occasionally and shook his head, not wanting to get attached, but knowing that the odds of avoiding it were slim. When the sun went down and the moon came up, the cat was still there, sitting with Andy and me. He’d eaten no fewer than three times, and showed no signs of wanting to leave.

Shawn picked him up and hugged him. “What’s his name?” he asked me.

“Oh come on,” I said. “I don’t want another cat.”

“What’s his name, Laura?”


*     *    *
Contrary to what Shawn will tell you, I wasn’t necessarily in favor of keeping Panther. Contrary to what Shawn will tell you, it was actually Shawn and the boys who pushed me to keep him. I would have been happy to find him a family. Bottomly inspection revealed that he was neutered at some point in his life (late, due to the stud jowls), and his friendliness and patience with our dogs and our boys indicates he belonged to someone who loved him, once. Poor cat.
What do you do when the universe sends you an animal? It happens all the time, especially with cats. My spirituality these days wavers between strong faith and complete disbelief, depending on the day, but this cat chose us, for whatever reason. What do you do when an animal chooses you? Panther simply refused to leave. Within 24 hours he had waltzed into the kitchen and found his way to the living room sofa. Within 3 days he’d established his preferred meal times, arriving before dawn on the back porch for breakfast and between 4 and 6pm for dinner. Panther is 100% comfortable with us and in the notion that this is now his house.
There’s no such thing as a free cat, though. When a cat first shows up, it seems so easy. Oh, a cat, you think. A relatively self-sufficient animal. They use the bathroom outside, so no litter box costs. I’m already buying cat food for the other two, so that won’t go up too much. Just a rabies shot and he’s good. Right?

Wrong. Panther required rabies, distemper, flea control, worming, and FIV and feline leukemia testing. Panther still requires a rabies booster and a microchip. Panther’s first vet bill ran us over $300. 

Free cat my ass. 
*     *     *
I suppose that, as an animal lover, I had two choices: keep the cat or ditch the cat. Older cats have little chance of being adopted out of shelters. And it was clear that Panther considered our house his home, so if we found a family to take him, who knows if he would have stayed or if he would have bailed out and found his way back to us. I’ve given away two cats, and though it was the right call for at least one, I wish I hadn’t. But Panther has been an expensive endeavor. His vet bills, the enormous amount of food that he eats (he ate for 17 straight minutes this morning), the scratching posts (we declawed our other cats, and no, we won’t do that again), the flea meds, and the coup de grâce: the cat door. Because Panther is an indoor-outdoor cat, he goes to the bathroom outside, and when one of us isn’t here to open the door for His Highness, he needs to be able to leave. So we had a cat door install in a basement window, which required precision work from our contractors and will undoubtedly result in a $300+ bill. All so a free cat can barge in and eat our food and sleep on our furniture.

Panther is a real monkey wrench. He’s upset the balance. He’s the odd number. Three cats. Five animals. Nine living creatures in the house. It’s all very uneven. Moreover, I now find that my attention is required not just by differing species (human, canine, feline), but also on different floors. Panther arrives for his breakfast no later than 5:45am. Often I’m up to service him, but when I want to sleep in until 6:30, he’s perturbed by the time I’m up and goes out of his way to trip me as I prepare his morning meal. He’s one of those trippy cats.

But morning used to belong to Putter and Gimli. Maya sleeps in the basement and those early hours provided them with time to come down to the living room and visit with me. They hate Panther. They lurk on the kitchen landing and growl at him while he eats his breakfast, oblivious to their wrath. So now I need to schedule extra Putter/Gimli time upstairs because Panther’s breakfast overlaps with their pre-dawn social hour.

And of course, when I’m upstairs with Putter and Gimli, Maya is downstairs alone. Maya’s sole purpose in life is to watch over her humans, and she gets so lonely that she creeps up the front staircase, trying to rejoin the family on the second floor. When I’m with the dog, the cats are ignored. When I’m with the cats, the dog is ignored. Nugget, at least, can and does follow me anywhere. And until Panther’s arrival, I had a pretty regular routine. Cat up, dog down. Now it’s a free-for-all. Any animal may appear on any other animal’s floor at any given time, triggering snarls and growls and hurt feelings. Yesterday, in fact, Putter was so disgusted by something one of us had done that she took a large and obvious dump on Benjamin’s rug. I just can’t please all of the animals all of the time, and even if I wanted to, I’m a little busy pleasing all of the humans all of the time. As the person who generally runs the household and manages the living beings within it, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed by the sudden disruption of what was already a tenuous balance.

Go ahead, lady. Try to write this blog.

But the universe sent me a cat. The Universe, capital U. When the Universe sends you an animal, I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to take it in.

Maybe Panther is here for a reasons. Maybe he will fight off a wild band of rabid basement weasels when they decide to invade during the frigid winter of 2018. Then again, maybe he’s just here because we smelled like suckers.


Last night at dinner, Panther slunk through the kitchen. I caught a glimpse of something in his mouth and a flash of yellow: one of my cherished goldfinches, the sweet, peeping souls who gather at the drying echinacea flowers in the fall to pick at the seeds. Horrible beast! Shawn took Panther out and pried his jaws open, whereupon the tiny bird flopped out, furious, but seemingly uninjured. I carried it to my parents’ house next door and set it among the flowers where it had a few moments to recuperate.

“Bad cat!” I shouted at him, and he ran away as we all settled back down at the table.

Fewer than ten minutes later, Panther slunk in again with the same bird in his mouth. Dammit! This time he dropped the finch on the foyer rug and it sat there miserably, clearly in worse shape than it had been a few moments ago. Back to the garden it went, but this time I was pretty sure the bird wasn’t long for this world. We covered the cat door to prevent Panther from leaving, told him he was a bad cat, again, and went back to dinner. Which wasn’t warm, any longer.

It took Panther approximately 19 seconds to find his way back to the basement and pry the cover off the cat door. I ran to the finch’s last location and there he was, only a few feet from the poor animal, stalking it. I hollered at him and he darted under the car, watching as I picked up the damn finch. This time, I took it elsewhere, to the neighbor’s yard, and put it up high in a tangled mess of grapevines. Clearly on its last legs, I left it there. Panther did not bring it into the house a third time.

This is the downside of having an outdoor cat. I don’t generally approve of outdoor cats. My own cats are strictly indoor felines for this very reason. I value my bird life tremendously. Now I’m left to wonder if I should suspend my bird-feeding activities for the duration of his tenure with us. If I fill the feeder, aren’t I just ringing the dinner bell?

Perhaps he will eventually transition to an indoor cat. Outdoor cats account for up to 3.7 billion bird deaths annually. I’m a bird person, moreso than a cat person, really. This disturbs me.

It’s an extra dose of monkey wrench in a life I thought was settled.