CATS, I HAVE OFTEN OBSERVED, could teach most of us thing or two about self-esteem.

Unlike people, cats do not need to seek outside approval in order to feel good about themselves. Cats already feel good about themselves.

That is why cats -- unlike dogs, for instance -- do not respond to praise or try to please us by learning dopey cat tricks. Cats already have earned the only approval they need: self-approval.

I thought about all this -- cats, self-esteem, stupid pet tricks and the like -- last week while watching "Late Night with David Letterman" with my own cats, Max and Fluffy.

It was the night Dave -- as I like to call him -- had on a pet therapist named Warren Eckstein who wrote a book called "How to Get Your Cat to Do What You Want." Now, far be it from me to question Warren -- as I like to call him -- or his credentials, but frankly, anyone who . . .

Excuse me for a second.


Let's see. Where were we? Oh, yes. Anyone who is owned by a cat knows that the title of Warren's book should not be "How to Get Your Cat to Do What You Want," but "How Your Cat Gets You to Do What It Wants."

I mean, get this: Warren says that to dissuade a cat from scratching, say, a slubbed silk bedroom chair, all you have to do is tape balloons to the chair. When the cat inevitably bursts a balloon, the sound will act as aversion therapy, scaring the cat into avoiding the chair.

Pardon me a sec.

OK, Fluffy, that's it. If you don't get out of my lingerie drawer and take that catnip mouse with you, I'M TAKING YOU TO THE VET!

But getting back to aversion therapy, I once had a cunning, orange-striped tabby named Harpo who developed a fondness for stalking and attacking expensive, crystal wine glasses. After breaking them, he liked to lap up a good Chardonnay or a saucy little Beaujolais. Which meant giving small, elegant dinner parties was hell. Unless, of course, you like crushed glass in your cheese dip.

Well, I was about five years ahead of Warren in using the old aversion theory technique. To break Harpo of his cat-astrophic behavior, I started buying really cheap wine -- and not letting it breathe before serving it! -- thinking that once Harpo lapped up a truly awful Chianti he'd quit such antics. How was I to know this was a cat with a completely undiscriminating palate?


You are walking a fine line now, Max! Get away from that Steuben vase. RIGHT NOW!

Of course, coping with a sick or injured cat presents the greatest challenge of them all. I mean, giving a cat medicine rates right up there with trying to get them into doll's clothing as one of the worst things you'll ever have to do.

I can't tell you how often I've ground a tiny pill into fine powder, carefully sprinkled it through a pound of all-white albacore tuna and placed it before a cat -- only to have him take one short whiff and walk away.

One moment, por favor.

Drop that Rolex watch, Fluffy!

Anyway, getting back to the sick cat. Liquid medicine is a bit easier to administer than pills. But the process takes three people: One to wrap the cat tightly in a towel and hold him; a second to immobilize the cat's head and jaws; and a third to slip the eyedropper of medicine into the little space between the cat's side teeth.

Oh, yes. A word about the proper attire when giving a cat medicine. Here's what I wear: An old terry-cloth bathrobe, knee socks, gloves of fine wool (mittens are no good), and a towel wrapped around my head. Of course, you can substitute as needed.

All right! That's it. Both of you! OUT OF THE HOUSE! Shredding my Barry Manilow tapes is the last straw!

By the way, did I tell you that Warren (the pet therapist, remember?) suggests you get down on the floor with your cat so you can see life as kitty sees it?

Well, I kind of took that suggestion to heart. But put my own twist on it: Instead of getting down on the floor with Max, I carried him around the house and showed him what life looks like to me. He seemed particularly interested in the top shelves in the pantry and the storage area over the kitchen sink where I keep my best china.

Which reminds me. I've got to call the plumber tomorrow about removing the Wedgwood tea cup from the kitchen disposal.

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