The Accidental Alpha

Daphne had always been our shy cat. We called her Nil, a shortened version of Little…Lil..Nil. (You know how nicknames do not follow a straight path from derivation to where they end up.) At 15+ pounds I would not exactly call her small now, but compared to her older brother, who weighs in at a lean 22 pounds, she is still considerably smaller. When she arrived as a kitten the contrast to his full grown presence was much greater.


She used to spend most of her time upstairs, her domain. There were always times I could not find her, even though I thought there were limited hiding spaces. As a kitten, it took us hours to locate her inside the bottom of a wing chair. It was open on the bottom and there were two stabilizing pieces which crossed near the bottom, forming an “X” which served as a tiny platform for her. There are still occasionally times that for the life of me I swear she has teleported somewhere, but elusiveness is the specialty of cats, after all.


She was a contrast to Bobcat who greets at the door or purrs when you enter the room he is presiding over. He was clearly in charge, including the dog under his reign. Mostly a benign ruler, Bobcat would still sometimes hiss when Daphne walked in the room perhaps as a way of asserting his dominance, or perhaps because it is annoying for the older brother when the younger sibling walks in. She was breathing, after all, of all the audacious offenses.


When Daphne’s behavior began to change last December, my husband joked about her ploy for the top dog role in the house (even without barking). She spent almost all her time downstairs, and was taking regular target practice at anything in motion within the surprisingly large radius of her outstretched claws.


Because of her weight loss and sudden interest in canned food and treats we had taken to offering her different types of food on the counter. Yes, it’s true. On the freaking counter! In our effort to get something in her (and keep it out of the dog’s jaws) we put a dish on the counter (starting a new type of counter culture).


Regular contact with the vet and a consultation with the pet neurologist confirmed my suspicion of a temporal lobe issue. We prepared for seizures and for the unhappy decision about when she had disengaged from interest in life and when suffering was overtaking the good parts of her life.


The seizures started as small events, with stiffening of her limbs, drooling, and staring. They were transient, didn’t last long and she was clearly affectionate and interested in the new foods we provided in between. The seizures started to last longer and then included loss of bladder control. Our laundry loads were increasing and having for years avoided washing our reluctant bather, we started to keep track of how often we were filling up the bottom of the sink with soapy water. This was not good. Thankfully, the vet remained patient and available for my questions.


Then came the grand mal seizure, full on convulsing of limbs and body. I had actually seen a human seizure a few times, although many years ago. There were always other people present to take care of the person. Being alone with my lovely afflicted kitty was wrenching in an unfathomably sad way. I felt helpless, not being able to stop it, but made sure she was clear of other objects and I swooped her up and held her close when she stopped. I called my husband in tears and conferred once again with the vet who supported our decision whenever we were ready.


We made a comfortable fleece nest for her and put it beside our bed. She was so still that night we were not sure she would make it through til morning. Post ictal behavior, a nurse friend called it. Sometime in the middle of the night I caught a glimpse of her as she climbed out and she has not looked back.


A month later, she has not had any more seizures that we are aware of. She has become steadier on her feet, and recently has reverted to her old culinary preferences of dry food only.


The part of her more recent behavior which has remained is her presence downstairs, although she has returned to sleeping upstairs in our room. She continues to take aim at the paper towel roll and the dog’s tail as he walks by, and she has defended her new food place with an aggressive swat at Bobcat. For the first time I watched as Bob retreated from the counter where he is usually just passing through on his way to the faucet where he prefers to drink. He was taking no chances with this wild card of a sibling.


It may not have been part of her master plan, and who knows how it will continue to evolve, but it has become clear that whether she intended it or not, Daphne has become a default Alpha, once again demonstrating that not only can old cats learn new tricks; they can teach them as well.



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About Meg

Meg is a licensed independent clinical social worker with over thirty-five years clinical experience. She holds a Master’s Degree from the Boston University School of Social Work and a Bachelor of Arts from the State University of New York at Binghamton.