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A white cat

If the results of a recent University of Michigan/AARP survey are any indication, the senior set has a thing for pets. Polling some 2,000 Americans between the ages of 50 and 80, researchers found that more than half of the respondents reported owning an animal companion, and two-thirds of them claim their pets reduce their stress and give them a sense of purpose.

“Relationships with pets tend to be less complicated than those with humans, and pets are often a source of great enjoyment,” notes Mary Janevic, PhD, MPH, an assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan, who helped design the survey. “They also provide older adults with a sense of being needed and loved.”

Janevic obviously has not shared a living space with a cat like Tres.

Rescued from a horse barn 15 years ago — our third cat at the time, hence the Spanish name for three —this long-haired, bony collection of neuroses has developed in recent years an inexplicable aversion to litter boxes. Initially, he left his deposits on the basement laundry-room floor, just beyond the three preferred receptacles faithfully used by our other two felines. Lately, however, he’s demonstrated little interest in making the trip downstairs and simply squats wherever he pleases: in the dining room, the den, the bedroom, the porch, and the living room. I find it slightly ironic that he avoids the bathroom.

As you might imagine, this practice creates a certain degree of stress and frustration for a person like myself who prefers a tidy universe. Early on, Tres and I engaged in a battle of wits to determine who was in charge. I cleaned the litter boxes meticulously, positioned them strategically, scrubbed and disinfected his favorite bomb sites, and occasionally attempted to instill some fear of reprisal. All attempts failed.

“You’re arguing with a cat,” My Lovely Wife would point out on those occasions when my anger boiled over.

More recently, after Tres left a puddle rather than his usual pile in the den, I stationed a new litter box in the vicinity — which became a popular destination for the two other cats. A day or two later, the old galoot left a steaming deposit 18 inches from the box. I scrubbed it up and spread some newspaper over the site. The next morning I found a pile on the rug by the front door in the living room.

“He’s just an old cat,” MLW noted when I voiced my frustration at this fruitless contest. “He needs some sympathy.”

I’ve studied, in my own lackadaisical way, the key Buddhist precepts of nondualism, nonattachment, and impermanencefor more than a quarter century, but I have to admit it’s been challenging to apply any of those teachings to my relationship with a neurotic old cat. With MLW’s urging, however, I gradually began to understand that Tres had become my teacher. He was offering me the opportunity — pretty much every day — to practice compassion, patience, and equanimity in the face of odorous obstacles.

Or maybe I’ve just figured out that I’m never going to bend the old grump to my will. Still, I’ve found lately that thanking him — just speaking the words as I clean up the mess — dissolves the stress and reminds me that everything passes (literally!) from one moment to the next.

I’m not sure any of this has any effect on Tres, but now when he climbs on my lap late at night when I’m watching a game on TV, snuggling into my shoulder and letting out a low purr, it occurs to me that he may be sending me some kind of signal. We had a term for it back in grade school: teacher’s pet.

Thoughts to share?

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