The conversion of cat people
There hadn’t been a dog in our family in my living memory. When I was a baby, there was Johnny – a pure bred bitser, a beast of the most patchwork genealogy possible, a hotchpotch of canine genetics that tested the limits of hybrid vigour. But he was a myth, a legend, a story drawn from the mists of time. As far as I was concerned, we were devout cat people.
We had always had cats. My extended family also had cats. There were cats everywhere. I grew up pushing past furry legs on bathroom benchtops, furry butts hanging from the top of the TV where it was warm, furry faces two centimetres from my own in the mornings. Cats surrounded me, and apart from my grandmother’s dog Babloo who was bullied into submission by the cats, I was a little afraid of dogs.
When I was 21 and deeply in love with a Boy with cat allergies, I got a dog. The Boy was a dog person. His family had had a cat, but it was a strange, mostly-feral creature that tolerated the babies (the Boy and his brother), but hid in bushes to ninja-attack the Boy’s father when he came home from work. When I met the Boy, his family had transitioned into fully fledged dog people. Not a hint of cat in sight.
The Boy’s family had two dogs – a mostly blind, mostly deaf, ancient, curmudgeonly Blue Heeler, and a gigantic, not very bright, extremely protective mostly-Rhodesian Ridgeback. They were a terrifying combination. The Blue Heeler, who couldn’t see or hear me, would snarl menacingly in an offence-as-defence stance, which would alert the Ridgeback. I’m not sure the Ridgeback ever knew what he was supposed to be attacking, but he never let that get in the way of his avowed duty to protect his family.
I was very in love with the Boy. I got a puppy.
When I brought the puppy home, my parents were furious. Well, my mother was furious. She was 56, a mother of four, exhausted, and utterly disinterested in caring for yet another sentient being. My father, who was decidedly not a cat person, was quietly relieved.
The puppy was my responsibility. She slept on my bed, she rode on my lap when I drove the car, she went with me everywhere. She became an extension of me. She was loving and good-natured and clever. She learned to obey hand signals, knew how to cross a road, was eminently patient with small children, and she wheedled her way into both my parents’ hearts.
They started taking her for walks in the morning, feeding her cheese on toast for breakfast, and sneaking her treats whenever the other one wasn’t looking. The dog became their third daughter. My father would take the dog for a drive. My mother – who’d been too busy to leave the house all day – would stare in disbelief. When the dog went missing, my father – the affirmed atheist – gave offerings at the temple for her safe return. Something he’d never done for his human children (my sister is still annoyed about this).
The dog kept them both vital and got them out of the house. She kept them exercising in the wake of my father’s cancer treatments, and gave them a focus for their attentions in the absence of grandchildren. She gave them a reason to connect with each other once their children had grown and gone. When my father died, the dog was the source of solace for my mother, and the reason she had to keep getting up each morning, keep walking out the door.
After I married the Boy, after we’d had our first child, after the child had started to walk and talk and love the dog too, it became clear that the dog had grown old and arthritic and beyond the scope of medical intervention, my mother – the lifelong cat person – was inconsolable.
“It’s your dog,” she said. “You decide.”
The vet made a house call. We gave the dog, who had gently, lovingly broadened our horizons and enriched our lives, as much dignity in death as we could.
 Bitser = bits-er-this and bits-er-that (bits of this and bits of that).