How becoming a cat person helped me and my family during the pandemic

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Pre-pandemic, Mike was very grumpy and always came home with fresh battle scars. Photos courtesy of the author.

I was a dog person. Now, I can’t imagine life without cats.

Saying our six cats saved us during the pandemic is an understatement. Having them as housemates has helped not just in keeping us safe at home, but also in keeping our sanity intact.

It all began with neutering a 10-year-old alpha male whose gene pool has been widely spread all over our village.

My wife’s family adopted a stray Siamese and named him after the character Mike Ross in the show “Suits.” Mike (the cat) had ash blonde fur and blue eyes.

He was an outdoor cat who ruled over all the other cats in the village. He clawed his way to becoming a top cat, sometimes making us think that he makes at least a couple of rounds within the village to visit his many partners, children, and foes. Despite those, he always knew that this house was his ultimate territory.

The sala’s centerpiece isn’t the plant, it’s the cat. Photo courtesy of the author.

Through the years, and maybe because we were still based elsewhere, we wouldn’t normally get to spend time with him. It would only be on weekends when we would visit their home in Pampanga. Without fail, Mike would be at the gate to welcome us when we parked. Or if he’s out on the streets, we would catch him scrambling to make it back before us to greet us.

Yes, like a dog. I think that’s how we opened up to each other, like unspoken respect among men. (You know how some encounters would just be a nod of acknowledgment? It was like that.)

I’ve had four dogs, Ruffles, a native mix-breed of a labrador and a dalmatian; Barbie, a labrador; Noah, a Jack Russell terrier; and Pepper, another mix-breed: shih tzu-terrier-Chihuahua. Ruffles survived parvo, Barbie didn’t. In 2016, Ruffles, Noah, and Pepper crossed over to the rainbow bridge just a few months apart.

Ruffles (2009-2016), Barbie (2010-2010), Noah (2012-2016), Pepper (2016-2016). Photos courtesy of the author.

When Shai and I started dating, I got her a Siamese-Himalayan, to hopefully be Mike’s wife someday. We named her after Meghan Markle’s “Suits” character, Rachel Zane. Turns out she was pregnant when I got her, and we named her kittens Jon Snow, Arya, Sansa, and Bran. But none of them lasted very long. Rachel was stolen from their backyard, and one by one kittens suffered health conditions from losing their mother too early.

It was so devastating that I thought I wouldn’t have pets ever again. By the time we got married, Shai’s household had just two cats — Mike and Momby, a feisty Siamese who only had affection for Shai’s brother Vince.

And then the pandemic hit, and we went to stay in Pampanga. Last year, Vince rescued three cats: black and white Pando, orange Kael (not Kahel because according to my father-in-law, there is no H in Kapampangan) and calico Trixie (as in tri-color).

Momby with Baby, Rachel with her kids, Jon Snow, Sansa, Arya, Bran. Only Momby is still with us today. Photos courtesy of the author.

They all got spayed and neutered at six months, and were perfectly happy and fun to be with. Mike, meanwhile, had become more of an outdoor cat, just coming and going whenever it was time to eat, and often in a grumpy mood. His rebellious stage involved him marking his territory in so many pieces of furniture, appliances, and cars. The more he did this, the more he was kept out. He would come home with wounds or a scratched eye, and would refuse to be touched when we would give him first aid.

His cheeks also started to have these mumps-like bumps that were hard to the touch. His other preferred entrance was between window panes, but his cheeks weren’t able to fit anymore. He had one remaining fang. We had always thought he was just fat, but during lockdown, you notice things more. We saw old photos where he looked like a different cat and got worried that it might be something serious.

We’ve all lost count of how many times restrictions have changed, and whatever quarantine classification we really are under, but because of the presence of our cats, somehow, the uncertainty was masked by their soothing presence.

Doc Alison became Mike’s friend right away. She performed an X-ray and blood tests to check if he had infections and if it caused the said mass. Within a couple of weeks, Mike, who previously had no experience using a litter box or being restricted inside a cage, had gotten better. His swelling subsided, and his demeanor mellowed. Soon enough, he was staying more inside and started transitioning into a house cat.

Several checkups after, I broached the idea of having him neutered.

Doc Alison agreed, saying that unlike dogs, cats can live much longer. We all agreed that maybe it could improve his well-being. It didn’t take long for Mike to become a fluffy being that even started sleeping with us on our bed.

He also made friends with the three new cats and even took Pando under his wing. When they spent time outside the house, they were in the vacant lot behind us, as if the mentor was telling his mentee about his domain.

We’ve all lost count of how many times restrictions have changed, and whatever quarantine classification we really are under, but because of the presence of our cats, somehow, the uncertainty was masked by their soothing presence. From someone who’s never had cats before to someone who had five that had to be regularly fed, taken care of, or brought to the vet whenever they were sick.

It was a total team effort, members of the household took turns even with administering vitamins daily, and including their food and other needs on our grocery lists. In return, they would join us during Mass or rosary times and provide some unintentional laughs here and there. Sometimes, while watching K-pop videos and K-dramas, they are there to watch with us too.

In May, we were gifted another cat, a white Siamese similar to Mike and Momby. We named her Yeji, after the cat-eyed member of the girl group ITZY. Yeji immediately won everyone over, including her senior cats, who were very fond of playing with their littlest and newest addition. To keep them safe at night, they sleep in their cat condo that has a bed that can fit two to three of them, and a duyan that can fit one.

Kael, Pando, and Trixie, and the "cat condo." Photos courtesy of the author.

Yeji and Pando always occupied the duyan, and were virtually inseparable. Because Pando himself had some health issues, the two were strictly for movement between inside the house and cat condo only. They were all set with their routine, their vitamins, their food supplements to help make them fulfill their fluffy potential, and getting to interact with the rest of the family.

I kept telling my wife that having them around is like the fulfillment of all the other pets that we never got to maximize our time with. That in these very trying times, they were there enjoying our company as much as we did theirs. There was a ton of sneezing going around, the occasional broken glasses and souvenirs, but it was the slightest inconvenience they brought, easily addressed by regular vacuuming.

Mama and Papa were regularly showered with a lot of their clingy affection, whether before they do their morning run or when they get back, or when they do their gardening, as the cats act like the best landscape artists and horticulturists. It was just the other day when we passed by a cat café and thought that we had our own at home, where we are free to pick among them and just be entertained or comforted in whatever way they can.

They had a donut bed inside the house, but always chose to sleep on the sofa or our beds. When everyone started to settle into their routines — work or errands — they would lounge in their choice of resting spot, sometimes even on top of a piano or under our computer chairs, so they could catch up on their 16 hours of sleep.

Life had other plans and threw us a major curveball — in a matter of minutes, Yeji and Mike were just playing together while we were watching old BTS videos, and the next, she was gone. I would’ve never thought that the night would involve me digging up a grave in our backyard for our precious little one.

A car, speeding senselessly inside a subdivision, at 9 p.m. on a Saturday night. As I write this, so many thoughts continue to circulate in my mind. I want to confront the reckless driver who happens to live a couple of blocks away. I want to ask if she’s ever felt anything as painful, if she understands the effects of her actions. If it would affect her the way it affected all beings in our household — both humans and felines — distraught and lost, grieving one of their own. I watch the rain wash away the blood from where Yeji was hit, while hugging Mike who has been out of it the entire day.

I find myself searching how cats grieve, and seeing it happen in front of my eyes just breaks my heart. Mike has sifted through every corner where they used to play or hang out. Pando smells every place she used to stay in, and is back in his duyan by his lonesome without his cuddle mate.

After Yeji left us, Mike continues to search through beds and boxes and under every table he can see. Photos courtesy of the author.

We would not see any of her funny antics again — doing parkour moves against chairs to hit back harder when they play fight, finding the right balance of litter to use for digging and covering, or her digging tiles thinking she can bury her pee, burying herself under the pillow or comforter or stuffed toys, falling carelessly from high places and acting like it was nothing when she lands, eating into the share of her seniors, toppling over her favorite plant box and trying to hide inside, or just her usual sweet bumps on everyone’s legs.

I know this pandemic has taken a lot more from other people, and I understand that coping with that grief is something beyond comparison. As with the now immortal line uttered by Vision in “WandaVision:” “What is grief, if not love persevering?” Here’s to everyone and everything who’s given us just that.