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Lessons From a Stressed-Out Cat

At the end of September we took in our friend’s cat, Theodus, while they spend some time in America taking care of some things back home. When he came to live with us he was pretty stressed out by the transition and was sick from the struggle to adjust. As I started to care for this stressed out cat I began to observe his behaviors and coping mechanisms and came to a realization:

I’ve always said I’m not a cat person, but I’m kind of like a cat, especially when I’m stressed.

This lifestyle naturally includes a lot of goodbyes, but early in our time here we experienced more than usual due to some unforeseen circumstances. I put in a lot of difficult and painful work to process and prepare for goodbyes as we left home and moved to PNG (Goodbye Post). But I was not stanced to deal with the goodbye process all over again (and so many times) so early after our arrival. Somewhere around mid-September I had a really tough week—stress, grieving over goodbyes, and forgetting things which led to some negative self talk and embarrassment.

I said it before, but I’m not big on indoor pets, cats especially. But we love Theodus’ family (and have since grown to really like him) and were totally willing to take him in for a year or so. As the cat suffered with sickness in response to the stressful move, we offered him grace, space, and affection. I’m not one to treat animals like humans, God created us differently, but we can both experience stress. Taking in the stressed cat really opened my eyes to several things about myself:

First of all transition is hard for anyone, even animals. Losing your people, the ones you love, is hard. I realized I was giving this cat more grace than I was allowing myself. I became aware of my flawed mentality; If I could not freak out when the cat peed in the house because he was stressed then why was I beating myself up for missing meetings and being a little absent minded when I too had just experienced heaps of transition and loss?

In him I saw my stressed out tendencies from a new perspective;

his first week here he was a recluse, hiding out in quiet places he had decided were safe. he did tons of sleeping and hiding away from people. At times he would feel well enough to venture out to accept some love and attention, to get a little fresh air. Then he would decide that was enough or get overwhelmed and disappear back to his safe place.

For me specifically, it’s easy to do the same. It’s easy to hide out in our homes or under blankets, resting in places we’ve created to be safe. It’s important to rest, to take the time to process and grieve, sometimes in private. But it’s also important to get a little sunshine and fresh air. Stepping out and letting others love us is so important. Often times our loved ones, and especially our heavenly father is waiting with open arms, desiring to wrap us up and hold us tight. It’s not wrong to want to retreat to those safe places in our lives, but it is good to be aware of why we are heading there. Are we seeking comfort and safety without turning to the one who is our refuge and hiding place, the one who holds our world and our hearts? Let’s not forget to come out of our hiding places and let our Father and our friends love us and walk with us in our hard things.

Theodus decided sometimes that he would allow our affection, but it was only on his terms.

There were times when we thought he was making great progress, he would come sit next to us and let us pet him and purr… and then out of nowhere he would slash his paw through the air and scratch the fire out of our hands and arms.

It’s really easy to push away or lash out when we are fighting or stuffing emotion, but if we would just relax and accept the love of those around us we would feel so much more comfort and acceptance in those emotions. Often these acts of affection are not physical, our people may offer to make or bring dinner, bring our favorite treat, or just come and sit with us. Let’s let down those prideful walls and let them love us.

One of the biggest tell-tales that Theodus was stressed was that he wasn’t using his litter box despite bing trained since he was a kitten. I’ve even read that it’s pretty natural for cats to use the litter box, it doesn’t take much work to train them. Normally I’m not super tolerant of pets making messes in my house… it’s a dealbreaker, gross. But we knew he was house trained and there must be an explanation for these messes. We had permission from our friends to re-home him if he became too much of a burden. But we knew that he was struggling and just needed some time. So we cleaned up the messes and continued to care for him.

Humans do the same thing sometimes…sort of. Simple things that have always come naturally (the litter box) become more difficult and sometimes you just don’t get it right—and that can be embarrassing—because your mess ends up all over the floor. I am pretty good at details and being punctual, but during hard weeks things slip and that particular week in September I missed TWO meetings with people I hadn’t met. I was embarrassed and confused at why I was being so forgetful. The thing is, there’s grace. I apologized for missing the meetings and explained that I had a lot going on and those people forgave me, faster than I forgave myself. I had to sit down and remind myself that I’m human and a lot of life was happening and that it’s NORMAL to get a little stressed when everything changes at once. It’s helpful that we have messes that end up in the open sometimes, it offers opportunity to sit down, to recognize stressors, and to exercise humility by accepting and extending grace.

One of the big things that worried us about Theodus’ stress when he came into our home was that he wasn’t eating. It had been about five days of refusing food before we could get him to eat anything. We tried feeding him different foods, leaving some tuna out for him (that was a great smell…) and even tried hand feeding him and he just wouldn’t eat. On the fifth day I hatched a plan. I started petting him and then stopped and sat a few feet away… he followed me. I did the same thing again, scooting further and further away until we were sitting and playing around his food. When I could tell he was happy and relaxed I took a piece of his food, covered it in the taste of tuna and gently forced him to taste it. Once he tasted how good the food was he started to eat, it was a celebratory day.

We cared for the cat and really wanted him to eat, to be healthy. We knew he needed food and that it was what was best for him, but he was too stressed to seek it out on his own. Sometimes I think in our stress we can do the same; we forget to partake in things that nourish us; things like time with Jesus, community, hobbies, healthy habits etc. In our stress we tend to withdraw and isolate ourselves, we’ve forgotten how much we need and even enjoy nourishment, but once we get a little taste we remember how sweet they are and how good they are for us.

Living life with a stressed out cat taught me a thing or two about stress and transition and grace:

We all just need a little time, patience, grace, and people who will respect our needs but also pursue us and our wellbeing. And that’s the beautiful thing about community. We have people around us who want us to be healthy and well. People who love us and want to show us affection. People ready and willing to help us. Don’t be afraid to speak up and be honest. You’re not alone to be feeling overwhelmed. It’s okay to be stressed, even cats get stressed—give grace to yourself and others. Do what you need, take it slowly… but just remember that there are loved ones at the ready to love you despite your messes (inside and out). And our sweet Heavenly father loves you even more than they. He is offering you grace, nourishment, comfort and safety.

You could also get a cat... They make pretty good company and can teach you a thing or two.


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