The Village Idiot: The balance of power

By John Hopkins

We added a dog to our household at the start of the summer, and the element of the process that was most stressful for us was how the new addition, Mika, would fit in with the two cats that have had our undivided attention for almost a decade.

The cats had some brief experience with canine companionship when they were very young, but on that occasion the dog had been in the house first. Now, they were the incumbents and the new dog was intruding on their territory. It helped that Mika was herself middle aged, but she was still the one on new territory, and we prepared ourselves for a summer of turf wars.

To understand the situation better, it is perhaps useful to have some insight into the power dynamics between our two cats. Although they are within six months of each other in age, Skittles is male and Cori is female. As in most animal relationships, that is a significant distinction, and as in most relationships between men and women, Skittles thinks he is in control. 

He exerts this illusion of power in a variety of ways. For example, between the two cats, he is the one who will make a big fuss over meal times. He is the one that wakes me up in the morning or nibbles on my ankle in the evening to remind me that it is time to replenish the feeding bowls. This would lead you to think that he is setting the agenda. But I am convinced that it is the female who sets the process in motion and sends the male to disturb me. After I have been aroused by the male cat in the morning, I will make my way to the top of the stairs and see the female at the bottom, looking up as if to say, “Oh good, he got you.”

As with most males, Skittles’ technique is very vocal and direct. His visit to the bedroom to wake me is usually accompanied by incessant meowing and biting at any appendages that are not safely secured under a bedsheet or blanket. Cori, however, is more subtle in her approach. When she chooses to ring the breakfast bell herself, she won’t go to all the trouble of climbing the stairs and trying to rouse me, but will instead claw at a favourite bannister near the bottom of the staircase. When I groggily come around the bedroom door to investigate the noise, she looks up at me in mid scratch with an expression of, “Oh, I’m sorry, did that noise wake you? Anyway, since you’re up now, how about filling the food bowls?”

The litter box is another area where Skittles will display his false male bravado. There are times I worry whether Cori is actually using the litter box; she is so quiet and demure about her bathroom breaks. But no such issues with Skittles. His visits are accompanied by a lot of scratching and thumping around, followed by him emerging with his head held high and chest puffed out, trailed by a godawful smell. He will turn to me grinning, with a look that says, “Yep, that was me. You may want to switch to the scented litter, by the way.” I half expect Skittles to one day pull open the fridge door, crack a beer and flop on the couch with a football game on the TV.

But when there is a perceived threat to the household, Cori is the one who takes the initiative. She will sit at doors and windows, keeping an eye out for intruders or tracking animals that wander onto the property. Skittles sits a good distance back and lets her handle it.

So, as you can imagine, when Mika was introduced to our household, her job was less about winning over both cats than coming to terms with Cori. Skittles was an incidental player in the drama. 

Cori wasted little time in exerting her power in the relationship. Mika has a large pillow that serves as a bed that is kept in our bedroom. Cori very quickly discovered that this was a very comfortable place to have a snooze herself. And she didn’t mind making full use of it in full view of Mika. This could have been a situation that led to much growling and swatting and chasing around the house. Instead, to her credit, Mika decided that the rug beside the bed was also a very comfortable spot to sleep. Now, Cori will let Mika use the bed – female cats are nothing if not astute politicians, well-schooled in the art of the compromise – but there is no question as to who is pulling the strings in this relationship.

Indeed, it has been made very clear to Mika that she is the newcomer in this four-legged environment and as such she plays second-fiddle in a variety of interchanges. On first arriving in our house Mika kept a wide berth of both cats, and particularly Cori, usually giving an apprehensive look as she passed by in moving from one place or another. While she moves more freely about the house now, there is no doubt that at a moment’s notice Cori can exert her power and influence. When they are in the same room, Cori has a knack for quietly and unobtrusively manoeuvring herself into a higher position, on a table or a tall chair, so that she is directly above Mika and therefore in a position of dominance.

It will be interesting to see how this relationship develops over the next little while. With our first dog and even with Skittles Cori has displayed a maternal and protective instinct that we have no doubt will eventually extend to Mika. It will likely just be a matter of time and reinforcing the understanding of who wields the true power in the household. Mika seems to be well aware of where the power lies. As for Skittles, he’s off to the litter box.