In my house, our pets are family. It’s easy to admit: they have us wrapped around their teeny, tiny, adorable little toes. They bring us joy and we hope that we in turn give them a great life.

For the past several years, our brood included: two dogs, Shiva, a 14-year-old border collie mix, and Holly, a 12-year-old German shepherd mix; a solidary cat, Athena, a 3-year-old gray shorthair; and Phoenix and Jean Gray, our two bearded dragons of unknown ages.

To be perfectly honest from the start, I didn’t want Athena. When she came into our lives three years ago, I was against getting yet another mouth to feed and care for. I protested, but was overruled in a family vote. All this time later, I have yet to clean a litter box, and I am standing my ground.

Our oldest, Angie, who was around 16 at the time, begged for a cat for her birthday. My husband, Brent, and I discussed it at length, he even found a suitable 6-week-old kitten, and I agreed to keep talking about it. In July of that year, I had been out of town with our youngest, and when I came home I found Athena already holding court.

Marla Hoffman

I acquiesced to the situation and fell in love with the little fluff ball in spite of myself.

She has what we lovingly call a “spicy” personality. You can only pet her when she allows it. If she doesn’t know you, watch your back — literally; if you walk within a foot of her cat tree perch, be prepared to duck. Some people might say, “my, what a terrible cat,” my mother included. Those people might be right, in fact, and now that I think about it, she might have anti-social personality disorder.

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However, those of us whom she has deemed worthy have found ourselves smitten. She immediately took to the dogs to the point where sometimes we think she believes she is one, too. She approves of me, Brent and Jameson, our littlest human. When she gives you her attention, your hands melt into her impossibly soft fur. And when she purrs, which is not often, your heart bursts from your chest.

Angie, to whom she was supposed to belong, did not make the cut, unfortunately. If you, too, have not made the cut, she does not give a warm welcome — watch your calves and ankles. In her defense, she is hostile to everyone — even the approved people — when she is feeling anxious or uncomfortable.

Which brings us to two weeks ago, when Angie, completely unannounced, brought home a little orphan kitten she has named Calliope, or Calli for short.

I live with people who are attempting to build Noah’s Ark, I swear — two dogs, two cats, two lizards…

Marla Hoffman’s cat, Calliope. Marla Hoffman/Sun Journal

The kitten couldn’t have been more than 5 weeks old, found abandoned on the side of the road — but at least old enough to eat dry food and run and jump independently. Knowing the baby would not immediately be on Athena’s approved list, Angie bought another litter box, food dish and toys for the little one and planned to give her a private space away from her new, likely hostile, big sister.

Once again, as cute as Calli was, I said no. First words out of my mouth were, “we cannot keep this cat.” You can imagine how that went. Outvoted again. Man, I hate being a pushover.

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I was worried about increased costs for food and litter, not to mention medical care for spaying, shots and continued care.

I was worried mostly about Athena, however. While we joke about our “spicy” cat, she has what is really an aggressive reaction to being nervous about people and animals she doesn’t know or trust. I worried she would be aggressive toward the kitten and hurt her. For Athena’s entire life she has been the only cat.

Just like humans in family or social situations, animals have certain dynamics, too, when living in close quarters. And universally, human or beast, a new member brings in a whole new set of rules and expectations as well as many unknowns.

For Athena and the new youngest member of our menagerie, this is playing out in real time.

It’s only been two weeks, and we are learning a lot. Calli still is mostly in her safe place, Angie’s room. But we have been giving the cats short, nonphysical interactions, trying not to let it get to the point where Athena gets upset. When we linger too long with the kitten safely in our arms, though, Athena inevitably begins hissing and growling. It’s been stressful for everyone.

As I mentioned earlier, I am one of Athena’s approved humans. In fact, since the kitten arrived at our home, she has been particularly attentive to me, letting me hold her longer, sleeping with me, waking me up with purrs and head bumps. I’ve been soaking it up and she has been getting some extra reassurances that she’s safe.

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Marla Hoffman’s cat, Athena. Marla Hoffman/Sun Journal

Well, on Wednesday I brought Calli out and was holding her in my arms while I puttered around the kitchen. Athena, set upon her perch on the cat tree, was eyeballing us. I let her watch. At some point, after a few minutes of not hearing a peep from Athena, I walked a little closer, and then a little closer. Athena rarely swipes at me while on her perch, so maybe I was feeling like the bond between her and I was strong enough where she’d trust me wholly.

I was wrong. The swipe and chomp came like lightning. I was quick enough to pull the kitten away, but not so quick to avoid Athena’s claws grasping hold of my hand and doing some damage. Yes, the hand with which I am typing was bloodied in a split second. I, arguably her favorite human, was left feeling a little betrayed.

Athena and I weren’t speaking for hours. Later she sat across from my desk staring at me. I told her, “I’m not talking to you right now.” She continued to stare with those gorgeous green eyes.

I forgave her before bedtime.

In bed that night, I felt her jump on and snuggle behind my knees. I felt a faint purr as she settled in.

I thought more about our interaction earlier that day, and then immediately felt guilty for being mad at her.

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It was exactly the kind of negative interaction I had warned Brent and the kids about. I pushed the boundaries of me and Athena’s relationship. I knowingly put her in a situation where her anxiety was high and she felt she had to be defensive, and also put the kitten in a dangerous situation. It was all my fault.

Since then I have been thinking about the difference between human nature and animal nature. We humans have the tendency to, in many ways, anthropomorphize our pets. We call them our kids and assign human feelings and thoughts to them.

While there are pretty solid theories out there that when your dog stares at you, she is telling you she loves you. I have no evidence to prove or disprove that myself, but sometimes I’m not so sure. I WANT to believe Athena “loves” me in the way I love her when she forehead bumps me or purrs for me, but upon reflection it feels more like trust than love. She trusts I won’t hurt her, that I will feed her, that I will care for her needs and provide a safe home because I have done all those things for her.

Bringing the kitten in, however, is a new scenario. Trust in that situation doesn’t exist for her yet, so when it comes to her new little sister (look I did it again), no trust at all has been built. She’s looking to her humans for reassurance, but hasn’t received it yet in a way she understands. She’s going to need much more time for that, which pains her humans who just want the cats to be able to be around each other without hostility.

This situation, we have learned, cannot be about us and what we want for our pets. It must be about what is best for them, what will keep them safe, and what will give them a great quality of life.

While the dogs appear fine with the kitten, maybe even their version of apathetic, our spicy Athena needs more time and more understanding to get to that point. We will give it to her the best we can.

We love our pets unconditionally, but we need to unconditionally work to earn their trust.

Marla Hoffman is the nighttime managing editor for the Sun Journal and can be reached at mhoffman@sunjournal.com.

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