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Treacle and the cat-flap

November 2015

If you go by veterinary records, our cat has had several names over the years. In the last place we were at, the vets insisted on calling her 'Trickle'. This name came with rather unpleasant (and totally unfounded) suggestions of urinary incontinence, but once it was on the paperwork there was no changing it.

We much prefer the present vet's take on the name, which is 'Trecou', which sounds sort of French, shady and insouciant. (Sort of, 'ello, my name ees Trecou. I av ze smuggled brandy for vous' you get the idea.) But while we rather like Trecou, the cat's name is actually Treacle. It is a fitting appellation for her, because like the treacle which is her namesake, Treacle is black and sweet. And sometimes annoyingly thick.

Which brings us to the cat-flap. None of the previous houses in our peripatetic existence had a cat-flap, and that suited Treacle just fine. Someone once defined a door as 'something a cat is on the wrong side of' but Treacle did not mind that. Evolution has designed cats to wait patiently at mouse holes until a mouse comes along, and Treacle modified this behaviour trait to wait patiently at doors until a human eventually opened it for her. Then if she was out she would come in, and if she was in she would go out.

This worked fine until we moved to the country. In the backwoods of North America the 'country' includes eagles, coyotes, cougars, bears and bobcats. All of these animals are partial to a bit of feline in their diet. This means that Treacle has been demoted several substantial steps down the food chain from her previous position as the apex predator of mice. Out here waiting patiently at the door just won't cut it. Sometimes a little cat needs to get her furry ass indoors pretty damn quick.

So when we had workmen doing other work around the house, we persuaded one of them to fit a cat-flap to the back door. The plan was that not only would we be spared the bother of getting up to let the cat out and in, but in an emergency the cat could let herself in with due expediency. There remained though, the problem of explaining the cat-flap to a creature that had never seen one and was unconvinced that she needed one anyway.

Teaching her the 'going out' part of the procedure took some time, but the circumstances were favourable. Instead of opening the door to let Treacle out, we pushed open the cat-flap. The first few times we had to post her through it like a furry parcel. After each of such ejections, Treacle would stand just outside the door with her tail vertical, looking back at the cat-flap with a puzzled and thoughtful expression. Eventually, she discovered that she could post herself, so to speak, and we became accustomed to the whacking noise of the cat-flap dropping shut behind her as she exited the premises. So far, so good.

The problem was, how to persuade our black, sweet but occasionally thick cat that the flap worked both ways? The cat-flap is designed to be harder to open from the outside, because otherwise rats, chipmunks and other creatures would be able to use it too.

So while she was outside Treacle gave the cat-flap an experimental push or two, found nothing happening and gave up. This is a problem common to most cats, and why training them is such a nightmare. Dogs now, well, dogs are easy. They are desperate to please you, and will put up with repeated setbacks and disappointments until they get it right. Cats don't care if you are pleased or not, and have a 'to hell with it' attitude that makes them averse to repeating failures.

Also, in order to put Treacle in through the cat-flap from outside, someone had to open the door and actually go outside to do it. And once the door was opened, Treacle was inside in a flash. We tried keeping the cat-flap partially open with string. Treacle nevertheless sat patiently outside,waiting by the half-open cat flap for us to open the door. Meanwhile flies, mosquitoes and other creepy-crawlies swarmed in with enthusiasm. In winter, the bugs went away, but an open cat flap letting in sub-arctic conditions was not working for us either.

Oddly enough the solution came by way of another problem. With age and a slowing metabolism, Treacle has become, well, rather sleek. So when she goes out through the cat flap, it's rather like watching toothpaste going through a tube. Her body fat accumulates behind the shoulders, and then ripples backward as the rest of her squeezes through the flap. Eventually there is a large bulge at her backside and this vanishes with a sort of 'pop' as her hips go through and the cat-flap slams shut.

The vet put her on a diet. Naturally, Treacle does not approve, and her heart-breaking attempts to coax more food out of us are matched only by her enthusiasm when she does get it, whereupon she energetically plunges her face into her Salmon Delight for so long that she almost suffocates. Salmon Delight is served punctually at five in the afternoon, and Treacle likes to go outside around three. By four she is camped at the door, with knife and fork metaphorically at the ready.

At five, we tried gently lifting the cat-flap by putting a butter knife into the crack at the top and twisting gently. Treacle could see and smell what was indoors, but because the bottom of the flap had been only opened a few centimetres she could not get in. This slow torture continued until, yowling with impatience, Treacle gave the flap a whack with her paw.

The cat-flap bounced almost half-open, and then dropped back. There was a thoughtful and busy silence outside while Treacle worked out the implications of this development. Eventually, she butted the cat-flap hard with her head. The flap opened, and again dropped back with a bang. Still outside, Treacle went away to ponder this.

Eventually, with all the determination of an army preparing to storm a particularly stubborn city Treacle returned to the attack. She repeatedly banged open the cat-flap with her head, but the fact that the flap closed again after each head-butt baffled her. She was literally not following through, and getting discouraged about it as well. It was time for humanity to step in.

The next time Treacle butted the cat flap open, we held it open, using that same butter knife. Treacle rushed through, almost disembowelling herself on the butter knife in her eagerness to get at dinner. We had achieved breakthrough. Over the next few days Treacle was ever more impatient to push through the flap after that initial head-butt. Finally, one day almost a week later, she must have assumed someone was holding the flap. She pushed in through without waiting for it to be lifted further for her, only to find that she had entered the house by herself.

No mystic guru who had achieved the feat of teleportation could have been more astounded or pleased. For half a minute, Treacle stood on the mat, evidently torn between the desire to repeat the experiment and the urge to plunge into supper.

Supper won, but by golly, she's got the hang of how the cat-flap works, and there's no going back now. Sometimes Treacle goes out just so she can let herself in again. She always stands still and waits for a few seconds once she is indoors, possibly trying to figure out how she got here, or maybe hoping for applause. Oddly enough, now that she can come in and go out whenever she pleases, Treacle goes out much less, which shows that certain types of psychology work in the same way across different species.

For us humans, the morale of the story is that one can indeed teach an old cat new tricks. All it takes is patience and the right motivation.

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