Monday, June 29, 2009 8:53 PM

It's Litter, Mates!


Unless you have a strictly outdoor cat, having a litter box is a must. Litter boxes are one of the few downsides of owning cats: We all know they're a necessity, but nobody likes dealing with them. Some people will put the cleaning chore off until the box is totally full, at which time they dump the whole thing into the trash and start over. You've probably visited a house at one time or another with an over-full box or two. As they say, you can tell by the smell! I've seen them so bad that the solid waste is standing straight up in the sand like a squadron of soldiers at attention. Yikes.

Is there any way to make this chore easier and less disgusting? For starters, you'll need to have the proper number of boxes for the number of cats you have in your household. I have two boxes for three cats, which works well. The other thing you'll need to do is clean them out at least twice a day. That means solid waste as well as urine-soaked sand. Leaving too much behind will cause a smelly situation in short order. Some people do clean the boxes, but only once a day; others take only the stool, since it is easier to scoop and, if you are lucky enough to be on town or city septic, you can flush this down your toilet. Leaving behind the urine is a big mistake, though, as soon you will have enough ammonia fumes to knock your head back before you even get into the room. Diluting the cat's urine by adding warm water to its canned food helps this problem, and is good for your cat's urinary tract. It has the end result of making more stuff to scoop, however.

Keeping up with the box cleaning is necessary for another reason. Cats are quite fastidious and, like us, don't like to have to deal with their waste after they figure they're done with it (hence the burying routine!). Used-up litter often leads to inappropriate soiling, as cats will avoid a full, stinky box whenever they can. You can see how this scenario is certainly no time-saver for you!

The other problem is the good, old-fashioned clay litter that most people still use to fill the litter boxes. Inert as clay is, it develops a trademark yucky smell when it starts getting past its prime. Many brands offer a scented version, but I think that makes it smell even worse, like putting on perfume instead of taking a shower! Adding baking soda helps, but you'll go through a lot of baking soda if you have a multi-cat household. That can get pretty expensive. The other problem with clay is that although it's natural, it's not a recycled or compostable product. It doesn't break down quickly, which, if you're trying to be more "green", is a problem. Plus, it makes the trash barrels weigh a ton!

Luckily, there are options. There are many products available nowadays that can help cat owners tread a bit more lightly when it comes to litter issues. We'll take a look at some of these products tomorrow.

Green Tip: Speaking of "green", do you like hanging your clothes outside but don't like the fact that they get stiff and wrinkly, especially the towels? Cycling them in the dryer for about 5 minutes before you hang them outside (or inside, on racks) will eliminate this problem. Plus, your clothes will last longer since they won't be being "baked" in the dryer all the time.
Chat later!

4:13 PM

You Little Vixen!



I'm quite sure that this is the same fox that made its way across our front yard one Saturday afternoon just about a month ago. At that time, I thought it was a cat until I looked more closely. By then, it was too late to snap a picture. This time, as you can see, I caught her (?) on her way back into the woods. Just a few seconds before, she had been walking toward our house! I wanted to get a photo of her face, but she was too quick for me. I have noticed that particular talent before; foxes seem able to move very quickly without actually seeming in a hurry. At any rate, I now had a picture to prove that this fox was indeed gray or silver, not red. A couple of people I had mentioned my previous sighting to looked at me like I had two heads when I said the fox was gray! Well, you people, put this in your pip and smick it!

As it turns out, we were all correct, sort of. Both Red and Gray foxes are considered native to North America, with the Red having the most extensive territory, having been imported from Europe to the U.S. Southeast and West. These animals were used both for "recreational" hunting and to prop up the fur trade. In Australia, where they are also an introduced species, Red foxes have caused an environmental nightmare, having no natural predators and hunting to extinction several natural species. Besides most of the U.S. (including Alaska), Canada and Europe, Red foxes are also found in countries such as North Africa and Israel, as well as most of Asia.

Both Red and Gray foxes are members of the dog family, Canidae. They are considered carnivores, but are actually omnivorous and very opportunistic. This explains how they have adapted so well to the infiltration of humans into their habitat. Although foxes tend to be a bit shy and prefer sparsely populated areas, they have become a very common sight in densely populated rural areas as well as many cities. Humans make waste wherever they go, and many formerly wild and seldom-seen species of animals have used that fact to their advantage!

So, was this a Gray fox? It seems it could be. It could also be a Red fox, since approximately 10% of the feral population exhibits this coloring, called a grey morph, from which the domesticated Silver fox has been selectively bred. Both Red and Gray foxes would be raising their kits at this time of year, which probably accounts for these sightings.

Despite their categorization as canids, I have always thought that foxes act very much like cats. I'm sure that I read, way back in high school, that they were distant relations of cats. Their movements are very catlike, especially the way they walk and suddenly look behind them, just like a cat. The Gray fox can actually climb trees, somewhat rare for dogs but common for cats. Apparently, the scientific community is also a bit divided on this classification, with one contingent clamoring for foxes to be reclassified as felids. Well.

I'll keep my eyes peeled for this vixen's return so that maybe this "Red" or "Gray" mystery will eventually be solved. Who knows--maybe I'll get lucky and I'll get the chance to photograph her climbing a tree!

Read about foxes and all kinds of other things on Wikipedia.
Chat later!

Thursday, June 25, 2009 4:06 PM

Integrating Kittens into the Household


Bringing new kittens home is always a joyous occasion, at least for the human members of the household. The new kittens themselves may not think so at first, but they adjust very quickly. How about the other animals who live with you, particularly other cats? Convincing them of just how wonderful these new additions to your family are will take a little more work. It certainly can be done, and with no (or at least minimal) bloodshed! Here's how we managed it.

Only three days prior to my bringing home the kittens, we had put our 12-year-old male cat, Min, to sleep due to lymphosarcoma. Since then, our female calico Sweet Pea, had been depressed. She and Min had lived together since they were both about one year old, and she now spent much of her time looking for him. Her appetite was suffering, and I was starting to worry. Enter the new kittens! Right away, Pea knew something was up. I immediately stashed the newbies in the downstairs spare bedroom and set them up while Sweet Pea wandered around, taking it all in. After they were settled, I fed her and gave her as much attention as she would tolerate. After a bit, she settled down, with occasional trips to the bedroom doors to peer underneath.

We didn't let the kittens out of their room for several days. When we would disappear into the lair to hang out with them, we could often hear Pea snuffling on the other side of the door, sniffing their scent. When we came out, she'd give us a good sniffing as well, act a bit annoyed, but got over it fairly quickly. We were on our way to domestic tranquility.

After a few days, we let her peek in to see what we had in there. At first, the kittens didn't know what to make of her, and froze. She spat, turned tail and stalked off. But curiosity got the better of her, and she continued to come back for more. As you may expect, the little ones quickly decided they wanted to meet her, but we kept them in and Pea out until they were checked out by the vet, wormed and treated for ear mites. Then, we started letting them out for longer and longer periods of time, taking our cue from not only Sweet Pea, but our own exhaustion from trying to keep them from getting into everything.

I won't say that there were no bumps in the road, but overall this slow and steady method of introduction worked very well. The young ones worked out their own hierarchy, but we made sure that Sweet Pea, who had seniority as far as we were concerned, remained "top cat". We didn't let them give her any guff, although she was allowed to smack them (lightly, of course!) if they got too rambunctious. Friends of ours who adopted the fourth kitten from this litter allowed the newcomer to upset the balance and one of their older cats ran away because of it. Until the day she died, four years later, Pea was given a wide berth by the youngsters, and I truly believe she wouldn't have lasted that long if they hadn't become part of the family. As a matter of fact, Sweet Pea would often choose to sleep at night with the others even though she was the only one allowed to sleep with us! Believe me, if Sweet Pea could make the adjustment, so can your pets.

Movie of the Week: We just saw The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, starring Brad Pitt. It reminded me quite a bit of Forrest Gump, and we enjoyed it just as much. The makeup work was absolutely amazing.
Chat later!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009 2:35 PM

If You Want to Learn How to Relax, Watch a Cat


Many years ago, a local newspaper carried a syndicated medical column whereby people would write in to ask the physician's advice on various health problems. I read it religiously, as I love those type of columns; not only because one can learn a lot, but because they are often very humorous. The title of this post is some advice (paraphrased) this doctor gave to one person who needed tips on how to reduce stress levels. I laughed out loud, I recall, because I knew exactly what he meant. Stretch (loosens muscles). Yawn, sigh (increases blood oxygen, reduces blood pressure). Sleep in the sun or near a woodstove. This last is from personal observation: cats turn into putty under these conditions. In fact, it is difficult to get them to get up at all, except for mealtime. I don't really suggest you try it, though, since our internal thermostats don't seem to work as well as cats' do (remember the last time you fell asleep in the sun?).

Which brings me to the subject of cat beds. Since J. and I spend quite a bit of time at the keyboard for work purposes, we sometimes have to meld petting a cat with computer work. The usual offender is Miss Thing, who will yell for attention and push all your papers, pens, etc. onto the floor unless you physically restrain her in your lap and pet her. Keeping her comfortable can be tricky and annoying (not that she cares) for us, so we thought we'd shop for one of those fuzzy, foam oval type things with sides that would make it easier to keep her in place and actually get some work done. Simple, right? That is, until we started actually shopping for one.

We looked in department stores, but the ones we found were either too big or too floppy (a firm bottom in this case, as in most situations in life, is very desirable). They also seemed a bit pricey, with decent quality ones priced upwards of $50. Ditto for the pet supply store we visited. So, I decided to look online.

To be honest, I never dreamed that there were these many types of cat beds in the world. I can't even tell you how many pages came up in Google, because I got tired of clicking on the highest page number after half a dozen clicks. I think last count was fifty-something pages of cat beds! Truly mind-boggling. There are, for your information: Round, oval, flat, square and rectangular cat beds. They can be placed on the floor, or elevated in an actual bed frame. There are pillow, cave, tunnel, mat, hanging (which uses "wasted space"), tent and sill attachment styles. They can be heated, or unheated. The prices run from $7-$8 to $1,757.50, this latter being a work of art resembling the planet earth, but made for your cat to lounge upon. I encourage you to visit this particular site, www.whataluckypet.com and mosey around. It is truly a hoot!

For people like me, whose cats consider the world their beds anyway, this is just sensory overload. Dedicated cat beds in this house consist of our cast-off bedspreads, pillows and quilts, so I guess the chances of my actually spending money on one of these miracles of marketing is, well, slim to none. We'll figure something out. Hmmm, how about that old laundry basket over there...

Book Pick: An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, by Brock Clarke. This novel was very entertaining, creative and definitely not formulaic. Enjoy!
Chat later!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009 2:31 PM

Manicure tips for goats


A few weeks ago, our neighbor Miss P. mentioned to us that her goats' (or "goaties", as they're known in the trade) hooves needed trimming. We'd noticed that they were starting to exhibit a "tippy-toes" kind of gait. Now we knew why! Apparently, they hadn't been trimmed in a few years. J. and I said we were up for it, even though we'd never done such a chore. I have a friend, J.M., who knows a lot about livestock and has owned goats (she still has pygmies), pigs and horses. She agreed to come help, as well. We figured that once we learned the ropes, J. and I could probably keep up with this grooming task. As it turned out, we changed our minds on that point pretty quickly!

The day of the blessed event found J.M., J. and myself trotting over to Miss P.'s where she and her sister-in-law, K., were waiting. Chaos ensued as I proceeded to catch the goats, wrestle them down and trim their hooves all by myself as everyone else just stood around and watched. Ha! I'm kidding. Actually, I did very little. I wound up in charge of the big goatie shed door, slamming it shut to trap just one of the poor beasties at a time as they ran from the small back door to the front, trying to escape their fate. J.M. brought trimming tools and gave direction as Miss P. and K. held the scaredy-goat while J., who has the strongest hands, did all the trimming. Miss P. has four goats, three females and one male. They are good-sized goats, particularly the male. They are very nice, friendly animals who knew all of us, except for J.M. This was a new experience for them, however, and they were nervous. As a matter of fact, the male was so afraid that he almost fainted! Poor baby.

As J. started trimming the excess hoof material, J.M. and Miss P. checked to make sure that there was no softness or bad odor. There was none. If there had been, it would probably been a case of footrot, whereby too much wetness causes the horn to soften, making it easier for infectious agents to cause problems. Trimming infected and soft tissue, treatment baths and keeping the goats on dry flooring cures this problem. Scald, or interdigital dermatitis, is another common problem associated with wet conditions. Goats with this problem often come up lame, sometimes walking on their knees (poor dearies!). Treatment here also involves keeping the feet dry and antibiotic footbaths. Miss P. keeps their shed floor nice and dry, so no foot problems for "our" goaties!

The entire process took about two hours to do four goats. It took a little while for the poor pets to calm down, but they were their same, friendly selves later in the day. As for a command performance, we all decided that every 6-8 weeks (as most husbandry books recommend) would be just a little to often for our tastes! Now we know that we need a minimum of three people, at least 2 free hours and lots of beer. We think we will probably wait until next spring to revisit the manicure part (although, for sure, not the beer part). We're pretty sure that all the goaties agree with this plan, too. OK! Time for a beer.

Update: Here's our little pal Chickie, hangin' out in the goatie pen with his adoptive mom. She's very protective and has really taken him under her wing, so to speak. She wasn't very happy about my taking this picture, and led him inside right after I snapped this. He was riding one of the goats a few minutes before, but I missed that pic. Oh, well. Maybe next time.
Chat later!

Monday, June 22, 2009 3:03 PM

Counter Crawlers


You know the scenario. You're sitting in your living room, relaxing. Perhaps you're watching a good movie, eating some delicious plain popcorn or puffed rice. Suddenly, you hear it: Pha-lumphf!
What the heck was that? If you're a cat owner, you know what it was, of course. It was the sound of a naughty cat jumping down from the kitchen counter. Of course, you never hear them jump up, since the sneaky devils are adept at leaping tall counters in a single bound, and silently, at that. You only know about the rule violation after it happens. When, as we all know, it is too late to discipline them! So, you just yell as loudly as you can, "For crying out loud, stay off the freakin' counters!" This way, you feel as if you've at least done something to let them know that they've been busted, even though you know darn well that they are just ignoring you. At least you didn't have to get up or turn off the movie, which, of course, would just be a total waste of time since they're going to do it again anyway, and probably soon.

It seems that no matter how well trained cats are, they just can't resist certain activities. There are a few of these, but today we'll address this one: Jumping up on counters. Now, I'll admit that we don't get too bent out of shape when this occurs. After all, our cats stay indoors, they are healthy, and wash themselves constantly. I also clean the counters constantly, since I know they're carousing up there. Truth be known, we're also kind of glad that they can still jump onto high surfaces without any problems, since they are 12 years old. What I'm saying is that we have become lax and for the last couple of years haven't enforced the "no counter" rule as consistently as we used to, since we figured that by the time they were 10 or so they wouldn't be able to manage it anyway. Ha! Fooled us, didn't they? They obviously know this, wily things that they are, and the evening parades continue.

There are others like us who don't mind counter crawlers. I've known many people who fed their cats on their kitchen counters, to keep either small children or other pets out of the cat food bowl. But others really dislike the idea of cats on counters and have tried tricks like spreading aluminum foil or cellophane on the countertops to scare them off the habit. Personally, I think I'd rather clean my counters more often than deal with the scratch marks that are sure to appear down the cabinet fronts when Frisky encounters that deterrent! I'm pretty sure it doesn't work anyway.

So, if you have cats, they're probably going to do things they know they're not supposed to, like jumping up on your counters, once in a while. Make peace with it. Just make sure you yell something like, "HEY! Cut it OUT!" whenever you hear them land, just so they know they're not fooling you. At least you know you don't have to get up and actually do anything about it. Relax! It's just a cat thing.

Summer is finally here--here's wishing you and yours a happy and safe one.
Chat later!

Thursday, June 18, 2009 2:34 PM

Repelling Deer: Do Deterrents Work?


There are several products out there that claim to repel deer and preserve the lushness of your gardens. What are they? There are basically three main categories: A smelly emulsion that you spray on your plants; water sprayer systems, usually motion detecting; and electronic/electric devices. Let's take a look at each and see how well they work.

Both Deer Out and Deer Off claim to last up to four months after the initial spraying under "normal conditions", whatever that is. The fact is, according to a neighbor and my sister-in-law, these products need to be re-applied after every rain. This can get expensive, as a quart of Deer Off concentrate costs $45! The main ingredients in this product are putrescent egg solids (mmmm), capsaicin (hot pepper) and garlic. Almost seems like you could whip some up in your own kitchen, doesn't it? My neighbor also warned that this product tends to clog up your spray nozzle with putrified egg. Sounds like fun! He claims it does work, though. It's really only useful to protect very precious plantings, not the whole yard, so if you want to (try to) keep deer off your property entirely, you should probably try something else.

Next up is the Spray Away Motion Sprinkler system. When I checked out this product in the Northern Tool catalog and then online, I found that it's not all that expensive ($60) and seems pretty effective against all sorts of pests, including deer, rabbits, squirrels and even our own beloved dogs and cats! It needs to be hooked up to your water supply, of course, and only sprays when motion is detected. However, I can see where using gray water or water from a rain barrel would make this product green as well as effective.

The P3 Electronic Deer Chaser did not get very good reviews. Most users said it had no effect on the deer at all. For $35, you'd probably be better off putting that money into either the sprinkler style deterrent or an electric deer fence.

Lastly, my next door neighbor has used an electric fence to deter deer for several years now, and is very satisfied with the results. He used to use the battery style, but found it to be inconvenient. Now he just plugs it into an outside outlet. His wife's plantings are untouched within the 60' diameter space that is protected by the fence and, though he says the fence is low enough that deer could ostensibly jump over it, they never do. His friend has a solar powered electric fence that he is equally happy with. He couldn't remember the exact cost, but said it wasn't outrageously expensive.

Havahart
makes Deer Off and the Spray Away; check out consumer ratings of these and various other deterrant products at Amazon.

Remember: If you have deer around and spend time outdoors, beware of ticks! Lyme disease is nasty, nasty--and preventable. Personally, I don't have much faith in repellants you spray on your skin/clothes; the one time I used this type of product, I found a tick on me! When you come in from the great outdoors, strip down and check yourself all over, using a full-length mirror. Better still, have a partner do this (preferably someone who has seen you naked before, though, maybe not...). As long as they haven't attached themselves, you're OK (I'm speaking of the ticks, of course).
Chat later!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009 8:27 PM

Oh, Deer!


This sweet young thing showed up and browsed our yard every day last week, but so far is a no-show this week. Last year, we had a family of three and, despite the fact that I haven't done a DNA test or anything, I'm pretty sure that this is one of the young ones from that trio. This baby came really close to the house and when I went outside one evening, moved off a bit, but not hurriedly. S/he feasted on tiger lilies and just plain leaves, grass and weeds for almost an hour each day. We don't have a garden or even any plantings to speak of (we like the landscape "au naturel") so we aren't too worried about any real damage being done. When I spoke to friends and neighbors, however, I heard some real horror stories.

Deer, as you may know, are not very fussy eaters. There seems to be very few plants they will not nibble (they don't touch our irises and chives) and especially love hosta and yew. Also on their menu are roses (ouch!), flowers that people really get upset over losing; lillies, hydrangea, rhododendron, tulips and arborvitae. Supposedly, deer are discerning if not fussy, unless they are faced with a shortage of food and then everything (just about) is up for grabs. My sister-in-law, who lives in a densely populated suburb of a major city, says that cooperative extension agents have told her that even plants that deer don't like become much more palatable when they are really hungry. So, while planting things such as andromeda, boxwood, daffodils, pachysandra and lavender will disuade deer in flush times, there's no guarantee that they won't start munching away when they are starving.

Deer don't care for wide open spaces and prefer woodlands for cover. In neighborhoods, buildings, fences, tall bushes and other acoutrements also lend cover and make deer more comfortable as they leisurely chew and digest your entire garden. Around here, it's more common to see small numbers of deer grazing, but in other areas of the Northeast, they travel in numbers up to one dozen. These "gang members" are also nervy. A neighbor described seeing deer at his former home standing on someone's front landing brazenly munching on their yew bushes (which he calls "deer candy"). My sister-in-law has had them snort at her and notes that once your yard gets on the deer food train, they will just keep coming back for more. Her entire neighborhood is at its wits' end with these guys.

Is there really no deterrent? Tune in tomorrow and we'll take a look at a few.
Chat later!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009 2:55 PM

Cats: Part of a Healthy Lifestyle


We all know cats are fun to have around. They're warm and fuzzy, cute as a bug's ear, lovey-dovey and smart as a whip (whew-that's got to be a record of some kind...). But did you know that they are actually good for your health? Well, assuming you're not allergic, anyway! I remember reading many years ago about a study in which volunteers sat, relaxed, while petting a cat. Researchers measured their blood pressure before, during and after the "petting" session and found that in almost every case, the subject's blood pressure decreased by a statistically significant degree while engaged in this pleasant activity. It wasn't just the sitting and relaxing part, either. They had volunteers in relaxed positions sans cat and the effect was not the same. The study had to do with not only blood pressure, but also stress relief, I believe. For many years after we saw those research results J. would joke that, whenever he wound up with a cat on his lap he was only putting up with it to "lower his blood pressure." Yeah, right.

Recently, Clean Eating magazine had an article on "stress busting" in which the author Peggy Hall claimed that cuddling is an effective stress reliever and that, "...there are very few things that can't be cured by curling up with a purring kitty-cat". I have found this to be true, as well. Additionally, everyone knows that laughter relieves stress and strengthens the immune system, right? Well, if you didn't, the February '09 Natural Health reports that recent studies at Loma Linda University in California have found that laughter actually increases the number and effectiveness of white blood cells, T-cells and antibodies and decreases stress hormones!

How did that research involve cats, you ask? Well, literally, it didn't. But anyone who's ever owned cats knows what a laugh riot they can be. Start with kittens. Sure, they're a pain in the butt on occasion, but--boy, are they funny! They attack everything like they really mean it (including each other), jump straight up in the air for no reason and, often right in the middle of a play session, will fall over, asleep. We still laugh about the time we decided to keep the kittens from going upstairs to the bedrooms by barricading the stairway with cardboard and chairs. Within 10 seconds they had dismantled our work, and all three were running around the second floor like maniacs. Also, in trying to keep them off of the furniture, I developed "windmill arms" since as soon as I taken one off the chair or sofa, another was there to take his or her place. That's a standing joke, as well. As they grew, they calmed down a little, but we still get a good laugh out of something crazy they do at least daily.

So Cute: Speaking of crazy, that's Miss P.'s youngster Punkin gracing the blog space today. He's about 3 yrs. old now and really nutty. Between Punk and our own cats, it's no wonder J. and I are so healthy!
Chat later!

Monday, June 15, 2009 2:21 PM

What--Dry Food Again?


Do these "premium" pet food makers sell a nutritious dry food for cats as well as their canned line? Well, yes and no. Comparatively speaking, most of the manufacturers I mentioned in the previous post make a better dry product than the average supermarket-variety brands. These are, again: Newman's Own, Wellness and Nature's Variety. I will check the ingredients on the Trader Joe's and Whole Foods dry chow and update later. Iams has a line of dry food, as well, but my cats tended to gain weight on it. That's probably true of any dry food, though, so I won't penalize it for that reason. Another brand, Blue Buffalo, also makes premium dry food. How would I suggest you feed your cat these premium dry foods? That's easy--not very often!

As I've mentioned before (once or twice...), dry cat chow should not be fed except as a special treat. What I've done in the past is to buy a small bag, put the chow in a plastic bag or container when I got home, and leave it in the freezer. Then, you don't have to worry about how long it takes to use it up, as it will probably last into the next ice age, being stored in that way! You can take out a few kibbles at a time, for treats on special occasions (like nail clipping?). Don't worry about it being too hard to chew, as there is so little water content in these products that freezing won't change the consistency very much. Of course, if your cat has any health problems for which your veterinarian has forbade dry food, these products are also verboten!

What about supplements? You may be nervous about diluting your pet's canned food with your own preparations, thinking perhaps Spunky may not be getting all his vitamins and minerals with each of his new gourmet meals. You really don't have to worry about that. As we've discussed, these products are over-supplemented, even the premium ones. If it makes you feel better, though, there are many vitamin tablets specially made for pets. Take a look at some and see what you think. I don't recommend any, however, for a couple of reasons. One is that they have many additives and fillers that can cause gastric upset in some animals. Another is that they are not regulated like human vitamins, so it's a bit of a crap shoot. What I do is buy human daily multiple vitamins from Whole Foods (no iron), grind them up, and give a few grains to each cat with their meal each day. For cats, the rough dosage is approximately one-tenth of a human vitamin tablet. Alternately, a little brewers' yeast or kelp each day is an excellent supplement. I always put a few drops of olive oil (extra virgin, of course) in their food-does wonders for the coat!

Remember: Even though these brands make higher quality foods, they still may contain some additives that could make your pet sick, or that you may want to avoid on principle. Always read the label before you buy. If one brand doesn't work, at least it's good to know there are others that you can try.
Chat later!

Friday, June 12, 2009 12:32 PM

So Many Brands, Which to Choose?


Now that you're ready to pick out a premium brand of cat or dog food, where do you find them and which should you choose? Most large chain supermarkets may carry a couple of these brands, but that's about it. There are some that have a better variety and these tend to be "natural foods" types of stores or food coops. I'll start with the big players.

Two brands of premium canned foods that are commonly available at large chains are Iams and Newman's Own, which I have previously mentioned. I know that Iams was involved in the melamine contamination problem in 2007, although it was the "slices and gravy" style of canned food and not the ground meat style that I always (until then!) fed my cats. Apparently, since the product in question had even less solid content than the other style, the manufacturers tried to bump up the protein quota by using this toxic substance (hey, do you think it might be really cheap?) in order to comply with AAFCO standards. I suggest you always avoid the "gravy" style anyway, just on principle--there's really hardly any meat in it. It's really mostly liquid, and, not very high quality at that. However, my cats did quite well on the Iams solid pack for many years, so I mention it here.

Next are the specialty markets, such as Whole Foods Markets and Trader Joe's. Whole Foods has a line of holistic private-label brands that are worth looking into. Trader Joe's markets its own brand, which is fairly inexpensive but does usually feature much better ingredients than many other store brands. Their varieties are limited and I suggest that you stay away from tuna style canned cat foods no matter who makes them (TJ's always seems to have a large supply of this flavor). One reason is the rancidity problem mentioned in a previous post. Of course, that problem has been rectified by the industry, but still...Also, the parts of the tuna used for cat food is the darkest and fattiest, which means it also has the highest toxin content, especially mercury. Lastly, the fastest way to create a finicky cat is to fed it tuna. Its strong smell and taste will quickly addict your cat, and in time she will want nothing else, since nothing else can measure up. This can be particularly problematic if your cat goes off her food, since you will have nothing tempting to offer her to get her eating again.

Stores that sell pet food and supplies exclusively will provide you with many more choices. Besides the ones already mentioned, you will find several more. One is Wellness, made by Old Mother Hubbard. I have a special fondness for this brand since it was the one that got my old cat Sweet Pea eating again during her first attack of kidney failure. With the aid of this food and supplementation, I was able to put her into remission, thus buying an extra 9 months of quality life for her. My kittens (at the time) didn't like it for some reason, hence the change to Iams. Another good brand to try is Nature's Variety, whose Prairie line of canned cat food has a fine list of ingredients.

Next time, we'll take a look at supplementation and (gasp!) premium dry foods.

Book Pick: Testimony, by Anita Shreve. This novel examines an incident that took place at a New England prep school, which is recalled by several people in their own voice- sort of like a modern-day Rashomon. I like almost anything written by this author, but I thought this book was outstanding.
Chat later!

Thursday, June 11, 2009 6:29 PM

Computers and Pet Food


Exactly what, you may well ask, do computers have to do with pet food? Well, usually nothing. Except in my world when, as I prepared to write here yesterday afternoon, I made the discovery that my computer had died! It was as if someone had unplugged it, except no one had. My pal Miss P. came to the rescue today, lending me her laptop. Hooray for Miss P.! Unfortunately, though, all my cute pet photos are being held hostage in my now deceased CPU, so I'll have to post those at a later date, as an edit. Here's hoping that the crazy thing can be fixed!

Anyway, back to our discussion of additives in pet food. What is a concerned pet owner to do to avoid all these nasties? Short of making your own pet food, you won't be able to avoid all of them. Even premium brands are going to contain some ingredients that you would rather not feed to your companion animal. You can, however, reduce dramatically the amounts consumed by your pet by altering the way you feed him.

First, if you are not already doing so, switch to a premium brand of food. When you read the ingredient label, make sure that the first two ingredients are real meat, not the dreaded "meat by-products" or "fish meal concentrate". Then you know that you are dealing with a product with a superior protein source than the cheap brands. Additionally, the cheaper brands tend to use more dyes and other additives. Have you ever opened a can of really cheap cat food? First of all, the smell is enough to make you gag. Secondly, they are often a really weird color. If it smells and looks bad to you, it is not good for your pet. You are, of course, his first line of defense in this war against additives! Also, try to buy "organic" brands. The labeling requirements aren't the same for pet as for human food, but I think they have to use at least 70% organic ingredients to label it "organic". It's a little pricier, but probably worth the cost to your pet's health.

Second, try a little dilution. Feed your pet about half to two-thirds of the suggested portion and substitute some real food for the remaining portion, instead. For cats, a little raw or lightly cooked (at low heat) ground meat or cooked whole egg (cats assimilate the nutrients in eggs better when they are cooked) will certainly be welcomed. A little bit of carbohydrates, (for energy) in the form of either cooked brown rice and/or some lightly cooked vegetables are a good idea, too. For dogs, whose protein requirements are not as high as that of cats, you can add any of these foods just mentioned as well as tofu, cooked pasta and cottage cheese. Actually, cottage cheese is a good addition to your cat's diet, as well. And we all know how cats feel about cheese! Also, chopped organ meats are fine, too, but only give liver once a week, as the levels of vitamins A and D can be toxic to both cats and dogs.

What about supplementation of vitamins and minerals? I'll tackle that issue tomorrow, as well as talk about some brands of pet foods you may want to try.

Just So You Know: Tomorrow is the last day of analog television transmission, so we won't be watching any TV for a while! I did order a coupon for a booster box, but it won't be here for a couple of weeks. I hear they don't work too well, anyway. I'm thinking I won't mind having not TV--we'll see what J. thinks, though!
Chat later!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009 4:07 PM

The Good, the Bad, and the Yucky


There are many other ingredients in pet food that are not necessarily listed on the label. Some of these additives are added to increase the shelf life of the product, while others simply make the food more attractive to the consumer (you). What are they and what is their purpose?

Antioxidants are added to pet food to retard rancidity. When fats react with oxygen, a chemical process occurs which causes the food to become toxic. Vitamins, especially fat-soluble ones, are destroyed and dangerous peroxides are created. In the 1960s, canned cat food made with fish and fish oils contained no antioxidants and caused steatitis developed in cats who ate the food. Rancidity depleted vitamin E, causing neurological problems in the affected cats, many of whom died painful deaths. This occurred particularly in tuna cat food, the most popular flavor due to its very strong taste and smell. Once antioxidants were added to the product, the problem abated. A common chemical antioxidant is ethoxyquin. It is cheap, and gets the job done. Since many pet foods contain fish and vegetable oils, the addition of this chemical appears to be a necessary evil. While some sources claim that it is inert, others say that it can cause disease in dogs.

Antimicrobials and preservatives inhibit bacterial growth. Propylene glycol is a common one know to cause illness in both dogs and cats. Propyl gallate has been implicated in liver disease and sodium nitrite, also used in human foods, can react with bacteria to form nitrosamines--known to be carcinogenic. Other well-known chemical preservatives used in pet food that have been shown to cause health problems in humans are BHT, methyl- and propylparaben and butylated hydoxyanisole.

Emulsifiers, stabilizers and thickeners are used to make the product more homogeneous. When you open a can of cat food, manufacturers don't want you to see a big globby mess of separated ingredients--they want you to think of the product as a nice, firm, meat patty! These additives make this possible. They are legion, so I will only mention a couple that can cause problems. Carageenan, a thickener made from seaweed (sounds natural, doesn't it?) has been shown to cause intestinal inflammation. If your pet often has gas, diarrhea and other digestive disturbances, this could be the culprit. I have read of many examples in my research of dogs with diarrhea who recover when placed on a homemade diet. When the owners give them commercial food again, the problem returns. Guar gum is another that causes digestive upset in dogs.

Artificial coloring and flavorings are added entirely for the benefit of the pet owners. Have you ever opened a can of inexpensive cat food and found it to be unnaturally reddish pink? Makes you wonder what the real color is! Red, blue and yellows are added with impunity and often without being listed on the label. Although the owners aren't eating the food, I believe that the artificial flavors are added to make the food more palatable to pets mostly so that owners will continue to buy them. If Skippy is snarfing up his artificially colored and flavored food in no time flat, it must be good, right?

There is a way to avoid some or even all of these food additives. We'll check it out tomorrow.

What the...? The June 1 issue of The Nation reports that Chrysler is using bailout money (read: our money) to close U.S. plants and increase production in their plants in Mexico. Now that GM has declared bankruptcy (despite millions of our money being funneled to them) it is expected that they will follow the same path. How's that for a kick in the pants? Hey--aren't these the guys who used to tell us to "buy American"? What a country.
Chat later!

Monday, June 8, 2009 5:10 PM

Meat By-Products, Anyone?


Moving right along in our quest for nutritional understanding, let's take a look at the actual ingredients in this can of cat food. It starts out pretty well: Turkey broth, turkey, poultry giblets, ocean fish and chicken. For a product named "Turkey & Giblets Dinner", that's not too bad. We may be inclined to look askance at the "ocean fish" part, but, never mind. At least it's recognizable! These ingredients are pretty decent protein sources. Less acceptable are ingredients such as meat by-products and poultry by-products. They may include parts such as spleen, brain, blood and bone in the first instance and feet, heads and viscera in the second. These ingredients are not favored by humans, but do have some food value. They are inferior to the nutritional value of muscle meat, however, so if they are listed first in the "Ingredients" panel you would do well to put that product back on the shelf and keep looking for something with better quality protein sources. Often, the more expensive brands will fit the bill better than the cheaper brands. This is not always so, however, so you would do well to read each and every label before you buy.

The other problem with "by-products" is that they usually come from dead, dying, diseased and disabled--the "4-D"--animals, so it's anybody's guess what they truly contain. It is not uncommon for diseased and cancerous tissue to be tossed into the mix. The industry is allowed to do this because the food is processed at such high heat that, theoretically, anything infective is rendered harmless. This may or may not be true and, in any case, the processing also destroys much of the nutritional content (which was pretty low anyway, considering the source).

This leads us to the very long list of vitamins and minerals that are added to the product after the high temperature cooking process. If these supplements were not added, the animals eating this food would not thrive. I won't list them all here, but I encourage you to look for yourself; it is an extremely long list. That is how manufacturers create a "complete and balanced" food product.

Rounding out the ingredient list are things like oat bran, rice flour and guar gum, bulking and thickening agents that don't really add anything to the nutritional profile but do increase total carbohydrates. Since neither cats nor dogs really have a need for "carbs", they are included because they are cheap and make the food seem "meatier".

What about the stuff that's in there but isn't on the label? Stay tuned.

Movie of the Week: Planet Terror by Robert Rodriguez. His films are so entertaining! If you can suspend belief and keep from focusing on questions like, "How do they get those weapons to work like that?" you'll really enjoy the ride. Luckily, this plot is so ridiculous it's easy to just sit back and go with it. His special features are better than most, too!
Chat later!

Thursday, June 4, 2009 3:33 PM

Guaranteed Nutrition?


Continuing on with our research project, let us once again take a look at that "guaranteed analysis" section of our canned cat food label. Next on the hit list is "crude fiber", listed at 1% of wet or 1/22=4.5% of the product's dry weight. That doesn't sound too bad. Do cats need fiber? Well, not really. Research indicates that both dogs and cats do very well on homemade diets with less than 1.5% fiber content. Fiber, in the form of inexpensive grain and cereal products, does bulk up the product for consumer purchase. For very little expense, the manufacturer makes more profit than if that percentage was made up of protein. Cats do ingest their prey's stomach contents in the wild, including any vegetation they have consumed, so this ingredient causes no harm. Again, note the word "crude" prefacing fiber; it's anyone's guess exactly how refined this ingredient is. My guess: not very!

The next item listed is the infamous "ash", or mineral content. Ash is primarily made up of magnesium and phosphate. This food lists a wet 1.9% or 1.9/22=8.6% dry ash content. What does this mean? As it turns out, not much. For years, cat food makers have been producing "low ash" foods in response to an increase in Feline Urological Syndrome (FUS). This is a serious disorder in cats (particularly male cats) which can lead to death from kidney failure and blood poisoning if not promptly treated. Its increased incidence in cats is directly attributable to feeding commercial diets, but not because of the ash content. Diet affects the cat's urinary ph, which is meant to be acidic. An acidic urine will dissolve any calculi (stones) before blockage of the urethra can occur. Poor quality dietary ingredients, particularly proteins, contribute directly to the alkalinization of urine, leading to FUS. Therefore, the actual ash content is immaterial. I will talk about this issue more thoroughly when I discuss common feline health problems.

The last ingredient listed is taurine, an amino acid very important to a cat's health. Unlike other animals, cats cannot produce taurine from other amino acids. Muscle meat contains quite a bit of this amino acid, but will leach out into cooking juices and is completely destroyed by high heat, such as the commercial food industry uses in making its product. In the 1960s, when people began feeding these new store-bought diets to their cats, a problem developed whereby cats were going blind and developing heart problems. Symptoms were reversed, if not too far gone, by supplementing taurine. Now, all commercial food manufacturers add it to the finished product and the eye and heart problems no longer occur. The label states a .05% or .23% dry weight percentage of taurine in this particular product. Thirty to 50 mg. a day for an adult cat is considered adequate.

Next time we'll take a look at the actual ingredients listed on this food label. Yum!

So Cute: Here's our little pal Chickie, placed in the chicken coop by his "mom" Miss P. so that he can get used to the outdoor life. Just to make sure he doesn't get "disappeared" while she's at work, he's still in his Chickie condo for protection. I'm not sure he looks all that happy with this change of scenery. What do you think?
Chat later!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009 3:10 PM

Examining a Marketing Concept (aka Pet Food Labels)


Let's say you've finally found your glasses and you are reading a canned cat food label's "guaranteed analysis" section. What are you to make of this, particularly since we now know that pet food manufacturers do not bother to conduct feeding trials or perform chemical analyses on their products on a regular basis?

Let's take on the easy ones first. When a label says that 78% of a product is "moisture", that's self-explanatory. Realizing that you just spent $2.00 on a can of food that is really only 22% product will probably put you into a funk, perhaps discouraging you from further reading and therefore comprehension regarding this fine example of marketing you now hold in your hand. Snap out of it! You must soldier on if you want to know what your furry friend is really ingesting.

The first item on the list is "crude protein". On the example I am looking at right now, that percentage of product is 9. That seems low, doesn't it? Cats need 12-13% of their total calories ingested to be protein once they are adults; kittens need 18-20% for growth, as well. Since these percentages are figured on dry weight, though, we will need to do a little math. Dividing the 9% by the dry weight (the aforementioned very expensive 22%) gives us nearly 41% crude protein by weight. That seems high, doesn't it? Remember, we're talking about "crude" protein here, not the good stuff cats get from the muscle meat they would be eating if they ate their natural diet of live prey. Much of the protein in these products is not biologically available to the animal, meaning that their bodies can't use it because it is such poor quality. It is just excreted as waste (more of your money going down the drain). That is why the industry loads their pet food with this nutrient, in the hopes that cats will actually get what they need.

The next ingredient, "fat", weighs in at 5% or, for dry weight, 5/22= 22.7%. That definitely seems high! A high-fat diet will not necessarily harm a healthy cat, although it will contribute to obesity (which will definitely harm a healthy cat). Since the word "crude" prefaces this nutrient as well, we can further assume that this is not good fat, i.e., omega 3s and 6s. It's basically filler, since fat is cheaper to incorporate into pet food than good protein. Again, animals do need fat in their diets so manufacturers put plenty in so that pets will be able to absorb what they need (and store the rest for later, unfortunately).

Tune in tomorrow for more tasty morsels...

Movie of the Week: Another great example of a film about women in untenable circumstances comes from French director Philippe Claudel. I picked up his I've Loved You So Long, starring Kristen Scott Thomas, without knowing anything about it and, after seeing the film, completely recommend it. The plot revolved around a woman (Thomas) who is half-heartedly trying to re-enter life after 15 years in prison, assisted by her younger, estranged sister who refuses to give up on her. The climactic scene between these two will tear your heart out; Thomas really shows her acting chops here.
Chat later!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009 7:57 PM

Nutritional Guidelines: What Do They Mean?


Have you ever read the labels on those cans and bags of pet food? How about after you've found your glasses? Since the manufacturer went through all that trouble to enlighten you, don't you think you should take a look? "Ash content", "animal digest"--sounds gross, doesn't it? It makes us wonder what exactly is being put in these products that we feed our pals.

It may surprise you to learn that quality standards as they apply to pet food are industry-formulated. The U.S. government does not regulate the quality of these products at all. From 1974 to 1985 the industry used the standards established by the National Research Council, part of the National Academy of Science. The NRC's Committee of Animal Nutrition was considered the absolute authority on nutritional requirements of cats and dogs; any diet that claimed to be "complete and balanced" used the NRC's guidelines.

Pet food manufacturers created their own "committee", the Association of American Feed Control Officials, ostensibly to create nutritional uniformity across the industry. The AAFCO can use any guidelines they please, and used the NRC's for the aforementioned 11-year period, including the recommendation to conduct feeding trials to ensure the adequacy of the final product. The industry group quickly "dumbed down" this research technique to a much less strict chemical analysis in order to test whether or not the food met the NRC's requirements. This method was a poor substitute for the actual feeding of the product to dogs and cats. However, it saved the industry thousands of dollars per product line and, since they were setting the rules, this method became the norm. The NRC strenuously insisted that only direct feeding could support claims of nutritional balance when it revised its guidelines in 1985. This angered the pet food industry and the AAFCO dropped its use of NRC standards shortly thereafter.

So, what does the industry use for standards? Well, its own, of course. Since the AAFCO no longer requires the use of feeding trials, most companies don't do any. Older trials completed by the larger pet food manufacturers are still used when a benchmark is desired. Along with chemical analysis, this is the system used to assure us that the food we are buying is completely balanced nutrition for our companion animals. Is it enough? As long as the customer doesn't complain and there are no pet health crises directly attributable to their products, then--yes.
For the pet food manufacturers, it is enough.

To be continued...

What The...?: As I was gazing out my front window Saturday afternoon trying to see if anyone was patronizing our tag sale (between two households we made about $27--really worth it), what did my wondering eyes behold but a large red fox trotting right across our front yard.
This was approximately 2:00 p.m.; usually we see them quite early in the morning. He looked in fine fettle, though, big bushy tail and really buff-looking, not sickly in the least. I guess he just decided to take a stroll. Unfortunately, he took me by surprise so I couldn't get a photo. Dang. Maybe next time!
Chat later!

Monday, June 1, 2009 4:27 PM

Clip and Snip Like a Pro!


Once again, as with most things involving cats, slow and steady will get the job done. Start by getting your cat used to having her paws touched on a regular basis. Begin this training when the cat is very relaxed, but aware; don’t try touching a sleeping cat’s paws! For instance, say you and Poopsie are just hanging out on the couch, having a nice love-in while watching a movie. Once in a while, handle a paw or two, briefly. Ramp up this training until you can touch her paws without her flinching. This may take several weeks, but it is well worth taking the time to get your cat accustomed to this new type of handling.

The next step is to actually cut a nail or two. Use the good-quality human toenail clippers mentioned in a previous post. You may want to clip as she lay on the couch, nice and relaxed; I find that this doesn’t give me enough control over the cat’s movement, though. You don’t want her to pull away and get hurt (no matter how slightly) because she will associate this activity with discomfort and you’ll really be up a creek. Just try getting close to her with those clippers after that! What I do is I gently and lovingly pick the cat up and, as I kneel on the floor and sit back on my heels, I tuck His or Her Highness in between my knees so that the cat’s haunches are “trapped” by my knees. That way, I can concentrate on getting those front claws trimmed up without worrying that kitty can run off. Even if they complain a little, you still have control over the situation. Speak softly and give some smooches to keep kitty calm; then snip a nail or two or even three—as many as you can before she starts to really get annoyed. You want to let her go before that happens, so that she’ll submit a bit more readily next time, since it really wasn’t that bad. Keep this up until you can do both front paws at once. As she gets acclimated to this and you get better at it, the whole process will speed up considerably, you’ll see. After each session, give her a little treat for being such a good kitty and you’ll see improvement fast. If you start getting the treat ready before you even start clipping (so that she can hear it), she will associate only good things with this procedure and should become more cooperative each time. We usually snip claws right before their dinner, when they’re all hanging around the kitchen anyway. Right afterwards, they’re fed and all is right with the world!

This “behind the knees” technique works with front claws only, as you might have guessed. For the back ones, I employ my assistant, J., to hold them for me. If you don’t have an assistant, you can get along very well just trimming the front claws, since they are the ones that can cause the most trouble, every 10—14 days. Not only will your furnishings fare better, but just think of all the additional bonding that’s taking place between yourself and your darling cats now that you have this process down to a science. Makes me misty-eyed just thinking about it!

What The...?: The May issue of the AARP Bulletin has a short article regarding another way the medical profession is socking it to us: Some (about 1,000) doctors are having patients sign a form in which they promise not to speak "ill" (as it were) about their doctor or his/her staff. Apparently, many physicians don't want to hear criticism, constructive or not. They're not happy with people airing their views about health care at sites like RateMDs.com and Zagat.com, so don't click on these links, please! (Ha). I can't wait to read what these guys come up with next to brighten our days. Check out bulletin.aarp.org.
Chat later!

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Amanda
Amanda has worked with animals for many years and has always had cats in her life. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two excellent cats.
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