Monday, August 31, 2009 9:12 AM

The Science of Petting Cats

If you are a cat lover, you know just how enjoyable it is to pet a cat, not to mention good for your health (see "Cats: Part of a Healthy Lifestyle"). If you are not, well, you don't know what you're missing, although you dog lovers can certainly identify.

After decades of owning (or being owned by, the jury's still out on this) cats, I feel that I can say with certainty that all cats like petting. Mind you, there are all variations on this theme. Some cats like all petting all of the time, even interrupting what they are doing in order to get some extra time in. We have three of this style of cat living here right now. Then there are cats who want petting once in a while, and entirely on their terms. If you don't take advantage of this mood right away, it will pass quickly and you won't get another opportunity until the next blue moon. Between these two extremes are all manner of attention-seekers, some more lovey-dovey than others. I know some people will claim that they know a cat that never wants petting, and to you I say: Sure she does--you just need to learn the signals.

As you probably know, there are many styles of petting. One that almost all cats enjoy is the long, slow, nose-to-toes pet. This works best if the cat is lying on his side, stretched out. Start at the top of the head, and, open-handed, continue down the back to the tip of the tail. You must know your cat, though, as some don't care for touching lower than mid-back. Some get frisky, some get swipe-y. Most cats find this very relaxing; move your hand slowly down the back, watching the cat's reaction. My cats like the two-handed technique, whereby I place my other hand under the chin and move down the stomach to the tips of the rear toes. This is a good near-massage technique for calming a nervous cat. It also gets rid of loose fur, as you will no doubt notice very soon after beginning this endeavor!

Another calming "pet" is to stroke the cat between the eyes, using one finger. This will often put kitty into a trance and cause the purr-switch to turn on to "high". If you want to see your cat act like he's had a few too many, use all fingertips to increase the pace and scratch the top, sides and underneath of the head. They usually get sick of this one fast, since it's so intense; a good one to use when you're in a hurry and the petting session needs to be abbreviated a bit.

Another fast-paced petting technique is the scratching-from-head-to-base-of-tail pet. This is an all-time kitty-cat fave. Be careful getting toward the tail unless you know the cat well! Gold male cats really love this, as both Goldie and Miss P.'s Punkin will attest. They make the funniest head movements, turning in a wide arc as if they just can't figure out what's going on over there! Then they point their noses to the sky (or ceiling, for indoor cats) and groove. There's just no other way to put it.

How do you know when a cat's had enough? Our cats will move off, letting me know that I can now leave and they will take over my warm spot on the couch. Or, they start licking themselves. This works well, since no one wants to pet a wet cat, even me! Other cats will swipe or bite; Sweet Pea was the only cat I ever had that did this. Once I learned the signals, though, I was able to avoid a smack (most of the time).

Tip: If you want to create a cat that loves petting, give her lots of attention when she's young. If you adopt an adult, work at it slowly, but know that eventually it will work. I know--I've done it!
Chat later!

Friday, August 28, 2009 3:40 PM

Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP)

Feline Infectious Peritonitis is a disease that may cause either a mild illness or an often fatal one. In its mild form, the cat will exhibit symptoms such as fever, vomiting and diarrhea; alternately, some cats show such mild symptoms that an owner may not even know the cat is ill.

The more severe form is not so easy to miss. It presents as either "wet" or "dry"; sometimes, there is a mixture of the two. Fluids leaking into the abdominal and chest cavities (the "wet" type) cause pleurisy, and owners often first notice a hard, swollen belly in infected cats. Nervous system involvement is more common with the dry type of FIP; cats often experience at least partial paralysis. Cats usually succumb to the wet form more quickly, but both almost always lead to organ failure and death.

FIP is caused by a coronavirus, and spreads rapidly amongst large populations of cats, usually via the fecal route. The virus can also be spread by saliva. A compromised or immature immune system lets the virus take hold, hence its prevalence among kittens less than 4 months of age. Infection of older cats is not unheard of, though less common. Unneutered males who roam and fight comprise a large portion of that category.

Shouldn't cats be vaccinated against such a terrible disease? Well, again, the efficacy of the FIP intranasal vaccine has not been proved. In fact, even its manufacturer states that it should not be used on cats younger than 16 weeks, which is the prime infection period. Even in adults, the vaccine has caused cats to shed the virus and even become ill with it!

Keeping your cat indoors is once more the protection mode of choice. Feeding a good premium or homemade diet that enhances immune response is the best way to protect your cat against this disease.

Movie of the Week: Rachel Getting Married, starring Anne Hathaway and directed by Jonathan Demme, one of my favorite directors. Once you get past the somewhat irritating pseudo-documentary style camera work, I guarantee you'll be hooked. The title occasion is the setting for a tale of a splintered family whose members are still suffering from the effects of a tragic accident years before. Some scenes will make you squirm, while others will actually make you gasp. A realistic presentation of a painful topic.
Chat later!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009 3:22 PM

Feline Leukemia Virus and Vaccination

When people hear the word "leukemia" they immediately think "cancer". This word had an emotional punch like no other and helps explain the popularity of vaccinating cats against this disease. By doing a bit of research, however, one can soon see that this vaccine may actually produce more harm than good.

Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) is a serious disease. At its worst, it can cause malignancies, a suppressed immune system and anemia. Infected cats that do not develop the most serious symptoms will still face a shorter life span due to reduced immune response. Still others will be carriers, never getting sick themselves but able to infect other cats through their nasal secretions and saliva. FeLV is not transmissible to humans.

There are three major problems with the FeLV vaccine. One is that the efficacy of the vaccine, which manufacturers claim is upwards of 80%, just doesn't pan out. In reality, the percentage of cats protected after a regimen of three doses is more like 25% to 50%. A newer vaccine with more concentrated antigen requires only two doses, but doesn't fare much better than the original as far as protection goes. Additionally, studies have shown that although cats in the vaccinated groups do not develop disease, they very often become carriers, shedding the virus that can then infect other cats. This surely is not the result cat lovers expect when they get their pet inoculated!

A very nasty side-effect of this vaccine is the tendency to cause soft-tissue tumors (fibrosarcomas). These malignancies, which most often occur at the site of injection, are difficult to treat as they tend to recur even after removal. They are also very aggressive tumors, presenting very soon after injection and growing very quickly. The inability to treat these vaccine-induced sarcomas means that they are very often fatal.

Obviously, inoculating your cat against one type of cancer only to cause another is worse than an exercise in futility, it is downright dangerous. How do we protect our cats from Feline Leukemia Virus, then? FeLV mostly infects cats younger than 4 months old. If you get your pet from a reliable shelter or breeder, they will test the kitten(s) to be sure there is no infection. If infection exists, the vaccine won't help anyway. If not, then keeping them indoors until they are older will drastically reduce their chances of encountering the virus and becoming infected. Of course, cats that stay indoors for their whole lives (the preferred method!) will never be at risk.

To be continued...Chat later!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009 9:36 AM

Vaccination Moderation

A couple of incidents in my own life made me give a lot more thought to this generally accepted program of yearly booster vaccinations for my pets. When we moved to our present home from the city 15 years ago, Min and Sweet Pea were 10 years old. I decided that, since I wasn't going to let them outdoors anymore, they were also not going to receive any more vaccinations. I figured that, knowing what I did about immunology after several more years of college study, that they must be immune after 10 years of shots. However, years later when J. took Pea to an area vet because she was suffering from kidney failure, she tried very belligerently to force a rabies shot on her even though she was ill! This, of course, is a big no-no. I do think it shows the strain vets were showing after several years of arguing over animal vaccines, though. J. said "no" and we never returned to that veterinarian again.

Back to the "incidents". The first was the arrival of the three cats that grace this blog most of the time. The first series of shots they received caused no problems, but the second and final series caused each kitten to develop a lump at the injection site within 24 hours. I told the vet about it each time, and they seemed surprised. I have since spoken to other people and read articles about this phenomenon, and it is not all that uncommon. This signaled to me that these cats were having an adverse reaction to the vaccinations and they have had no more.

The other life change that really opened my eyes involved my returning to junior college after my layoff in the early 2000s. The laws now required that persons entering college prove that they had been vaccinated against all the big players (polio, mumps, measles) before they could be accepted for matriculation. Otherwise, the shots would have to be re-administered. There was no way I was going to expose myself to that! Of course, I had no idea where my records were, so my doctor took a blood sample for testing. The test returned with the result of "permanently immune". If this were the case after thirty-some-odd years, why wouldn't it be the same for cats and dogs, who have a much shorter life span? I felt I finally had the answer to the question I had asked of my veterinarian employers all those years ago.

Not only is the frequency of injection a problem, but also the fact that multiple vaccines are injected at once. This, I feel, only overwhelms the immune system with too many enemies and causes it to overreact, causing illness and/or side effects, instead of causing a moderate response, i.e., creating antibodies to only one type of invader at a time. This is a concern for parents whose children are of vaccinating age, as well. Family members very recently had a very difficult time finding a doctor who would inoculate their son with one vaccine at a time; the physician, for his part, had difficulty locating such vaccines. This, despite all the debate that has been ongoing for the past 15 years, at least!

Tomorrow: How effective are these vaccines? Hmmm?
Chat later!

Monday, August 24, 2009 9:26 AM

Pet Vaccinations: Too Much of a Good Thing?

Disease vaccination, whether of animals or humans, is a topic that pops up fairly often in the news media. Whether the issue is vaccine utility, injury or whether a particular inoculation should be given at all, this is an evolving science that begs our scrutiny. So much more is being learned about the body's reaction to disease-causing agents every day that we need to pay attention to whether the old protocols concerning vaccinating are useful, benign or even harmful, given this new information.

When I was in school studying Veterinary Technology in the late 1970s and early 1980s, cats and dogs were routinely vaccinated each year for a slew of infectious diseases. When I started working for veterinarians after school, I learned that these annual events were a real money-maker for them. In fact, I would say that the majority of their business, at least in those days, were made up of annual pet check-ups and booster shot administration. The fee for the visit, any medications dispensed and the charge for the shot (which cost the vets a fraction of what they charged the customer) brought in a pretty good sum. It wasn't so high, though, that most pet owners minded paying it, and their pets (usually) got a clean bill of health. So, really, everybody was happy.

Then questions started to arise. I admit I asked the vets some questions myself, such as why we, as humans, are vaccinated against certain diseases as children and are assumed to be immune for life without yearly boosters, while the same assumption is not made about pets. I never got a straight answer, as I recall. But others asked this type of question, and more, such as: Are the multitude of vaccines incorporated in the one "shot" harmful? Are they all even necessary? Might it be safer to give single inoculations, spaced further apart? Can they cause disease later in life, even cancer?

Animal care practitioners didn't like all these questions. Giving many vaccines in one shot had been a boon for them, as they could tell the pet owner how much more protection their animal was now getting without having to stick the cat or dog with a needle more than once, something owners don't like to see. Plus, for the same amount of work, they got to charge more. And it was true that the pet was getting a greater number of vaccine doses at once, although whether this afforded more protection or was really necessary wasn't discussed.

I was working at the University during the 1990s when this debate really started heating up. In our lab, we had a lot of contact with MA state veterinarians, who defended the old practice as necessary not only for pets' health, but for the public, as well. Much of this latter part of the discussion centered on rabies vaccination, and they were not incorrect that rabies is a public health concern. The real question was, however, not "Should dogs and cats be inoculated against rabies", but "How often does this need to occur in order to guarantee protection?"

Tune in all this week for more information on this important subject. I will cover my personal experiences with vaccination as well as recent changes in the protocol. By the end of this series, I believe you will have enough information to decide which vaccinations you really need for your pet.
Chat later!

Thursday, August 20, 2009 3:25 PM

Move Along, the Cat Wants Your Chair

A friend once loaned me a book of the best cat cartoons published in the New Yorker Magazine. Knowing how I feel about cats, she figured I'd get a kick out of it. She was right, of course. I remember cartoons of people squashed in the corner of a chair while several cats snoozed contentedly around them. There was one of a man, sipping a cocktail and reading a book in his favorite chair while a cat perched on the arm, staring at him. His wife was yelling something like, "Henry! Can't you see that the cat wants your chair?" Another showed a woman, anxiously bending over an obviously relaxed cat on a sofa inquiring, "Are you all right?" Still another portrayed a man sitting on the floor trying to read a newspaper while a cat stretched out on his easy chair. The reason I found them so amusing is because they were so true to life: No cat lover will jettison a pet cat from a comfy chair, no matter how uncomfortable it will make their own seating arrangement. It's just not done.

I'm guilty of this behavior too, just as you probably are. Three or four years ago, we went furniture shopping in order to replace a chair that was showing its age. I decided I wanted a "chair-and-a-half" so that I could have a cat sleeping next to me without my having to scrunch up to one side. I found exactly what I wanted in short order and it was immediately dubbed, "The Cat Chair". My plan didn't work out exactly as I'd envisioned it, though. Sure, the cats took to the thing right away, which was good. The thing was, they all took to it, at once! If you've seen the photo on my first post, you know what I mean. I get to sit in it a bit, but as soon as I get up for any reason, there are suddenly at least two cats on the chair, already fast asleep. Which means, of course, that I have to find another place to sit. Whenever I point this out to J., he usually says, "Well, you wanted a Cat Chair." Thanks a lot.

So the next time you feel silly for sitting cross-legged on the floor while the cat takes up all the best seating space, just remember you're not alone. And, hey! Get up, I think the cat wants your chair.

Book Pick: The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry. Not only is this an extremely funny send-up of noir-ish detective novels, it also delves into mind control and the ridiculousness of hierarchical organizations.
An added bonus is that the author is a graduate of our own University of MA at Amherst. Check it out.
Chat later!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009 3:31 PM

Herbal Solutions for Eye Irritation

Mild eye irritation can often be treated at home. If your cat has a watery eye or slight mucus discharge, take a look to be sure that there is not some foreign object or injury causing the problem. If it looks okay, try wiping the eye with saline. You can but this product ready-made, or make your own. Dissolve 1/4 tsp. of salt in 1 cup of water. Using a guaze pad or something else that won't shred or leave lint behind, wipe the discharge from the eye. Take another pad, moisten, and wipe the eye again. You don't have to flood the eye; this will work even if kitty closes his eye (guaranteed). Do this 3 times a day for a couple of days; this should clear things up. If not, you should probably check with your vet to make sure there isn't something else going on.

Recurrent eye problems call for stronger "medicine": Herbal eye solutions. When our cats were kittens, Goldie suddenly developed a winky eye. It would come on suddenly; I've found that this is often the case with eye troubles. We took him to the vet, who thought that a tussle with the others probably resulted in a scratch to the cornea. She gave us eye ointment, which I used religiously for the full week. Boy, did he hate that! It abated for a few days, but came back. Next visit, the vet thought it might be a viral infection that some kittens get, but outgrow. We tried the ointment again, with the same result. I then decided to make an herbal tea to treat the problem. I used goldenseal, echinacea and green tea. After one week, they eye looked normal, but I kept it up for a full month, considering what had happened with the eye ointment. He didn't mind this treatment nearly as much as the other, and it never recurred.

Last winter, Little Girl suddenly(!) presented with a problem: one eye's upper and lower lid was red and swollen. I took a look and thought I saw a tiny scratch above her eyelid. It was definitely bothering her, as she would paw it occasionally (which didn't help). I immediately made up a batch of the Magic Eye Wash and began treatment. She wasn't wild about it, but I would time the wiping to coincide with mealtimes. This kept her from hiding as well as from immediately washing the solution off. After 10 days, all looked well, but a week later it recurred. I changed the formula to goldenseal, marjoram and burdock root and went at it again, this time for two full weeks. Problem solved!

Again, if your cat seems to be in pain or ill, check with your vet. Blindness is irreversible, so it's best to be sure. For the occasional irritation, though, herbal teas work very well. The cats seem to get used to the treatment, too. It got to the point that Little would wait at her bowl before digging in so that I could wipe her eye! Always finish with a compliment and a smooch on top of the head, and you won't go wrong.

Just So You Know: This treatment will also work with dogs--and people!
Chat later!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009 1:03 PM

The Eyes Have it: Eye Problems in Cats

Eye problems seem to show up in cats every now and then, sometimes with no warning. Many of these are not serious issues; however, it is useful to know what the problem may be in order to decide whether or not to take the cat to the veterinarian. Following are some of the most common eye disorders that affect cats (people and dogs, too):

Conjunctivitis: Otherwise known as "pinkeye", this is an infection of the inner surfaces of the eyelids. Irritants such as foreign objects, allergies or an upper respiratory infection may set the stage for opportunistic bacterial infection. Symptoms include inflammation, blinking, soreness and redness. Unless infection is present, there is probably not going to be any discharge of pus. There may be a watery discharge, though, as the eye tries to rid itself of the irritation.

Corneal Abrasion: This is brought on by some minor trauma to the eye, such as a scratch; it is common in litters of kittens who regularly beat the crap out of each other without restraint. If you notice a kitten pawing at its eye and the eye is tearing and squinty, this is probably the problem. It will heal on its own, as long as infection doesn't set in. It's probably best to check with your vet, just in case.

Corneal Keratitis and Ulcer: Abrasions of the cornea can progress to keratitis quite easily, which can then lead to ulcer. It is very important to treat this early, as blindness can result. The eye will look pretty bad, even at the keratitis stage, so it's best to start treatment as soon as symptoms appear.

Dark Staining around the Eyes: This usually occurs in Persian breeds, due to the snub-nosed (brachio-cephalic) style of the face. The tear ducts are basically being squeezed, since a cat is supposed to have a snout (albeit a small one) that allows for normal tear duct orientation and function. There are special eye washes available, so consult your vet.

Watery Eye (Epiphora): This can be caused by irritation or an upper respiratory tract infection. Sometimes, the cause is a foreign object in the eye; check with your vet to ascertain the cause before treatment.

Glaucoma: An increase in fluid pressure behind the eye, due to inflammation or tear duct drainage issues. Other causes are disease of the lens or anterior portions of the eye. One or both eyes can be affected; bulging or enlarged eyeballs are the usual cues. This disorder can lead to blindness, so it's best to have the cat checked out as soon as you notice it.

Bulging eye: Usually affects one eye only. Swollen tissue or a tumor behind the eye are the usual causes.

Cataracts: More common in older cats, the lens becomes clouded, then milky-white. Outdoor cats are more prone to this than indoor cats. Diabetes mellitus can also be a cause. Note, however, that some clouding of the lens normally occurs in animals 10 years of age and older, and is not a cause for concern. If your cat seems to be having problems with vision, get her to the vet's for a check-up; this is not a normal part of aging.

Blepharitis: Red, swollen eyelids, sometimes with discharge and/or crusting. Usually, the cause is a scratch to the eyelid that becomes infected.

Entropion: The bottom eyelid turns inward, and the lashes irritate the cornea. This can be caused by injury, but is often a congenital defect; usually, surgery is the treatment.

Third Eyelid: The nictitating membrane is a neat protective membrane that protects the cat's eyes. You will usually only see it if your cat wakes suddenly from a deep sleep; it recedes very quickly. If it is in view at other times, something is wrong. Often, it is a respiratory infection; sometimes, not. Get to the vet's, pronto.

Tomorrow, I'll go over some treatments you can do at home for mild eye irritations.
Chat later!

Monday, August 17, 2009 7:11 PM

A Shelter's "No Kill" Mission

The Saturday edition of the Daily Hampshire Gazette featured a front-page article about the Dakin Pioneer Valley Humane Society, a local animal shelter that has grown by leaps and bounds since being founded in 1995 with a modest bequest by the late Janet Dakin of Amherst.

This entity has been in the news quite a bit lately. When the MSPCA closed its long-time shelter in Springfield, the Dakin stepped up this past spring, buying the premises and bringing its excellent work into Hampden County. Dakin has always strove to be a no-kill shelter, placing animals in homes all over Hampshire and Franklin Counties. If a pet could be treated and rehabilitated, the Dakin shelter would find it a home. When they had only the Leverett and Greenfield locations, this task was much easier; they could send those animals that they felt were unadoptable to the MSPCA. Recent events have changed this aspect of their philosophy, however, and this was the major focus of the article.

Before they moved into the Springfield area, the organization destroyed only about 4% of the animals it took in. Now that they have changed from a limited adoption center to one that is open admission, they are unable to place nearly all the animals that come through its doors. Realizing this, the Executive Director has unveiled a plan to change all that within three years, becoming a true "no-kill" shelter.

While Dakin is planning to guarantee adoption of all healthy dogs it receives right away, cats are another issue. Unfortunately, there seems to be a prevalent attitude that cats are disposable. Everyone has heard of people drowning unwanted kittens (rather than neutering the parents); I personally have never heard of anyone drowning puppies. Not to say that this has never happened, but I'll bet it is not as common a practice as destroying kittens! To their credit, the Dakin plans to be able to place all healthy cats, even adults, in three years' time.

How do they plan to do this? Dakin has always had an excellent matching program, interviewing people who want to adopt to be sure that they will find an animal that they will want to keep (the shelter requires adopters to bring the animal back to them, however, if the match doesn't work). Additionally, they are creating programs for low-cost neutering, counseling of persons who want to surrender their pet in order to find a way to keep the animal in the home, animal training and increasing the number of foster homes.

Despite the seemingly short time-frame for the implementation of these goals, I feel confident that the Dakin will achieve them. The article goes on to point out that fund-raising will be a necessary part of this endeavor. Check out the Dakin's website and be as generous as you can--they're good people with a great mission.

Unbelievable: I read the other day that a former football player, Micheal Vicks, was recently released from prison after serving time for running a dog-fighting ring (and making millions of dollars into the bargain). Despite being supposedly banned from professional sports for some indefinite period of time, he was recently given special dispensation (or something!) so that he could be signed by the Philadelphia Eagles. Not only that, but I heard this morning that this move is supported by the Humane Society, who have tapped this guy as a spokesman against dog fighting! Is this a crazy world or what?!
Chat later!

Thursday, August 13, 2009 12:19 PM

More Fun and Games with Cat Toys

Some things that cats love to play with can cause them harm. Some things that immediately spring to mind are: Christmas decorations such as ornaments and tinsel; thread, string and small objects that can be swallowed and/or choked on. Here are some suitable substitutes for dangerous play items:

Christmas decorations: You must make sure that kitty can't get to any breakables by putting them well out of reach. For the lower branches, hang only unbreakable (plastic, wood) ornaments. Don't use the old-fashioned type of tinsel that comes on a card; use only the long bough style. Again, keep it off of the lower branches. Kitty will be curious!

String, thread, dental floss: I actually had friends that let their cats play with dental floss. Amazingly, they never wound up with problems. Anything that can be swallowed can cause abdominal obstruction and should be verboten. Since we all know how cats love string and yarn, here's a cheap alternative. I sprained a finger last winter and made myself a "bandage" by cutting up a strip from an old t-shirt. When the cats found this, they went absolutely crazy playing with it--they performed gymnastics you'd never think 12-year-old cats could manage. The attraction was the same as with string, but it was too thick to be swallowed and the stretchy material made it less likely that they would get themselves caught up in it--you always have to be careful of that, so supervision is the best course of action here. You'll want to see the antics, anyway.

Balls: I mean the rubber or plastic kind, silly. I know of people who let their cats play with marbles, but they are too small, in my opinion, plus they could chip a cat's teeth. Smaller "superball" sized rubber balls or, my cats' personal fave, ping-pong balls, make great cat toys. Just be careful about stepping on the rubber ones--they've been know to actually explode when compressed too much. I know from experience that it won't hurt you, but will scare the s--t out of you, to put it mildly.

Bags: As I mentioned yesterday, paper grocery sacks are OK, but don't ever give kitty the plastic ones, with or without handles. Many people are now using the reusable sacks made of recycled fiber, which is great; I'm not entirely sure, though, that cats can't get caught in the handles, panic, and hurt themselves. Cats tend to panic very easily when they feel themselves being restrained against their will, which is how most of these type of injuries occur. Again, supervision takes the guesswork out of the equation entirely.

Elastic bands: Cats love these! I started being much more careful about leaving them lying around when I discovered, while cleaning the cat litter box, that someone had swallowed one and (luckily) passed it, with no problems. They tend to trumpet when they find one, carrying it around the house to show their rubber-band hunting prowess, so I always know when they've got one. The fat ones, such as those that come on bunches of broccolli, don't tend to get swallowed as much, so I let them play for a bit until they tire of it. When they're done parading it around, I pick it up and dispose of it. Just to be safe.

What are your cat's favorite cheapie (or not) toys? Let us know!
Chat later!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009 5:53 PM

I Know What Cats Like: Toys

If you're like many cat owners, you have a house full of cat toys. Feathery lures, bouncy balls, catnip mice--we've all had our weak moments and overpaid for one or two of those delicate play thingies. Unfortunately, once presented to our precious little darlings these items tend to disintegrate. When faced with sharp teeth and claws, they just don't stand up, do they? Having learned our lesson, most of us start taking note of cheap (read: free) stuff that our cats enjoy chasing and chomping, such as the following:

Pull tabs from gallon milk/water jugs: These are all-time cat favorites. Some cats go really crazy and chew them (like Bear), so be sure to throw them away when you notice this, as they may swallow some plastic. The caps are also good toys, especially if you can get them to roll.

Crumpled wads of paper: Again, a cat fave. Paper is best; cellophane doesn't really stay crumpled, and I've never felt comfortable wadding up aluminum foil for my cats to chew on. They can have hours of fun with just one used grocery list! Once you step on them, though, the jig is up. Re-wadding doesn't work--they can tell.

Swizzle sticks: This was one of Min's favorite toys. He would spend many a happy hour batting them around, carrying them in his mouth and shoving them under every appliance he could find. Our current crop of cats isn't quite as crazy about them. They prefer--

Twist-ties: Goldie will prowl the countertops looking for one of these that we forgot to put away, and he usually finds one or two a month. I don't actually like him playing with these because they have a metal wire inside and it makes me nervous. I generally substitute something else for him to play with instead, if I catch him with one, something like--

Q-Tips: Either paper or plastic will do, and Goldie will sometimes dig them out of the waste basket (eww!) so I give him a new one instead. I take the cotton off the ends, though, so he won't ingest it. Just in case.

Cellophane rings from jars: Little Girl adores these. She will chew and chomp on these until they look like they've been run through a stamping machine. They're sort of annoying to step on, though, because they make so much noise underfoot. So we usually toss them into the "begging box" next to the butcher block counter where she can always find at least one to pulverize when the mood is upon her.

Paper grocery sacks: Another old stand-by. No cat can resist one! The handles don't usually pose a risk, but it you're worried, they're easy enough to pull off. We usually have one hanging around for cats to play in, but the Bear usually flattens it out in a hurry so he can lay on it and keep other cats from using it. Sigh.

I'll put my thinking cap on and come up with a few others for tomorrow, plus a few no-no items as well.

Movie of the Week: Another series that I found by just nosing around at the library: Rebus. It's a Scottish detective series based on the books by Ian Rankin, originally shown on BBC America. Gritty stuff; good plot lines and thick Scottish brogues will keep your attention from straying, I assure you!
Chat later!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009 1:07 PM

Feral Cats in the News

Yesterday, our local newspaper published an article concerning a colony of feral cats living on the grounds of an Easthampton subsidized housing complex. Apparently, the Easthampton Housing Authority is looking to the city for funds to deal with this problem even as tenants are taking matters into their own hands, and getting punished for it.

Housing Authority officials have issued warnings and even eviction notices to at least one tenant at the Dickinson Court complex for feeding the strays. The tenant in question, a 74-year old woman, feared the cats would starve without her help, yet desisted in the face of an eviction notice. This tenant, with the assistance of a Personal Care Assistant who works at the apartment complex, also traps feral cats for neutering and vaccination. This service costs the Housing Authority nothing, as the Homeless Cat Project performs the medical procedures at no cost. Despite this, officials have said publicly that it is illegal to trap feral cats (even though that is exactly what they plan to do with the money they have requested from the city!), something that the coordinator of the HCP states is untrue.

Why is the Housing Authority so concerned? The Executive Director claims that both tenants and contractors have complained about the cats and that they have done damage to the grounds. When the reporter interviewed a number of tenants, however, all said they did not mind the cats. This begs the question of why contractors' comments should carry more weight than those of paying customers, if indeed there have been any contractor complaints at all. This official also states that the city Health Agent told her that the cats may have rabies and could pose a danger to residents; the HCP's free innoculation program should take care of the disease issue, however. Additionally, the article goes on to paraphrase the city's Animal Control Officer as stating that the cats have caused no one any harm.

The Authority states that it wants the money to "place" or euthanize the cats. Feral cats are unadoptable; therefore, the only other option they will consider is to destroy them. But why? It seems to me that this issue is less about feral cats and more about the Easthampton Housing Authority's obsession with exerting control over tenants, particularly elderly ones without any other options. Since when is it a bad thing to show kind-heartedness? Never mind the fact that these people are actually trying to solve the problem, something the city has yet to even attempt!

Read the full article, authored by Matt Pilon, in the Monday, August 10, 2009 edition of the Daily Hampshire Gazette.
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Monday, August 10, 2009 6:07 PM

Exploding Cat Myths: Cats Aren' t as Smart as Dogs

If you've ever heard this one, I'll be willing to bet it came from a dog person. Not any dog person, either, but a particular type: One who dislikes cats. People who have both dogs and cats in their lives know very well that this statement is untrue, and would never utter it themselves. While it is certainly true that some dogs are smarter than some cats and vice versa, they are, I think, pretty evenly matched. I have never owned a dog, but I have worked with them and have known many dog people over the years. The issue here is the fact that these two species are so different.

When people get a puppy, they expect it to behave a certain way. They know, for instance, that the dog must be house trained. They lay down newspapers and spend much time trying to teach the animal to hold off until he can be let outdoors. Some time and many messes later, the job is done. With kittens, litter box training usually entails placing her in the box, moving the front paws back and forth, and letting nature take its course. Does this mean that cats are smarter than dogs? Not necessarily. It's just a different teaching method for the same end result, with one being a bit more complicated than the other, therefore taking more time to learn. It doesn't mean that dogs are dumber than cats, right?

The biggest complaint regarding cats versus dogs is that some people claim that cats can't be trained as dogs can. Is it a matter of "can't", or "won't"? I would say the latter. J. gets our cats to do all kinds of tricks for their pieces of cheese, for instance. They won't do the same for a chunk of carrot, though--because they don't want to! I have seen dogs do tricks for rewards, too, so what's the difference?

I've also heard some claim that cats can't learn their names. Wrong! When we lived in the city, I would call Min and Sweet Pea in before dark. Our next-door neighbors got a big kick out of seeing these two come running full speed from the yard behind ours and zoom into the house as I held the door open. If a cat doesn't appear to respond to his name, it is just IGNORING you! Look closely. Despite their apparent nonchalance, they do react to hearing their names spoken. The ears move, whiskers flick, and they may even deliberately look away. So, even if they don't come trotting over to see what you want (and most of the time they will, anyway), they are reacting. So much for that theory!

Lastly, it is commonly thought that cats can't be leash-trained. Many breeds of cat take to the leash quite readily, and even the average house cat can be trained to the leash, if training is started early enough. Of course, a prime reason for choosing a cat as a pet instead of a dog is due to the fact that one does not need to walk them! What the heck--they walk themselves! Or, if they are indoor cats, walking is unnecessary anyway--they have their litter box, and one of the primary reasons for dog-walking is to take care of "that stuff".

So the next time you hear cats maligned in this manner, just point out that cats and dogs are like the proverbial apples and oranges: too different to compare equitably. Anyway, wouldn't you say the point is to just enjoy them? I knew you would.
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Thursday, August 6, 2009 4:31 PM

Wild Things

One of the reasons people love cats is because they are constantly hovering between domestic life and the feral state. Despite having been brought under human auspices several thousand years ago, they've never really been completely tamed. This becomes apparent as one observes their sleek, agile frames, hunting prowess and even how they sleep--mostly during the day, and mostly with one eye open! The tabby markings, still so apparent today, provides us with a glimpse into the wild state. This natural camouflage enables the cat, when sensing danger, to hunker down, remain still and thereby avoid notice. Perfection!

Once a cat has lived a feral life, it is nearly impossible to turn them into pets. My friend, J.M., belongs to group that traps feral cats in order to neuter and spay them in an effort to control these wild populations. Unless these cats are extremely young, they are placed back where they found them after a short recovery period. These people know that these older cats are virtually unadoptable, and they have learned not to even try placing them in shelters. Of course, dogs can also form feral communities, but their reversal to the wild is not as complete as the cat's. Anyone who has ever tried to tame an older "barn cat" will know exactly what I am talking about.

My cats were born to a feral mother at the University where I worked. When I discovered them, they were still nursing. J.M. and I kept a close eye on them and when we noticed the mother bringing prey back to the nest, we knew it was time to bring them slowly into the domestic world. The first time I placed a bowl of kitten chow into the nest (in a window well), the mother cat swiped at me. I didn't know she was there! She didn't get me, and I like to think she knew I was trying to help, since it was a decidedly half-hearted swipe. I started handling the kittens when she wasn't there, and as soon as one ventured out of the nest we swooped in and bundled them off to my house. The rest is history, as they say!

The attention that these cats have received since they moved in here has made them into the sweetest cats I've ever owned. We all know of pet cats that are downright nasty, and I feel sure that the reason for this is usually that they are not handled enough by their owners. The secret to suppressing the wild side of cats is lots and lots of loving physical contact. For cat lovers, this is usually a requirement that is easy to fulfill.

So the next time your cats are bouncing off the walls, chasing each other and play-stalking their stuffed mice, take a moment to appreciate the wild side of this beautiful animal. And give yourself a pat on the back for being wise enough to bring these barely-domesticated felines into your life. It's truly a walk on the wild side!

Today's Pic: This photo comes from the National Geographic Best Pictures for the Year collection, sent to me courtesy of my sister-in-law. She's got a good eye, eh?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009 2:00 PM

The Neighborhood of Super-Spoiled Pets

Not that there's anything wrong with that...

Today, as J. was making our lunch, I caught him passing out cheese bits to our three cats. This is a common occurrence here, and I do it, too. Goldie was reluctant to accept his treat, so I had to step in and offer it to Little Girl, which of course made Goldie accept it back in a flash. So now Girlie had to have another piece...this is also a common scenario, where we humans coax the cats to take our largesse, lest they suffer some sort of permanent trauma from being left out of the mix. Naturally, we enjoy it, too. I thought to myself that our pets are not only spoiled, but super-spoiled. We're in good company, though, as our neighbors are also prone to such behavior.

Our next-door neighbor, Mr. S., has an old dog, H. This dog has various health problems and is very spoiled. Whenever Mr. S. and his wife, Ms. R., have company over to their house, H. will bark and bark in the middle of the living room until he gets his fill of cookies. Only then will he go into his crate and lie down quietly, as he knows that his owners are desperate to get him to shut up and won't just put him outside when they have guests! Also, H. needs to go out much more often than he used to, or he makes "mistakes" in the house. Mr. S. has been getting up at all hours of the night to take him out, as he tells J., in only his "tighty whities". J. has told him if he sees that, he's calling the cops. Of course, we're sleeping soundly at these wee hours, since we don't have such worries!

Miss P. recently told us how one of her goats, Sylvie, has been complaining loudly of late, perhaps because of bugs, perhaps the heat, perhaps other reasons. So, Miss P. has been tromping out to the goatie shed with various treats in order to placate the poor baby. A couple of days ago, Miss P. informed us that she had pinpointed the problem: Sylvie bleats and blahhs when one of the other goats jumps up on "her" wooden platform inside the shed (pictured are Peaches and Pepper, the two main offenders). That was the whole problem! We'll ask Miss P. tomorrow if she's been dutifully shooing the other goats off of this box so that Sylvie's delicate psyche won't be permanently damaged. Bad karma in the goatie barn!

If you recognize yourself in any of these scenarios, don't be embarrassed. It only shows that you have a good heart and love your pets as much as if they were your children. Not only do they really deserve it, but as an added bonus they can't sign you into a nursing home later! So, keep up the good work, your pets are counting on you!

Movie of the Week: Tell No One, a film by Guillaume Canet and starring Francois Cluzet and Kristin Scott-Thomas. Very suspenseful, edge of your seat fare, based on a book by Harlan Coben (which I just recently read). Another French vehicle for Scott-Thomas, and, as usual, she shines. She must not be getting many juicy offers from Hollywood. Well, the French really do it better, anyway, n'est pas?
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Tuesday, August 4, 2009 11:00 AM

Natural Flea Control

If your animals go outside, they are going to pick up fleas. Therefore, the best flea prevention program for cats is: Keep them inside! OK, this won't work for households who have cats and dogs, as the dogs can bring the fleas indoors to the cats. Hmmm. What to do?

First of all, fleas (and other parasites) are opportunists. Animals that are not as healthy as they could be will have low immunity and will be less able to fight an infestation. What is the first step to a super-healthy pet? Right--good nutrition. That means homemade or premium diets, minimal dry food (treats only) and not leaving food around between feedings. The overall health of your pet will improve dramatically in a month's time, and you won't believe how soft their coats become, particularly with a homemade diet. Soft hair means healthy skin, which is better able to withstand assaults from fleas! Skin disturbances usually stem from allergies, either to food or fleas. Take the food issue out of the equation, and it will be much easier to deal with the flea problem. End result? No more scratching!

Supplements such as brewer's yeast also help repel fleas. I have used this, to good effect. However, some cats don't like yeast; ground kelp is a good alternative. Add a bit more to their food each day, until you are feeding about a 1/4 tsp. per cat. Dogs can take up to a tsp. or more a day, depending on their size. Another good supplement is olive oil. We use extra virgin for everything, so our cats get the good stuff, as well. A few drops in their morning meal, up to a 1/4 tsp. or so, is a great coat conditioner. I've used it for years, and the cats love it.

Grooming is an important part of flea control. Get yourself one of those fine-toothed two-sided "nit" combs and groom daily. Make up a pint of "lemon tea" to dip the comb in. Slice a whole, fresh lemon and simmer in 2 cups of water for about 30 minutes. Cool and use to dip the comb in as you groom. The fleas you pick up will drown in the lemon water, and the residue seems to repel newcomers. It won't hurt your pet if she licks herself, either. If you see fleas, try to pick them off and submerge in the tea. You should see fewer and fewer as you continue this regimen.

Wash pet bedding often, and vacuum well between washings with a good vac that uses replaceable bags. Vacuum your house often, as well, including upholstered furniture. If you actually see fleas, you'll need to throw that bag away. If you have multiple pets, you'll go through bags pretty quickly, anyway!

Keep up this program year round and flea problems should become a thing of the past. You can keep your pet and home flea-free without dangerous chemicals. It's a little more work, but it's worth it!

Remember: When you're grooming, check for ticks, too. You should probably check your dog after every walk, since removing ticks before they attach is priority #1--Lyme disease can attack a dog's joints and cause arthritis-like problems. An ounce of prevention...
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Monday, August 3, 2009 5:42 PM

"Spot-on" Flea Control: Safe and Effective?

How does one go about preventing fleas from infesting his/her pets and home? If you are like many pet owners today, you use chemical deterrents. Happily, the days when flea collars were the norm seem to be gone. They released large amounts of insecticide into an animal's bloodstream and never seemed to work anyway. Ditto for the shampoos, sprays and powders; it was a constant battle trying to control fleas, as none of these products seemed to give more than a few days' respite. Today, there are many once-a-month types of flea control products that promise to control these parasites plus have a benign effect on your animal. Are these claims true?

Many so-called "spot-on" pesticide products are currently on the market. This category seems to be dominated by two particular products, Advantage (made by Bayer) and Frontline (made by Merial). The active ingredients are imidocloprid and moxidectin for the former and fipronil and methoprene for the latter. The manufacturers claim that these chemicals are safe; they are applied between the shoulder blades, ostensibly because the pets will be unable to lick it off and ingest it. Further, the literature states that the chemicals are not absorbed by the body, but stay in the skin and hair follicles. Since when are substances applied to the skin not absorbed into the bloodstream? This sounds like fantasy to me, but even a couple of magazines I've read lately that feature veterinarian's columns have parroted that claim. How does the chemical travel from the "spot-on"area to cover the entire body? Also, how much hair and dander would you think an average pet sheds in 30 days? Quite a bit, I'd say, from the number of times I have to change the vacuum bags!

In sum, I think this particular claim is untrue. Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency's website states that it is currently investigating reports of adverse effects running the gamut from skin irritation and hair loss to seizure and death! Other information I've read cites instances of diarrhea, vomiting, decreased appetite, tremors as well as violent allergic reactions to these products. How, do you suppose, could these systemic reactions occur if the insecticides never penetrate below skin level? They couldn't, of course. Check out the EPA's site whether or not you use these products--there's lots of good info there. For instance, I didn't know that adverse reaction reports made to manufacturers by consumers must, by law, be reported to the EPA. Good to know!

So, despite the fact that these products do seem to work well, do you think it's worth the possible health hazards associated with them? Especially since there are other, less toxic ways to de-flea your pets. We'll talk about those tomorrow.

So Cute: My sister-in-law sent me this link:

Are they the cutest things, or what?!
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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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