Mews & Views

Mews & Views -- A blog for cat lovers everywhere with a focus on the low-income pet cats of northern and central New Mexico.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Fixing Half A Cat Colony Is Like Being a "Little" Pregnant

“We have been so pleased with the results from the TNR program. It has been a healthy year with only adults present. Often the kittens (before TNR) were sickly and too wild to provide care, resulting in terminal disease. The population has stabilized now with individuals staying around instead of roaming and getting hit in the road. We have two new additions to our colony that need spay/neuter vouchers. The new arrivals have been eating here consistently for the last three weeks.“

Feedback like this on our Managed Feral Colony Assistance Program is music to our ears. This Ann Arbor caregiver followed through and fixed her entire barn colony of 16 cats late last fall, and has been reaping the benefits ever since. It’s relatively simple to achieve 100% sterilization if you train the cats to show at the same time each day and be hungry when they do – by meal-feeding and not leaving food out for extended time periods. That way you see all the cats most of the time – and even the most feral cats will be more trusting -- you become their “mom cat” --- providing their food like she did.

We’re delighted to pay to sterilize cats where the colony caregiver – who is also the property owner – is committed to maintaining their land as a kitten-free zone – by humanely caring for the adults and ensuring the entire group gets fixed quickly – even when it involves live-trapping feral cats. It’s a two-stage process: first fixing the existing colony and second monitoring the group at meal time. Most of the time the existing colony will keep newcomers from settling in but occasionally a new cat will come by that they accept. When they do, identify the newcomer(s)and fix them before they reproduce.

As this caregiver points out – colonies of sterilized outdoor cats tend to be healthier – males no longer getting infections from scratches and bite wounds -- caused from fighting with other unsterilized male cats -- and females are stronger -- no longer diverting their energy to one or more litters of kittens each year. Kittens born outdoors before a colony is fixed can often be socialized and placed in good indoor homes – but only if the mother lets you handle them before they turn 8 weeks old. If not – as the caregiver points out – they stay feral and their best option is to live in their outdoor colony. Although adult cats do as well as other wildlife living outdoors, kittens have a 50% mortality rate. Their immature immune systems can turn even routine health problems into life-threatening events – especially if they’re too feral to be treated.

Sadly, we sometimes provide spay/neuter funding to caregivers that for whatever reason can’t or won’t follow through to get their entire group of cats fixed. When they only partially fix their cats -- often the kittens but not the adults -- their efforts (and ours) are foiled. As this unfortunate caregiver points out:

“I had no cats until about a year ago, and then I found a female feral cat living in my wood shed with two kittens. I was able to catch them, but not her. Now she has had two more kittens. They desperately need to be fixed. Thank you for your help.”

Situations like this won’t get under control until the caregiver recognizes the futility of fixing only part of her group. She needs to go back to basics -- provide daily meals at the same time and place every day and then live-trap the adult(s) for her veterinary appointments. Her number of cats will grow and the situation will continue to spiral out of control until she does.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

One Cat's Cage Is Another Cat's Oasis

When we first introduced you to Tasha last April she was managing her chronic health issues better – and longer – than anyone thought possible. She entered our Older Cat Program in 2001 when she was ten years old. At the time she looked reasonably healthy, but her blood work pointed to renal failure -- with a creatinine level of 6.2 (normal being 0.6-2.4) and a BUN of 80 (normal being 14-36). Because she was relatively young to have that level of renal failure -- and because her kidneys also felt bumpy -- we ran another test and confirmed that she had polycystic kidney disease (PKD) -- a congenital disease that displaces normal kidney tissue with cysts.

Unlike the chronic renal failure that often afflicts older cats, the progression of PKD is very gradual. This gave Tasha time to adapt to her loss of kidney function – and adapt she did -- becoming a master at making the most of the little kidney tissue she had left. Once we understood the problem, we began giving her SQ fluids several times a week to take some of the load off her kidneys. This worked and her kidney values went back in the normal range staying there for most of the last 8 years. Unfortunately as she continues to age she’s picked up some of the other geriatric problems cats get – including hyperthyroidism, high blood pressure and anemia. Tasha is a very willing patient and responds pretty well to treatment so even with the number of illnesses she has, she’s done pretty well.

Recently, though, we’ve sensed a decline in her health. She began sleeping under a chair – where before she would have slept on the chair--hiding is never a good sign. And, I noticed a sour odor coming from her mouth when I give her pills. Since mouth odor is often a sign of end-stage kidney disease I took her to the vet for evaluation. We did new blood work and confirmed her kidney disease is worse and so is her anemia. We’re trying to get them both under control by giving new medications and increased fluid therapy. The mouth odor doesn’t appear to be kidney-related because the values weren’t extreme enough to cause it. But, during the exam we found two growths – one in her abdomen and another on her backbone. If they’re cancerous, they could relate to the odor. Neither are painful to the touch, but diagnosis is difficult given Tasha’s other health problems. And treatment – if they’re cancerous -- would be futile given the state of her overall health. Because of this we’ve decided not to put Tasha through the discomfort of biopsies and further diagnostics.

We’ve pulled a cat condo out of storage and put it in our living room in the area where Tasha spends most of her time. She has her food, water, litter box and bed within a confined area – saving her from exerting herself more than necessary. We keep the condo door ajar when we’re around so she can come out if she wants – but when she does, it’s typically just to sleep on the bed on top of her condo. After awhile she returns to the inside alternating between the beds. When we’re away or sleeping, we confine her to the condo to prevent unintended litter box lapses. She sleeps a lot, eats a little and looks generally comfortable in her own private home. We hope she continues to rest and enjoy the remainder of her time.

It took me almost two weeks to set the condo up – intellectually I know the condo is a comfort for her but emotionally I feel like I’m caging her – restricting her freedom. Now seeing how comfortable she is in her there, I wish I would have set it up sooner – to me it may be a “cage”, but to an elderly, ill cat, it’s an oasis.

Monday, July 27, 2009

A Computer Catastrophe Interrupts Our Paperless Office

It feels like a week but it’s really been two weeks since my last posting. It’s not that I haven’t had anything to write about – I just got waylaid by a computer catastrophe beyond any I’ve ever had before.

Shortly after the last post, the hard drive in my desktop computer died. I spent two days in denial -- trying every trick I knew on getting a computer to respond -- but finally gave in and bought a new one. Being an optimist, I was pleased that the interruption was minor compared to what it could have been. I had run a complete back up of my files on an external hard-drive the day before the failure. All I needed to do was turn on the new computer and load up my software and files – not a major crisis. Well it shouldn’t have been a crisis, but then I pushed the envelope a bit too far.

Once everything including my data files were loaded, I purchased a software upgrade for Vista so I could run Vista Business and continue using my computer as my paperless fax. When I went to run it, the software notified me that a straight upgrade was not possible because the software was 32-bit and the underlying software was 64-bit. I would have to run a clean copy of Vista Business and in the process anything on my computer -- software and data files -- would be irrevocably lost. I didn’t see a problem because my software was still sitting on my desk and my back-up hard drive had my data files – I hadn’t done any work on the new computer yet. I didn’t understand that their reference to “software” included some that came factory-installed from the manufacturer.

I installed the Vista Business operating system successfully – or so the message on my screen said. So the next morning I reloaded everything I needed on the computer but found I couldn’t hook up to the Internet. Back in my denial mode I started thinking I could fix the problem by rebooting or seeing if our wireless router had installation software that would put me back in our private network. Nothing worked. This was Friday and I had been out of commission since the previous Sunday. My work was backing up on me and I felt a twinge of desperation seeping into my spirit. What to do?

I picked up the phone and called Microsoft for help. The first 4 people I explained my problem to were very sympathetic but all they could do was hand me off to the next level of technical expertise. Finally a very nice man explained to me that the problem was that I needed Sony to give me replacement drivers for 32-bit software – these are not part of Vista but software provided by the computer manufacturer. I called Sony to learn the bad news – there were no 32-bit drivers for my model of computer. Containing my frustration as best I could, I asked how I get the computer back to its original condition. They had recovery disks I could purchase so I ordered them and had to wait until Monday to receive them.

Having had two massive computer failures in one week was not to be the end of my problems. Once I got the computer set up again, I went to load my data files from my back-up drive. They had loaded earlier without a hitch but now my computer couldn’t sense the drive was there at all. Against all odds, I now had a failure in my back-up drive so my files were lost. Fortunately I had an earlier back-up on my laptop so at least I’ve only lost about 6 weeks of data.

In 2007 I set up a paperless office so losing data files is particularly difficult. There are no hard-copies for any of them -- which is why I keep multiple back-ups on different devices – to protect against a catastrophic data loss.
I’m up and running again but still haven’t solved my fax problem. Most of my work comes in through the fax and I hate the thought of wasting paper by going back to a standard fax machine. Right now I receive faxes through my laptop which has an earlier version of Windows on it. Then I use our network to transfer the faxes to my desktop. That’s awkward but functional for the time being. I certainly won’t try to upgrade my operating system again just to get a fax but I do miss the convenience of the faxes coming directly to my desktop.

A paperless office is wonderful once you get used to reading files on your display. I would never go back to a conventional office with filing cabinets again. But I will be more diligent in double-backing up my data. But, if the truth were known, I’d probably be in worse shape had I not been paperless. I may have run fewer back-ups -- knowing I could reconstruct my files from paper records.

We take technology so much for granted – it’s nice to have a reality check once in awhile to remind us how integrated our work and lives are with our computers. The computer and software manufacturers do so much to protect us from ourselves we rarely get into trouble. But when we do … it can be a real nightmare that can result in a lot of sleepless nights.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Managing Outdoor Cats Is A Better Strategy Than Removing Them

“I have a number of feral cats living in my yard. A couple of years ago there were only 2; now there are 3 and 3 new kittens and a really mean male cat. I really need to relocate the cats in hopes the mean male cat will go away.”

“I have 3 cats and can no longer let them outside because the mean male cat keeps attacking them. He seems to hide and then ambush them. Do you have any place that these cats less the mean male cat can be relocated to? I will be happy to pay or make a contribution to your organization. I just don’t know what to do."

“Do not have time to manage this group and do not have a garage that could keep the cats in overnight prior to taking them to get fixed. Can you provide any help or guidance? The other cats are nice cats and the kittens are adorable and would be nice to find them a good home.”

Managing a backyard cat colony does involve some focused front-end work, but in the long run it’s less work than dealing with unplanned litters of kittens and “mean male cats” attracted by the scent of in-heat females. We detail the process on our web site: Managing A Feral Cat Colony: A Handbook For Residential Property Owners but here’s the basics:

• Establish a feeding location that’s convenient year-round for both you and the cats.

• Feed meals (don’t free feed) at the same time every day – removing leftovers as soon as the cats walk away. Observe the cats (at a distance) while they’re eating to ensure you know how many there are so you can get the entire group fixed quickly – males, female, friendly and feral. It may take awhile to get the shyest cats to come out while you’re there, but once they learn to associate you with food, they will.

• Coordinate a spay/neuter schedule with the clinic whose doing your sterilizations.

• Live-trap the cats – to your agreed-upon clinic schedule – and take them to/from their appointments. You don’t need a garage to hold them in – just a safe area where the live traps won’t be disturbed – or, possibly for a minor fee, the clinic will hold them the night before and after surgery.

Once you’ve completed the sterilization, all that’s left to do is maintain your feeding schedule and enjoy the cats in your yard. If you get an occasional newcomer, make sure you live trap and fix the cat quickly to prevent undermining your earlier efforts.

If you have kittens (before you complete the sterilization process), simply bring them indoors when they’re old enough to eat on their own – about 4 weeks old – and socialize them while you network to find them permanent indoor homes. See Appendix C of our Handbook. If they don't adopt out return them to their colony. Fix them when they're about 12 weeks old -- they can reproduce as early as 16 weeks.

If any of the cats are particularly aggressive toward other cats, consider confining them after their surgery in a large dog crate with food, water and litter for 3 weeks. Place the crate in a safe, dry area – near where the other cats frequent. They’ll work out any aggressions while they’re confined without making physical contact. The neutering itself should stop aggression, but this added measure will help ensure it.

Managing cats is a better strategy than removing them. This is because the cats already living in your yard keep other roaming cats away. If they’re no longer there, new cats may move in and take over their territory bringing with them the same problems your original group had. Outdoor-only cats comprise about half of the total cat population. Working with the cats you already know gives you a stable group of cats to feed– now sterilized – they’ll mellow out, grow older and no longer engage in the unsavory cat behaviors you find objectionable – fighting, spraying and kittening.

As far as letting your house cats go outdoors – an aggressive male cat is only one of the many equally risky dangers – others include loose dogs, cars, people who dislike cats, coyote -- they’ll encounter. And these other dangers will also act like “an ambush” – appearing suddenly without warning. To keep your cats absolutely safe, keep them indoors – or take them out with you (on leashes) – or provide them with a safe outdoor enclosure in your yard.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Cat Food -- $3.50/Week. Cat Companionship -- Priceless recently posted an announcement for Spay Neuter Express -- a series of free cat spay/neuter clinics for lower-income families living in Kent County Michigan. We were pleased because we know from our own experience, how key sterilization is to keeping cats in their homes. It’s only a matter of time before the spraying, yowling and kittening behaviors of intact cats become too much for a family to handle and – in homes that don’t have the money to get them fixed – the only way out is often to take them to animal control shelters that kill them or leave them outdoors (often pregnant) to live on their own – creating more feral cat colonies.

It dismayed us to read the response M-Live posted to this good news. It came from “Bleeper” who replied: “I mean if you’re low income, do you really need the added expense of pet ownership?” The answer is, “Yes you do”. The value of cat companionship is well documented. Cat companionship lowers our blood pressure, relieves our stress, reduces human health care costs, and helps fight depression – by giving us unconditional love and attention. And, in these troubled economic times, what could be more beneficial than that – to everyone – rich and poor?

Many nonprofits provide “low-cost spay/neuter” to those that can’t (or won’t) pay the prices charged by private veterinary clinics. Which, depending on the clinic, can run anywhere from $100 to $350 per cat. Not because it costs that much to sterilize them, but because the clinics include a grocery list of required additional services as part of sterilization. This often puts the cost out-of-reach for many budget-minded families – and for them, low-cost spay/neuter programs fill a gap.

But to true lower-income families – which our program defines as households with annual incomes under $40,000 per year -- even low-cost spay/neuter is unrealistic. We learned that lesson this winter when we began charging a $25 fee for our previously-free spay/neuter vouchers. We watched our application rate plummet. We had purposely set the fees lower than any other program in our area and never considered that $25 would be an obstacle –especially since it not only covered the cost to fix the cat but also to vaccinate them once for rabies and distemper. Needless to say, we’ve gone back to providing free vouchers and the program interest is building up again. Most of the applications we receive are from households relying on social security disability or retirement income, college students, or single-parent families with small children receiving food stamps.

It’s wrong to equate inability to pay to fix a pet cat with inability to provide care for the cat. Coming up with $100-$350 all at once for the clinic is not the same as adding a bag of cat food to your grocery cart. The 2007-8 American Pet Products Assocation Pet Survey estimates the average weekly cost of having a pet cat – including food, boarding fees, routine veterinary care, grooming, vitamins, treats and toys --is $12. Just providing food and giving up the luxuries of cat care, the cost drops to $3.50 – which even a family on a tight budget can handle.

Even if we believed Bleeper's theory that lower-income families shouldn't have cats because they can't afford to fix them, how would we stop them from getting them? Free kittens are available everywhere – largely because we lack community-wide spay/neuter support. When one unfixed cat gets to be too much hassle, give the cat up and get a new free kitten. If we could simply stop this cycle by providing free cat sterilization to these households, the kitten rate would drop and we would be a giant step closer to being a no kill community. Preventing kittens from being born is a whole lot more humane than killing those we breed in excess – intentionally or not.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Brandon -- Saying Goodbye To An Extraordinary Cat

We let Brandon go on Monday. The poor little guy spent the last few years of his life juggling a complex set of chronic health problems including blindness, high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease and extreme sinusitis. These he managed -- allowing us to medicate him and administer fluids -- but recently an earlier cancer (parathyroid carcinoma) came out of remission –causing large masses to grow near his larynx and chest -- and his chronic kidney disease progressed into kidney failure. Because of Brandon’s heart disease, neither could be aggressively treated and so we began hospice care for him.

Brandon was an unbelievable cat that touched everyone he met. He loved sitting on laps – even of people he barely knew -- and would eagerly share the lap with another cat. In his healthier days, he routinely sprinted and jogged before going to bed each night. His best “cat friend” was Onyx who was over twice his size. Almost every day you would see them extensively grooming each other and then play-boxing – Onyx sitting down and Brandon standing on his hind legs to be at the same height. Onyx would usually let Brandon win and then cuddle with him for a long nap. They reminded us of the “lion and the lamb”.

After becoming totally blind in 2007 we provided Brandon with a large cage to live in so he could easily locate his food and water dishes, litter box and bed. We’d bring him out for lap time and attention whenever we could and he adjusted well to this limited life style. Brandon had all the attributes of the Burmese breed including the “bulldog” body that is sometimes described as a “brick covered with silk”. He was a very unique cat and we miss him dearly.

Deciding when to end hospice care and euthanize a beloved cat is never an easy decision. Euthanasia – derived from the Greek words “eu” and “thanatus” meaning “good death” is the humane ending of the life of one who is terminally ill and in untreatable pain. Making the decision to euthanize starts with those guidelines, but sometimes applying them is easier said than done. Veterinary exams and lab tests can diagnose a terminal illness, but how do you identify “untreatable pain”? Cats can’t tell you about their pain and because they’re genetically-wired to be hunters, they actively work at hiding it. Because of our focus on elderly cats we’ve helped a number of cats get to the Rainbow Bridge and have our own set of guidelines to evaluate end-of-life pain. Here are some of the ones we use to determine when euthanasia may be kinder for the cat than continued hospice care.

• Is the cat eating? Food is important to maintaining life quality – and is a good indicator of how the cat feels. So long as the cat eats regularly you can be assured they’re not in great pain. As their illness progresses, their appetite may diminish, but by sitting with them while they eat and providing tastier foods (baby food, canned gourmet food) you can often whet their appetite. And that’s okay – so long as they’re eating. Weigh the cat frequently to make sure they’re eating enough to maintain a reasonable body weight. Sudden weight loss can surprise you – as they may not be eating as much as you think. When the cat totally refuses food – or is only ingesting small amounts -- it may be time to consider euthanasia.

• Is the cat taking in enough fluid? A healthy cat gets adequate fluid from eating food and drinking water, but if a cat is sick they may need supportive fluid therapy. This is easy to do at home and helps keep them comfortable during their final days. If the cat becomes dehydrated they’ll feel poorly and their quality of life quickly declines.

• Is the cat breathing abnormally? Panting, irregular breathing patterns, and open-mouth breathing are signs of distress that may need immediate attention.

• Is the cat sleeping comfortably? If the cat is constantly curled tight in a ball or sleeping in dark hiding places this could be a sign of discomfort or pain. Take the cat in for evaluation and to determine if pain medications are appropriate.

• Does the cat accept your attention? It’s never a good sign when a cat that enjoys your companionship prefers to be alone. Seek veterinary help in evaluating the change in behavior as it could signal pain or discomfort.

Using signs like these helps you translate cat behavior into a measure of life quality. They are only signs, though, and can be misleading. If you suspect your cat is in pain and that it’s time to consider euthanasia, set up an appointment with your veterinarian to get their input. They have the training and knowledge necessary to grasp the hope or futility of continuing hospice care. They cannot (and should not) make the euthanasia decision for you. As your cat’s human representative, you are the one to make the final decision.

In Brandon’s case my sense was that he was failing, but he had so many chronic health problems applying the above pain guidelines was hard. For instance he had always made breathing noises because of his sinusitis, but Monday they seemed more intense. And his cheeks were moving in and out which I had never noticed him doing before. I thought he was eating, but he’d lost 9 ounces over 3 weeks so the actual amount of food must have been minimal. He’d been on SQ fluids for years so we knew he was getting fluids yet the water dish in his cage didn’t need filling as often as before so he was drinking less. He still enjoyed lap time, but Monday morning Brandon never settled in--standing most of the time –not sleeping as he normally would.

We said our goodbyes– just in case -- and then took Brandon in for a veterinary evaluation – knowing he may not return home afterward. We learned that the cheek-breathing was a form of open-mouth breathing and that’s not good. A mouth exam showed he had “kidney breath”– and that there was at least one open sore in his mouth. These are both signs of final stage kidney disease. The greenish color of his nasal discharge (from his chronic sinusitis) suggested a new bacterial infection. The growths at his larynx and chest had grown more as well. Euthanasia at this point seemed appropriate but we could continue to hospice him, if we started him on antibiotics and pain medication.

It was a difficult decision – but we understood, Brandon’s condition would only continue to worsen. He’d need pain medicine for the rest of his life because the mouth sores wouldn’t heal unless we ramped up the amount of fluids we gave him to help his kidneys. We knew we couldn’t do that because his heart wasn’t strong enough – we had already tried and it caused chronic coughing. So, as difficult as it was, we knew it was time to let him go. Brandon’s quality of life was going south quickly and nothing could be done to improve it. So --with a heavy heart, we chose the next best thing for Brandon – giving him a good death. May he rest in peace and be waiting to greet us on the Rainbow Bridge.