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, December 25, 2009

Peace On Earth Good Will To Cats

Although we traded in our shelter on a pro-active cat spay/neuter program several years ago, our Foundation is still listed on a lot of web sites as a cat rescue. Calls and e-mails continue to reach us asking us if we have room for more cats. This year – as in the past – these calls and e-mails seemed to spike around holidays – in particular the Christmas holidays.

To someone who loves her cats as much as I do, I find it particularly depressing to think that many cat caregivers actively spend their holidays trying to relinquish their cats – too often after they’ve passed the age of “adoptability”. “What are they thinking of?” I wonder. “Didn’t they realize that a pet relationship – like a human relationship – has to be for “better or worse?" At least with human relationships, the consequence of separating is manageable. Life goes on. But, what’s a 10-year old cat going to do when you decided she no longer fits your life plan? The hard truth is the cat will probably be killed.

Oftentimes the people will start out their request with a disclaimer. They really hadn’t adopted the cat – but rescued her – five to ten years earlier. If it hadn’t been for them, the cat would have died.

They saved her life. But now she no longer amuses them or has a chronic illness or behavioral issue – or they have a dog or another cat (that they did adopt) – that doesn’t get along with her. And so on. I find these calls juxtaposed with the meaning of Christmas “Peace on Earth” downright depressing.

Perhaps that is why this recent e-mail below seemed so special. It’s the flip side of those distressing phone calls and e-mails – depicting the warmth and love so many people – in fact the majority -- have for their cats – whether they “rescued” or “adopted” them:

“My Boyfriend and I live together and there had been some cats that lived at a house where he worked. The cats were getting too expensive so they were looking to get rid of them and my boyfriend fell in love with this very friendly one. So we brought him home and he adjusted well to inside life, he was very friendly and would cuddle with us at night.

Then we had to travel a little bit (by car) and didn't know anyone we trusted enough to take care of him so we brought him along. He did not like the car but we didn't keep him in the cat carrier and after a while he would settle down and just sleep with me.

We took him to 2 different houses on our trip. The first one had a dog but the cat never saw the dog and just stayed in the room we were staying. The second house has three adult male neutered cats. We let him meet a couple of the cats and he got slightly aggressive but he didn't go out of his way to be aggressive.

Anyway, now that we have him home he is not the same. He won't come when we call, he isn't very affectionate. I thought maybe it was because he missed going outside so I bought a harness and lead and took him outside yesterday. He enjoyed being outside but he was scared by any noise. He just isn't the same anymore. If I pick him up and lay him on me he will stay. He purrs when I pet him, but he used to come up to us all the time and want attention. Now he just sleeps all day and doesn't want anything to do with us unless we have food or we make him lay on us. I'm afraid that we made him an inside cat way too quickly. Is there anything you would suggest that we do?”

Frankly I was very taken by the genuine love the couple have for their new-found friend – taking him with them on their trips – getting him a leash and harness so he could still safely enjoy the outdoors – concern that he no longer seeks attention.

Although I’m not a cat behaviorist, I’ve taken in a lot of cats and the pattern they described is one we often observed. Relinquished adult pet cats start off extremely needy – when you first give them a home they follow you around like a little puppy dog craving your time and attention. Then, once they realize you’re not going to leave them and that they have a permanent home, they go back to being cats. Doing what a cat does best – sleeping. Sure they still enjoy your attention and will purr when you offer it, but cease to be as demanding of your time. They know you’re there, you love them and give them nice sleep spots and plenty of food– all they want to do is enjoy the moment and take frequent cat naps to dream about how happy and secure you’ve made them.

All you have to do is be there for them -- they'll purr and cuddle when you seek their attention -- but will fall into a daily routine. That's what makes cats so easy to care for. And that's why your long-term commitment is so important. All they want is a bowl of food, a nice bed and someone -- you -- to love for the rest of their life. Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Cats 0ver 4 months old are much less likely to contract Felv Virus.

“Do you know of any shelters or sanctuaries that would take a kitten who has feline leukemia? She’s been living in my bathroom for the last two weeks after being put out of his regular home by my neighbors. I’ve been keeping her in my bathroom because I have other cats. Do you have any suggestions to help me?”

The most important thing to remember about a cat or kitten that tests positive for Felv is to make absolutely certain the test was accurate before taking action.

It used to be that feline leukemia (Felv) positive cats were routinely euthanized to prevent the spread of the disease to other cats. Over the years, as we’ve learned more about the disease and its rate of contagion, the policy has changed considerably. Today, although testing positive often results in euthanasia at animal control based shelters – it’s more because it’s a litmus test of adoptability than it is warranted by the disease. If you search the internet for information on Felv you’ll find a mishmash of conflicting data. Fortunately in 2008, the American Association of Feline Practitioners issued updated guidelines on Felv that provide a little assistance in determining what to do if you have a Felv+ cat. As good as their guidelines are, it’s important to disclose their research was funded by Idexx – the company that manufactures the common snap tests used by veterinarians to detect Felv. Here are some of the key points from their study:

1. What is Felv?

Felv is a retrovirus . During its early stages a cat is likely to not exhibit any symptoms. After weeks or months or years the cat may start having recurrent intermittent illness. Signs can include loss of appetite, weight loss, poor coat, enlarged lymph nodes, fever, pale or inflamed gums, URI, skin or bladder infections, and persistent diarrhea.

2. How common is Felv?

In the overall cat population (living indoors or outdoors) less than 2% of healthy cats have Felv. This rate is down considerably from what it was 20 years ago – possibly due to the availability of vaccines or possibly because of better record-keeping and testing established once the disease was identified.

3. Who is most at risk for Felv?

Kittens under 4 months of age are in the highest risk group. The most common transmission is from infected moms to their kittens and as cats develop more effective immune systems their resistance to the Felv virus increases. One study cited in the AAFP 2008 report injected the virus into a group of newborn kittens (less than 2 months of age) and virtually all of them developed a progressive Felv infection. In another group of kittens over 4 months old, only 15% contracted the disease once they were infected with it. This does not mean that cats over 4 months of age can’t contract Felv, it simply means that they are much more likely to shed the virus if they do come in contact with it. The virus is highly fragile and lives only a short time outside the body of an infected cat.

Vaccinating kittens under 4 months of age for Felv is recommended because they are at a much higher-risk of contracting the virus than older cats are.

4. Who does AAFP recommend be tested for Felv?

a. Pet cats or kittens before they are first brought into a home. It’s important to determine if the cat is positive to prevent inadvertent transmission to other resident cats or – even if the cat will live alone to prepare a treatment plan if the cat is positive.

b. Cats that will have ongoing exposure to untested or Felv+ cats. It’s recommended that to minimize their potential to contract Felv that they be vaccinated annually – and, before the first vaccination they should be tested to confirm they are Felv-negative.

c. Cats that have recently been bitten by a cat that is (or could be) viral positive or cats

d. Cats that have become ill even if they have previously tested negative on a Felv test.

5. Should outdoor only cats (aka feral cats) be tested for Felv?

Althought the AAFP broadly recommends testing all cats, they exclude feral cats from their recommendation. The prevalence of infection is similar to outdoor pet cats so feral cats do not present an increased threat to pets given outdoor access. They do recommend neutering outdoor cats because this greatly reduces the two common modes of transmissions: queen to kittens and bite wounds caused by fighting among intact males.

6. How is Felv diagnosed?

The Idexx “Snap Test” is typically done at a veterinary clinic when a client brings a new pet cat in for their first examination. The same test is often performed by rescues and animal shelters when they intake a new cat for adoption.

If the test is negative, the cat is generally considered free of the Felv virus. But, if the cat’s last potential exposure to Felv was less than 28 days earlier, to be absolutely certain the cat is negative, another Snap Test is recommended after a 28-day incubation period is done – a time when the cat cannot come in contact with untested or Felv-positive cats. This protects against infections that were too immature during the first test to be detected. It will not protect against the potential that cat has the virus but is in a dormant state – which is also not detected by the Snap Test – and is why an ill cat that tested negative needs to be retested. So although a negative result is good, it’s not foolproof.

The real drama begins when the initial vet clinic or shelter test shows a positive result. Does this mean that the cat is infected with the Felv virus? Maybe, but since the impact on a cat is so major –if the cat is visibly healthy – the first positive test should be viewed with caution.

When a positive test result happens, Idexx Laboratories advises veterinarians to immediately retest the cat using an IFA test. If that is positive, then consider the cat infected and begin an appropriate management plan for the cat.

But, if the IFA test is negative, the results are inconclusive. The infection is either in an early stage or the original Snap (ELISA) test was incorrect. To determine which, Idexx recommends waiting 28 days and then re-administering both the Snap and the IFA test. If the second group of tests are both positive, you can assume the cat is Felv positive. And, if both tests are negative then you can assume the cat does not have the virus. But what do you do if you have a negative on one test and a positive on the other even after retesting a second time? According to Idexx, if the Snap test is the positive test you should manage the cat as if the virus is present but retest the cat every 6 months using both of their tests. If, on the other hand, the IFA test is positive but the Snap test is negative, then one of the results is wrong and both tests should be repeated.

Very early in our spay/neuter programs, we routinely tested for Felv . We found the incidence in our program was very low – as is confirmed by the 2008 AAFP report. And, we determined that the money spent on viral testing could better be applied to increasing the number of cats we fixed – to stem the most common means of transmission – mothers to kittens or fighting intact male cats.

Felv testing opens a Pandora ’s Box. Testing is far from perfect. Although you’re reasonably safe in assuming a negative result is negative both AAFP and Idexx recommend testing again 28 days after the cat is removed from an uncontrolled environment to confirm the virus wasn’t incubating. And they also recommend testing again if the cat later becomes ill. It’s even more a nightmare when you get a positive result and then have to go through a series of retesting to confirm the positive test was in fact real.

That being said, testing a new cat you’re bringing into your home to live with existing pet cats is a reasonable assurance that you are not inadvertently exposing them to Felv. Just remember that if you get a positive test result, it’s only an indicator the virus may be present but isn’t in itself a reason to not adopt a cat – or to euthanize one. Felv positive cats can live meaningful lives up to the point they become ill – weeks, months or years later -- with a disease causing untreatable pain with no expectation of recovery.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Yes Virginia, Cats Can (And Do) Live Outdoors Year Round

Early in the fall – as the days get shorter and the nights get colder – we start getting phone calls from people who want us to take the outdoor cat(s) they’ve been feeding over the spring and summer. Yes, they enjoy having the cats outdoors – watching them play and come over for the food they give them – but now they’re worried they won’t survive the cold. When my patience is at its shortest, I’m tempted to ask if they’re also concerned about the chipmunks, squirrels, raccoons and rabbits that live in their yard too. Many of these other animals are smaller and more fragile than cats and so I’ve never understood this double standard. Cats can’t survive the winter but the aforementioned critters can do just fine? Even history tells us that cats are survivors and adapt to all sorts of outdoor climates. Their first stop in America was New England – notorious for its frigid winters -- when they came over on the Mayflower with the Pilgrims. And, only since the 1950’s have cats lived indoors as house cats.

Then I catch myself realizing that the community is understandably concerned – as they’re blasted with annual PSAs put out by old guard humane societies and animal shelters – many of which live in denial that half the cat population is still outdoor-only -- yard cats, barn cats and alley cats. These PSA’s alert people their cats will freeze to death if they stay outdoors in winter. This is another cat maxim that contains some truth – but only as it relates to the pampered indoor house cat. Yes, if you stick your indoor-only cats outdoors in January they’ll get very cold – and, if they get wet and can’t dry off – they may get hypothermia and die. Why? Because their indoor-only life style prevents them from growing winter coats. But, for cats that call the great outdoors their year-round home – winter temperatures are no more a problem for them than they are for any other form of wildlife. As the days grow shorter—the outdoor cats grow thicker coats. This added layer of dense fur close to their skin insulates them from the cold. And -- since most cats live outdoors in groups of two or more – they can snuggle together on cold nights to share body warmth.

The only distinct difference between the survival abilities of an outdoor-only cat and other wildlife is that cats are not natural house builders. Yet in many cases the reason people find cats living in their yard is that they unwittingly are providing outdoor cats with houses – in the form of open garage doors, covered porches, barns, undersides of decks or mobile homes, sheds and the like. The places cats choose for home are typically ones with both a pre-existing dry shelter and a ready food source – cat food put out by compassionate caregivers and/or a natural supply of rodents such as field or dumpster mice.

So if you have cats in your yard and you want them to stay – give them access to dry shelter and a regular daily meal or two – served at the same time and place with you staying nearby while the cats eat. This will help the cats habituate to you so you can enjoy them more, and will help you identify all the cats living on your land – so you can spay or neuter them to limit their numbers. Or, if you don’t want cats in your yard – don’t give them access to dry shelter – close your garage door, block off the underside of your deck, etc. and don’t feed them. They’ll soon get the message you don’t want them there and will move on to greener pastures. For more information on caring for naturally-occurring outdoor cats, read our handbook on Feral Cat Care.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

We can't hide our cats' litter boxes, so now we flaunt them.

Since we don’t have a basement any more, I had to give a little thought to where we could put our primary litter boxes. I tried using the utility room, but it didn’t work because the washer and dryer take up most of the floor area. Every time we used the garage door we had to snake our way around the boxes. And, when the cats kicked litter out of the boxes it often landed on the adjacent kitchen floor – which wasn’t very appetizing.

So, with some intrepidation, I moved the boxes to a little room off our main hallway that had served as a chapel to Our Lady of Guadalupe for the previous owner – and still earlier as a Buddhist temple for the original owner. It’s easy to see why it was used as a chapel. It’s an interior room that’s only about 7x10 -- has no windows -- but does have a very bright skylight in the middle that gives it a celestial aura. From the moment I saw a photo of it, I had imagined placing our Isabel Bloom Hilda fountain in the center and then filling the room with low-light plants – creating an indoor courtyard. I planned to add a meditation bench too, but instead put in 4 litter boxes. And, I’m glad I did.

Since the room is virtually in the center of the house, it’s an ideal place for the litter boxes and it gives me easy purview into it from pretty much anywhere in the house. This is important especially with our group of elderly cats – as the litter box is often where you see the first signs of chronic health issues including kidney disease, diabetes and hyperthyroidism. And, being able to figure out who left what in the litter box is important to figure out which cat needs a vet visit.

And, for the cats, the room’s central location is convenient. They’re close to a litter box regardless of what room they’re in when nature calls. Since it’s not at a dead end of the house, no one can block access for others by hanging in a particular area. I still have zone litter boxes at both ends of the house, just in case. For those I’m using the Tidy Cat Breeze boxes so I don’t have to worry about litter tracking. In the main litter box area I keep 2 boxes of Precious Cat Classic scoopable litter and 2 boxes of Precious Cat Senior granulated crystal litter – both marketed by Dr. Elsey. We have only 6 litter boxes for 13 cats, but since I’m a compulsive box scooper, it works.

Feline behaviorists and veterinarians have a lot of rules of thumb for litter boxes. Like – have a litter box for each cat plus one extra – and – don’t put the litter box in the basement – or make sure you scoop the box daily as cats are fastidious and won’t use a dirty box – and have at least one litter box on every floor of your home. Like other cat truisms, these maxims do have some basis in reality, but aren’t hard-and-fast rules of cat management either. I’ve tried them all with mixed success. Now I do what is a mix of what’s easy for me to clean and what’s convenient and easy for the cats to use.

The fact that most cats routinely use litter boxes is pretty amazing – and it’s probably the reason they now surpass dogs as the most common indoor pet. Unfortunately for those that don’t always use their litter box – it becomes one of the most common reason people give them up – even when they know relinquishment most often results in the death of their cat – and even when the misbehavior starts later in life – after they’ve had time to make a lifelong bond.

Never assume that good litter box behavior is totally under your control – that if you had the right boxes and the right contents all would be fine. I’ve learned otherwise. To cats, using or not using a litter box is not pre-ordained. They use a litter box because, indoors, it most resembles where they would go outdoors. If the boxes are reasonably clean and reasonably convenient, they’ll use them– except when they don’t. The all-too-often forgotten element is that unlike people, cats don’t always view urine and feces as waste. They're sometimes a language -- another form of communication. When they have something to say, they’ll say it – even if they leave the message in an inappropriate spot. I guess that’s why pet stores have such a large space allocated to enzymatic cleaners like Simple Solution and Nature’s Miracle.

For more information on litter box behavior , visit our web site and click on our handout: Preventing Cat Litter Box Problems.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

With the TLC Cats, Cat Trees Still Rule

After much anticipation our new cat trees arrived. The ones we had in Ann Arbor were still in good shape but were more than ten years old, so we decided instead to replace them when we got settled in our new home.

We spent hours shopping the Internet, evaluating an unbelievable number of styles and price points, but in the end decided to stay with Angelical Cats’ trees. We had them before and knew the cats liked them and that they hold up well cosmetically over time. Still, we wanted to try one of the more contemporary trees too – so we also ordered a Little Lotus from Refined Pet Products. Both choices met all of our criteria for the “purrfect” tree/scratching post – which were:

• Attractive enough to put in our living room

• Easy to maintain -- no tight corners to trap cat fur and no carpet where it wasn’t needed or couldn’t be cleaned using a handheld vacuum.

• Older-cat friendly – perches reasonably close together for easy jumping and no perches over about 4 feet in the air to protect against falling on hard floors

• Stable enough that they won’t fall over if a cat takes a running leap at it

• Shippable by UPS or Fed Ex to keep costs down.

The Little Lotus arrived first -- about ten days after we did -- and we were very glad to see it. With no cat trees in place, the cats were already finding other things to scratch -- chairs, ottomans, sofas – and we needed to get their trees in place quickly to prevent bad habits from forming.

The Little Lotus shipped knocked down to economize on production costs – which we expected -- but we were disappointed with the barebones instructions – little more than a series of cryptic diagrams – and the fact that they didn’t key the pieces to make assembly fool proof. Without keying, you could (and we did) put things together the wrong way – losing a fair amount of time to undoing assembly mistakes. And, we were also disappointed in the cosmetic quality of the tree. There were scuffed-looking paint areas on the edges – not at all furniture quality. Nevertheless we finally had a much-needed cat tree and moved it into our living room, hoping to see the cats climbing (and scratching) all over it with enthusiasm.

And -- although, many of the cats did come over to see it -- not one cat climbed it or scratched at it! In fact the only part of the tree that caught anyone’s fancy was the base – a cleverly designed hidey-hole for catnapping. From the day our Little Lotus arrived, someone could be found sleeping in it. But for whatever reason, the tree itself has stayed idle with no scratching or perching. We wondered if they simply didn’t like the tree or if their new extra wide windowsills were simply more attractive perches. As finicky as cats are, we knew we would only know the answer when the Angelical Cats trees arrived – which happened about a week later.

Unlike the Little Lotus that’s readily available from large retailers like Petco and Amazon, Angelical Cat builds most of their trees to order – and they ship fully-assembled -- so they take a bit longer to get – but they’re well worth the wait. No sooner had we un-boxed the larger of the trees– a double-perch contemporary – there were cats all over it -- taking turns on the perches and scratching both the carpet and the exposed wood posts. We knew immediately that cat trees still rule.

We still had one more surprise, though. When we opened up the second box, we found Angelical had made a mistake on our order. Instead of receiving three of their single-perch trees, we had three curious-looking 10” high perches. We immediately notified them and they’re building the ones we ordered on an expedited schedule. And, they graciously offered to let us keep the 3 little ones without charging us for shipping and discounting their retail 30%. We took them up on their offer and to our surprise find the little perches pretty handy. They do double-duty as steps for the older cats to climb the real cat tree and the larger less-nimble cats simply like to perch on them.

I’ve long been a fan of Angelical Cats trees for many reasons – and one of them is simply because they have such a wide assortment of sizes and shapes. If you buy an assortment, you can use them stand-alone or construct larger trees from the individual pieces -- as we have in our photo by putting a small perch next to the larger tree. You can rearrange them to your heart’s content and in the process give your cats something new to explore when you do.

Having cat trees in place makes us all feel more at home – and it’s a relief to know when we hear the signature scratching noises of cats being cats that it’s their furniture they’re scratching, not ours.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Caution: Displacement Stress May Kill An Otherwise Healthy Cat

We knew moving our cats would be stressful – for them and us. But, we also knew the trip would only last 2 days and then they would adapt quickly to their new home. These are special cats -- troopers who have already gone through more life changes than most cats – and each time they’ve landed on their feet.

Most started out in traditional one-cat family homes and then were relinquished, lost or abandoned when they were middle aged – 8-12 years old. This change by itself could have killed them – as they ended up at their local animal control shelter where cats over 5 years old automatically fail the adoption litmus test. But, through an odd stroke of fate, they escaped death row to live at our Cat Retirement Farm during the brief time (2000-2003) that we were admitting cats and then subsequently moved home with us for continuing life care when we closed the farm in 2005.

The stress from losing their original family took an immediate toll on most of the cats, and so their first weeks -- or in some cases months -- with us were spent nursing them back to good health -- syringe feeding them Science Diet AD, hydrating them with SQ fluids, and administering medications to treat aggressive upper respiratory infections. These inherently healthy middle-aged cats were overcome by the stress of losing their family, but all they needed to bounce back was a heavy dose of attention and supportive care to keep them going while they adjusted to their new life style. They needed to know they had a home and that life was good. Once they understood this, they rebounded as quickly as they got sick.

We provided the supportive care because we were committed to the belief that the life of each cat has value and once we rescued one, we would care for him or her in the same manner we would a pet cat. Sadly, this is not the case at most shelters whose focus is to adopt out quickly and spend as little time and money on each cat as possible. In these shelters – at the first signs of anorexia or sneezing – the cats are put down – even though these are not life-threatening conditions unless left untreated. The budget and motivation to preserve the lives of the orphaned cats just isn’t there – a sick cat makes the shelter look bad, is hard to place, and can be remedied by an injection of euthanasia juice. There are always more cats waiting to take their place. I’ve always found it strangely ironic that small rescues – often operated by individuals that have no donor base – spend their own time and money to provide their cats with quality veterinary care and yet larger shelters with inertia-laden endowments sitting in their investment accounts -- and often in-house veterinary clinics -- put the same cats down at the first signs of illness.

Even the design of traditional shelters exacerbates the stress an orphaned cat feels often triggering the very illnesses that are their demise. The more days the cat spends at a caged shelter, the more likely they are to stop eating or catch a cold. Fostering them in the homes of volunteers is a much more viable way of housing cats while they await a new home. There, they can receive around-the-clock care, live in a familiar setting, and have the stimulus (windows, toys, people) they need to reduce their stress over being displaced. And, the foster parent, can become a powerful advocate in seeing to the cat getting a permanent home – they learn the cats personality, behaviors and temperaments and can advocate from that knowledge.

In this last life change for the TLC cats, only one cat’s stress caused any sign of illness. Simon had an outbreak of his chronic herpes virus. It had been in remission since the last time we moved him – from the TLC farm to our home. Fortunately this outbreak was nothing compared to his earlier ones (see photo) and was treatable with his regular treatments – cleaning his eyes daily with a moist cotton pad, applying Genteal Gel severe eye drops twice daily, giving him 250mg of L-lysine once daily and applying a few drops of prednisolone acetate twice weekly. We simply increased the pred for a few days and caught the virus while it only affected the skin on the tip of his nose. His eyes fortunately stayed pretty clear.

Why we didn’t see any more signs of stress-triggered illness in the TLC cats probably has to do with the bonds they’ve formed with us and with each other. Once they got to their destination they craved more attention for a few days – in fact even the four feral cats were hovering around our bed the first couple of nights – but soon fell back into their old routines of seeking out their friends to sun and nap with. Life is good when you have wide window sills and heated floors to nap on with your best buddies.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Hello Santa Fe -- TLC Moves Cats and (Eventually) Programs West

Three months ago if you had asked me if it was possible for us to move cross-country with our dozen cats, I would have laughed hysterically. “You must be crazy”, I would have said. “There is no way to do it.” And, how often do we receive phone calls from people who are moving and believe they have to give up their cats? It’s one of the most common reasons pets are given to shelters. Yet, here we are, freshly moved into our new home with all our cats in tow. No, it wasn’t easy, but we did it. The move from Ann Arbor to Santa Fe took just 8 weeks to effect.

First we had to break the mindset that it was impossible to move with so many cats. We did this by breaking the move into the many steps we needed to get from one home to the other. With a work list in hand, we took care of as many steps as we could -- as soon as we could. This way, as we approached the actual “move date”, most of our work would be long done and we could focus on the monumental (psychologically at least) part of corralling 12 cats (4 are feral and not touchable) and making the 1,500 mile drive to Santa Fe. And, as we completed each step on our work list, the overall project became simpler -- turning an impossible goal into an achievable reality.

Our most perplexing problem was deciding how to move the cats. After weighing the different options of transporting them we concluded there was no good way to do it, so we chose the best of many bad options: driving them there. Our car wasn’t big enough for all of us, so we traded it in on a Ford cargo van. We filled its interior with 3 large cages and put 4 cats in each cage – carefully grouping them with their best buddies. We chose cages over carriers because the cats are close to each other and we hoped that snuggling with their friends would lower their anxiety levels. And, by housing them in cages we could provide each group with a litter box, food and water to make the drive more comfortable.

On moving day, as the movers carried out our belongings we started loading up the cats. We wanted to get as early a start as we could once we were free to leave. First we loaded the 8 companion cats – giving them a chance to adjust to being in the cages before we got on the road. Once they were all boarded, we turned our attention to our feral cats -- Emmy, Cleo, Joyce and Larry. We opened a can of Friskies Tuna & Chicken and laced it with a sedative called Acepromazine. They were a little suspect – wondering why their house had suddenly been emptied out and the other cats had vanished – but they couldn’t resist the fish odor and ate the food as we had hoped. We waited an hour – the time it takes for the sedative to work – and then tried to catch them in carriers. Unfortunately the sedative seemed to have little effect on them, so we took out a cat net we purchased just in case. We hoped the net would level the playing field by preventing the cats from running.

Cleo was quickly trapped and we learned why nets are a bad way to catch a cat. She was wound up inside the net and we had to very carefully untangle her while trying to keep her in the carrier so she wouldn’t get loose. We succeeded and delivered her to the van to wait for her friends. We had an easier time grabbing Larry, Joyce and Emmy – wearing leather gloves and catching them in a super-thick quilt. In less than half an hour, we had caught all 4 feral cats and were ready to hit the road – sighing a big sigh of relief over finishing the least controlled part of our move.

Thankfully, the cats were on their best behavior – only two were obviously distressed: Simon and Charlie. Both cried most of the first day, but even they settled down and accepted the ride after that. In spite of the cats’ cooperation, the drive proved every bit as horrible as I had imagined.

Although my husband Ed and I are seasoned road travelers, this trip was more challenging than any we had taken before. With the cats in the van, we couldn’t check into a hotel along the way when we were tired but had to rely on napping at rest stops. And the late fall weather worked against us too – it was dark after only a few hours on the highway – raining nonstop the entire first night. When we stopped for a quick Waffle House breakfast we realized we had been on the road 17 hours, yet were not even half way there. Very depressing!

Fortunately the daylight and sunny skies made the second day’s drive go much quicker than the first. By 6 PM we were in New Mexico heading west to Santa Fe thinking we were home free. But, as it turned dark and we started our northern approach to Santa Fe on Route 285 – a 2-lane mountain road we had never driven on before. Because it’s sparsely populated and lacked commercial areas, the road was really dark – and out of nowhere we found ourselves in a dramatic mountain snowstorm. The road soon turned whiter than our knuckles and we weren’t sure whether to continue– not knowing if the road would start to curve or climb – or go back to a lower altitude out of the snow. We forged ahead and as quickly as the snow started it stopped and we made the rest of the way in the dark but on dry roads.

Before we knew it we were at our new house. We unpacked the cats to explore their new home while we spent the night at a local hotel – getting a much-earned night of sleep. Although the moving process took 8 weeks, the actual drive took just a little more than a day -- and now that we're settled in our new home -- it was well worth it!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

On A Mission: To Find A Purrfect Cat Tree

I promised our cats all new trees when they get to their new home – and have been donating their current trees to local rescues. Most of them were purchased from Angelical Cats and – although they’re about 10 years old – they’re still in remarkably good condition. Particularly the ones we spent a little extra on to get Berber carpet and ordered with natural tree posts instead of sisal or carpet covering that tends to shred and pull off as the cats scratch.

For our new home I’m looking for trees that look good, and are both fun for the cats and low-maintenance for me – de-furring most cat trees is a challenge – usually requiring a combination of using a dry sponge to remove hair from small areas and a handheld vacuum to get the larger surfaces. Every time I do it, I think how wonderful it would be if they could be easily vacuumed. This means no more pagodas even though from every other standpoint the pagoda design works great – see photo.

Fortunately I found a web site that has a collection of arty cat trees that were designed with the three factors I’m looking for in mind: ModernCat.Net. The three I’m considering are the Whisker Studio’s Egg-shaped Climber Tower, The Square Cat Habitat Baobab, and The Refined Feline Lotus Cat Tower – or the scaled-down 4’ version called Little Lotus. One of those plus three or four of Angelical Cat’s small contemporary trees should give our cats all the scratching and perching space they want – and will keep them from scratching and perching in areas we’d prefer to keep for human use.

Cat trees come in all shapes, sizes and price ranges to fit the number and ages of your cats – and your budget. If you don’t have a cat tree and want to get one, here are some things to consider before purchasing one:

1. Decide how much money you’re willing to spend – the nicest ones are priced accordingly. If it helps, think of it as a piece of furniture for your living room.

2. Evaluate the trees relative to the age and agility levels of your cats. As cats age, their jumping skills diminish and need perches closer together – if the perches are too far apart, the older cat simply won’t be able to use them.

3. Visit local pet stores to see what they carry – but don’t be put off by what you see. They tend to carry the lower-priced trees that your cats will enjoy but won’t hold up over time and may not fit with your living room d├ęcor.

4. Search the Internet for more creative alternatives. Many can be shipped unassembled to save on shipping. If the tree is too large for UPS delivery, be wary -- as the shipping may double the cost.

5. Make sure the tree is heavy enough that your cat can’t knock it over.

6. Make sure the tree is easy to clean – nothing looks worse than a cat tree covered with hair.

Once you get the tree, choose a prime location for it. Put it in the room your cats spend most of their time – possibly in front of a window. If the location is right, your cats will immediately choose it over less desirable areas – for sleeping, scratching, and peeping.

Trees help expand the area cats have by making good use of vertical space – and when you have cats that are just starting to live together – the more timid cats can find safety in climbing a tree. Once the cats bond – as Emmy, Robin (hidden inside the pagoda), Onyx and Simon are – they can congregate on the perches together much like kids at a playground.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Can Feral Cats Live Indoors?

Recently I commented to a friend that the most challenging part of our cross-country move will be getting Larry, Joyce, Cleo and Emmy into the van for the journey. Unlike our other older cats, these four are feral– or heirloom -- as I prefer to think of them. They were born outdoors and were never socialized to people during their first 8 weeks of life. Although they’ve enjoyed our indoor hospitality for four years, they still won’t allow us pick them up – much less put them in carriers. They trust us, but only so far. So my friend suggested we return them to the outdoors -- intimating they’d happier that way.

I love the friend dearly, but was saddened that I’d been so ineffective in explaining to her what a feral cat is. Like many people, she’s bought the concept that a feral cat is wired differently than a companion cat. And – given the option – they would choose living outdoors and hunting for their food to living indoors with all the amenities a companion cat enjoys. This is simply not true.

The terms feral and companion refer only to how a cat relates to humans and not to where they live. Locator terms like “house cats”, “barn cats”, alley cats” and “yard cats” depict their homes – there are feral cats living indoors (as Larry, Joyce, Cleo and Emmy) and companion cats living out doors as well.

The term feral wasn’t used very much to define a cat until Alley Cat Allies began promoting trap-neuter-return (TNR) in the early 1990’s. Before then, a cat was a cat and was tagged only by where they lived – house v. barn etc. The value of identifying feral cats as a category was to gain community acceptance of cats living outdoors – something they’ve done since they were first brought to North America by the pilgrims.

By accepting cats as viable outdoor wildlife, it was then possible to begin a pro-active spay/neuter campaign. Before Alley Cat Allies, only pet cats were routinely sterilized and this resulted in large numbers of kittens each year born to the outdoor cats. The pre-1990 Companion Animal Movement – largely defined by the old-guard humane societies and county animal control agencies – campaigned that it was unsafe for a cat to live outdoors – possibly as a justification of their routine killing of those outdoor cats when well-meaning people bring them to the shelter – a practice most still follow today. But now, thanks to Alley Cat Allies countering that practice with advocating TNR programs to leave the cats in place and sterilize them so they won’t reproduce -- we have our best chance at ending the unnecessary killing of healthy but homeless cats.

When that day comes, perhaps all cats – even those tagged as feral – may be able to have an indoor home with a loving guardian pampering them in the same way companion cats are today. If not, as we already have learned, they can continue to live outdoors the life of an heirloom cat.

And no, we wouldn’t consider leaving Larry and company behind. Although they’re not proverbial lap cats, they do provide us with unlimited enjoyment and we provide them with a safe home and plenty of food and comforts. We believe very strongly that all cat lives have value –feral or friendly. And once you commit to the care of a cat, you’re committing to that care for life.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Ice Cat Melteth -- Missy Joins our Group

If you’re a regular Mews & Views reader, you’ve already figured out that we question a lot of conventional cat wisdom. For example: Cats living outdoors meet the definition of feralPeople don’t fix their cats because they’re “irresponsible”Only “adoptable” cats should be saved by shelters – the rest are better off dead. Trap-Neuter-Return is bad for the birds. And …cats are solitary animals – they don’t want to live with other cats. All of these maxims crumble under close scrutiny, yet our accepting them at face value shapes how we treat cats – often to their demise.

The solitary animal theory has its roots in the way cats hunt. Unlike pack animals that work as a team, cats rely on stealth attacks selecting small rodents for their victims. They neither need nor benefit from having other cats around when they stalk and pounce on an unwitting mouse or mole. Yet often after they catch the prey, they bring it back to their colony – as any caregiver who’s had their cat drop a dead mouse in front of them can confirm. Just because cats hunt alone doesn’t mean that they want to live alone. Think of it -- if they preferred living alone, why would they form colonies?

Because so many people – including vets, animal shelter staff, cat guardians alike – believe the solitary cat myth , you’ll often hear comments like – “LuLu is a great cat but she needs to be in a one-cat home– she doesn’t get along with other cats.” Or, “I would keep this stray cat myself – he’s so nice – but my cat Tinker has always lived alone and it wouldn’t be fair to her to bring in a new cat.”

Even those that are brave enough to adopt a second cat often give up after only a few weeks or months -- citing the new cat terrorizes their original cat – or she won’t come out to visit –just hides under the bed all day. These behaviors reinforce the solitary cat myth. But, what they really tie back to is the cat’s territorial nature.

Territory – to a cat – is paramount. When you introduce a new cat into your home with existing cats, it creates two major problems: The new cat loses her old territory entirely and your resident cats have an interloper in theirs. If they were outdoors, this situation would resolve quickly – the new cat --finding existing cats already on the land -- would either move on voluntarily or be run off by them. Or – sometimes – the new cat would be accepted by the colony and join it. Indoors, the new cat can’t run away and – except in those situations where the cats immediately like each other – this results in chaos. You can prevent chaos by setting up a cage for the new cat – with food, water, litter and a nice bed -- and setting it in the area where your other cats hang out. Let the cats get to know each other without being able to chase or attack – this is critical as once they start fighting the introduction problems escalate.

The cage gives the new cat a territory all her own – she can relax and be comfortable in. And, her being in a cage keeps the original territory for the resident cats. Once the new cat has time to calm down, let her out when you’re there to supervise and see what happens. If the cats chase each other, hiss or growl, or hide underneath something, simply put the new cat back in her cage and try again the next day. Once the new cat can come out without any hissing, growling or hiding, the cat has been accepted in the group.

Depending on the cats, this transition to a shared territory can take hours, weeks, months – or in the case of our Missy – years! In fairness to Missy, we received her back from a foster home when we had 20 cats living in three basic groups. She’s a shy kitty and would get stressed out preferring her condo to the open room areas. After a few months of living in a cage, she slowly moved herself to my upstairs office which only a few other cats would frequent. We made sure she had food, water and litter and let her stay there – the door open and other cats visiting – but out of the areas that had the highest levels of cat activity.

We noticed this August that she would sit on the stairs looking into the living room and finally – a few weeks ago – decided it was time to join the group. She still spends most of her time in the office, but a few hours each day she’s out and about – and looking about as happy as a calico cat can. We knew she’d like the other cats if we let her move in on her own timetable.

Fortunately for cat lovers, Missy is an extreme case of slow acceptance. We’ve used caged introductions for over 70 adult cats that previously lived as single pets – introducing them into a group of 10-15 other similar cats. With few exceptions they settled in within 3-4 months of when they arrived. And, over the years, some very close friendships have formed. If you asked these cats if they'd like to go back to being an only cat, i think they'd tell you no -- they'd miss their friends too much!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Resale Stores & Cat Shelters Have More In Common Than You'd Think

In preparing for our cross-country move, I’ve spent the last month evaluating our belongings -- sifting through 16 years of furniture and whatnots –deciding what to move and what to leave behind. Living in a large house, it was always easier to find a “place” for an obsolete desk or bookcase rather than removing it. Add to the mix -- the many antiques we kept from both the specialty retail stores we closed in 1997, and the country farmhouse we used as a cat retirement shelter until 2003 -- and it’s easy to see why unloading this house was daunting.

Nevertheless, we’ve succeeded. So our effort and planning was worth it. We first chose the furnishings to move and then the consignable antiques to sell. Once they were identified and set aside, our local second-hand store came out to select items for resale. After that, the Salvation Army came in and took most of the rest --so fortunately very little was trashed.

Still, this process was very humbling. Items you think are “treasures” are scrutinized for scratches, style and wear -- and, although they mean a lot to you – to the dealer they’re often damaged goods – difficult to sell and not worth their time to try. It really doesn’t matter who manufactured them or how much they cost. Their goal is to take only those items they think will fly out of the store. Dealers can’t be bothered with things that need a little mending or will take a long time to sell – it ties up valuable store space that could hold easier-to -move merchandise. To be profitable, they need a steady turnover, and so even when they do take items for sale --if they get damaged or shopworn – or don’t sell within a few months -- they’re trashed.

Once I understood this, I made another pass through the furnishings and kept a few more items we wouldn’t have moved otherwise – mostly special pieces of furniture with sentimental value. We had room for these things in our old house, and we’ll find room for them in our new house too. Or, at least, hold onto them until we find someone who’ll appreciate and care for them as we did.

All the while, the parallels between finding good dealers to sell our used furniture, and finding good shelters to take pet cats, kept haunting me. How many times had someone called us – thinking we were a shelter or rescue – and asked us to take their cat? They were moving or having a baby or the cat had stopped using a litter box – for whatever reason they didn’t want the cat any more. But, they didn’t want the cat to die either. They wanted the cat to go to a good shelter that would provide care and placement in a good home. They would go on and on about how nice the cat was and how well the cat got along with their children. Often they would proudly add the cat was already spayed or neutered and current on vaccinations. Sometimes they would offer to throw in a donation. As if any of that would make the cat more appealing to a shelter.

Cat shelters, like resale stores, focus on high turnover. That translates into very young and very friendly cats and kittens that are well socialized and healthy. Like resale stores, shelters base their admission on adoptability – they don’t want to tie up a cage with an adult cat but prefer to use the shelter space for very young cats and kittens that will fly out the door into new homes. And if the cat gets ill or takes too long to adopt out, they frequently euthanize them rather than treating them or housing them for an extended time.

What can you do if you have an adult cat you can’t or won’t keep but don’t want to see them killed? Not much. Your best strategy would be to work through the problem or at least home-foster your cats until you find a person to adopt directly from you. As sweet and loving as they are to you, to a shelter they will be slow to adopt and their cage space can be better used to place the many kittens born each year. So, until communities refocus their cat efforts from kitten adoptions to pro-active cat (and kitten) spay/neuter, orphaned adult cats will find little available shelter space for their slower-to-adopt needs.

Still, worrying about how to relinquish a pet cat is a flawed problem anyway. Doesn’t it seem reasonable that if we bring a cat into our home to live as a family member, that we make a similar commitment to them – to keep and care for them for life? If we make that commitment, then sheltering them later on will never be an issue.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Saying Goodbye To Two Dear Old Cats (continued)

While Amber struggled with chronic illness for 5 years, Tasha did so all her life. She had a congenital disease that causes cysts to gradually grow and multiply on the kidneys until they’re so impaired they stop functioning.

When she joined our TLC Retirement Cat Program in 2001 she was 10 years old and the disease was advanced enough that the cysts were already palpable -- and her blood work indicated she was in renal failure. We decided not to put Tasha up for adoption, but to treat the kidney disease --fearing even with aggressive treatment -- we would only have her for a few months.

The treatment meant giving Tasha SQ fluids frequently – and eventually daily -- to help her kidneys work and providing her with Winstrol to treat kidney-related anemia. Tasha was an excellent patient, easy to medicate, and soon reaped the benefits of her tolerance – her kidney values crept back into the normal range and stayed there for almost 8 years. The cysts were still there and growing, but she was managing the good portion of her kidneys better than anyone anticipated.

But Tasha’s kidneys were only part of her health problem. As they were brought under control, we also began treating her with Norvasc for hypertension – a common corollary to kidney disease – and Tapazole for her hyperthyroidism – a common illness in older cats. Her “old cat” teeth and gums needed work but we understood she was not well enough to tolerate anesthesia so began dosing her 5 days of every month with Clindamycin to prevent infection.

Despite all of these health issues, Tasha stayed an active and vibrant cat. And the only outward sign of her illness was that she was very thin – but this only enhanced her flame calico markings and extra long tail –making her look as if she stepped out of an ancient Japanese painting. For a brief period one summer we even let her have occasional outdoor privileges -- but quickly reversed this. A neighbor kept seeing her outdoors and thought she was a lost cat and almost took her to the animal control shelter. Fortunately she couldn’t catch her. The reason she thought Tasha was lost was her skinny body – she assumed Tasha was starving from lack of food!

So Tasha, the cat we began hospice care of in 2001, chugged along until a few months ago. We started noting she was going underneath a living room chair to sleep and knew that was a bad sign. We put a cat condo in our living room and set it up for Tasha with food, water, litter box and a cozy bed. She chose the condo over the underside of a chair and – although we knew she was not her old self – thought she was doing okay. Then in August she suddenly became blind – a relatively common outgrowth of hypertension in cats. Fortunately we caught it quickly enough that by increasing her Norvasc she did get some vision back. This was the first outward sign of her demise. About the same time her blood work started showing kidney values creeping toward renal failure. And -- even more worrisome -- we found large irregular growths on her spine and in her abdomen pointing to a feline cancer.

Like Amber, Tasha started removing herself from daily routines and stopped seeking our attention – preferring sleep in her condo to anything else. Her appetite started to decline and by Wednesday she wouldn’t even eat the chicken baby food that she previously devoured. We knew that her appetite was affected by the nausea often present in renal failure and decided to let Tasha go in peace. With food no longer an enjoyment little quality of life was left for this sweet cat. We said our goodbyes and let her go – knowing we had never met another cat quite like Tasha before – and are pretty sure we never will again. She was our miracle cat.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Saying Goodbye To Two Dear Old Cats

Losing one elderly cat to illness is difficult. Losing two in one day is even more so. Twice previously in the history of our TLC Retirement Program we’ve said goodbye to two cats within hours of each other and yesterday we sadly did so again. Amber and Tasha -- our last two current hospice cats -- died yesterday of very different illnesses but with a similar pattern of multi-system involvement.

19-year old Amber was chronically ill since February 2004. At that time she started bleeding rectally and was diagnosed through a biopsy sent to Colorado State University as having chronic inflammatory bowel disease with a bacterial overgrowth. This is a common older cat ailment and is treated with steroids to control the bleeding. By 2006 she was hyperthyroid – another common older cat disease -- and was treated with radioactive iodine – the treatment worked so well she went from being hyper- to hypo-thyroid and needed twice daily medication to raise her thyroid levels to the normal range. About that time she started to become slightly anemic and was treated on and off for that.

In 2007 Amber was having blood-laced soft stool issues that the steroids weren’t able to completely prevent and her coat began to look oily and flaky. Another blood test was done through Texas A&M’s veterinary lab. This pointed to an adrenal gland problem – perhaps Cushings -- possibly caused by the long-term steroid use. We tried cyclosporine but the problem didn’t go away so through more blood testing we determined that Amber had a GI tract malabsorption problem and was deficient in both cobalamine (B12) and folic acid. We started giving her weekly injections of the vitamins to make up for her inability to absorb them through her diet. Another test performed at the same time indicated she had chronic pancreatitis and leukerin (a cancer drug) was added to her medication list. Try as we did, we were never able to get her back to a totally healthy active life.

Last fall she contracted ringworm – a fungus that can live dormant on a cat for many years and then infect them when their immune system lets down – as hers certainly had. We began weekly lime sulfur dips to control the ringworm and prevent open lesions from forming. She tolerated the dips, but they always worried me because -- for the dip to work -- you can’t dry the cat off. I always tried to do the dips when the sun was shining brightly so she would air dry quicker. By January, Amber was having trouble walking – her hind legs wouldn’t cooperate. Blood work indicated she was now diabetic and needed to go on twice daily insulin. The walking problem could have been caused by high glucose levels. The insulin did more to perk her up than anything else and her walking did improve for awhile.

Finally by September she could no longer climb the stairs we provided her to get to the ottoman she loved to sit on. We set up a floor-level cat condo with a nice bed, food and water and she stayed in there most of the time – still taking a few daily walks to the kitchen for water. We started to question the overall quality of her life – she was becoming isolated from us in her condo because she was no longer comfortable sitting on her ottoman even if we put her on it and lifted her off. The final straw was yesterday. I went out briefly and when I returned I found her lying on the floor next to her condo in a puddle of urine – she had had a breakthrough seizure. As hard as it was to say goodbye to her, we knew the end was imminent with or without our intervention. We had done all we could do for her and now it was time to put her best interests in front of our hesitation to end a life – marginal as hers had become. She is gone now, and we miss her.

Monday, September 21, 2009

For The Elderly, There's More Than One Way To Love A Cat

When we think of cats and the elderly, we think of Fluffy sleeping in Grandma’s bed or nestled in her lap while she watches TV. These friendships are well -documented and have demonstrated over and again the important role pets can play in helping seniors stay independent and mentally alert. Yet many elderly adults also share a very deep bond with the “heirloom” cats that pop up in their yard, and they comprise a significant demographic of outdoor cat caregivers. It’s easy to understand why Grandma bonds to Fluffy – she’s a 24/7 companion that’s warm, soft and purrs gently – but why would Grandma (or Grandpa) equally bond to shy, skittish cats that only come out between dawn and dusk and often run when they’re approached? I have a theory.

Although the elderly benefit greatly from having a pet, many are reluctant to keep one – fearing they’ll outlive the cat and won’t be there to provide life care. So they deprive themselves of the joy of caring for a cat. But -- when one or more “heirloom” cats appear in their yard -- their heart beats faster as they open the door – usually with a saucer of milk or some food to offer the new visitor. Often outdoor cats won’t eat the first time food is out, but they’ll most definitely show about the same time the next day and be more willing to accept the food then – especially if Grandma stands back or goes indoors to observe them. Once they accept the food the bonding begins, and both the cat and Grandma look forward to their daily scheduled eating sessions. Now, Grandma can enjoy the companionship of a cat without taking responsibility for the cat’s life. As time passes, the bond increases to the same level of an indoor pet and oftentimes the cats move indoors or at least enjoy house privileges on cold or rainy days.

Similarly, most senior living complexes have a resident cat colony doing mouse patrol around their dumpsters. Since many of these communities prohibit pets, these outdoor cats give the residents a way to enjoy cats in spite of the regulations. The photo above was taken at a local senior apartment complex who used our TNR program in 2007 to sterilize their colony. The cats in the photo joined their colony this summer and are the first newcomers since 2007.

The management there understands that it’s best to sterilize the cats and let the residents feed them rather than trapping them to take to an animal control shelter for euthanasia. The known colony provides hours of enjoyment for the residents and – through sterilization –no longer engages in the behaviors that create a nuisance for the management – spraying, fighting and kittening.

The newcomers were promptly sterilized and returned to the grounds. When the manager sent us the photo she noted: “Finally we were able to get a photo of our 3 new kittens with Mom in the background. They were all boys! They seem very happy and healthy and our tenants enjoy watching them play on the patio. “What could be better than that for both the residents and the cats?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Adios Ann Arbor - TLC Moves Southwest

Serendipity has played a large part in my life journey and once again it’s taking charge. A month ago I was firmly ensconced in a comfortable life style – caring for our retirement cats and managing our Michigan-focused cat programs. Taking one day at a time, my only real goal was to help as many caregivers as possible get their cats fixed. Knowing all too well that the primary reason a cat loses his or her home stems from the challenges of living with an intact adult cat – especially when new kittens are free and the cost to fix a cat is out of reach of a lot of many family budgets.

Then, as we approach our 13,000th free cat sterilization, a lunchtime conversation opened up the possibility of moving to a new home. The logical choice would have been to house shop in Ann Arbor, but with the Internet making it just as easy to look anywhere – I opened Pandora’s Box only to find the house of my dreams. It’s incredible and even more cat-friendly than our current home. Only problem is that it’s 1500 miles away.

As much as I’m looking forward to settling in my new home --it’s bittersweet -- as it forces the end of our spay/neuter work in greater Washtenaw County. The Feral Colony Assistance Program has already closed to new applicants and the Lower-Income Spay/Neuter program – for both indoor and outdoor cats – will accept applications only until September 30th. All outstanding vouchers will be honored and no new vouchers will be issued to expire after October 31st.

We will miss working with the many vet clinics that have contributed their services at discount rates and all the caregivers who have shared our recognition of the importance of fixing cats and making lifetime commitments to their care. Once we’re settled in our new home, we hope to set up similar cat programs to service our new community. Thank you to everyone that made our spay/neuter programs work.

Monday, September 7, 2009

To My Working Cats - Happy Labor Day

The earliest reference I’ve found to working cats dates back to about 8000 BC when humans started moving away from nomadic life styles toward settlement farming in the Middle East. Wild cats started settling down with the farmers providing their hunting skills to keep down the rat and mouse population threatening their primitive grain stores and garbage dumps. Over the next 5,000 years cats expanded their work-range to include the lofty status of being worshipped as gods --most notably in Egypt but also to some extent in Greece, Rome, China and Japan. Today cats engage in a variety of assignments – from rodent control to TV acting to library and retail store hosts to therapeutic aids and everything in between.

The first cat I put to work was my beloved pet Amino. She was upset about living with my other two pet cats and so I moved her to our company as our Office mascot. Since I spent most of my waking hours there she saw more of me than she would have at home – and was royally spoiled by our staff who would bring her leftovers from their dinners or share snacks off the food truck with her. She had a keen sense of who needed her attention most and when someone was having a frustrating day at work you’d find her sitting on their lap. One of our engineers had a baby who was allergic to cats and they would bring him in for brief controlled visits with Amino – I can still remember the giggles he’d let out when she notice he was there for her attention.

Several of our TLC retirement cats spent time in service – most notably Mama who lived for several years at a local Assisted Living home on the Alzheimer’s floor. Everyone benefitted from her care – residents who would recall stories of their former pets, staff who got well-meaning respite from her affection, and relatives and visitors who could release the inherent tension of visiting a diminished friend or relative by simply petting Mama’s coat.

Earlier in the TLC program, Picasso performed a very special hospice stay with an Ann Arbor man who was on breathing equipment. Because Picasso was old and blind and hard of hearing he could provide extended lap time– where younger healthier cats were scared away by the noise of his supportive life equipment.

A few months ago I enjoyed reading the best-selling book by Vicki Myron -- Dewey The Small Town Library Cat Who Touched The World. The author provides great detail on the variety of services he provided to the town residents. He enjoyed international fame with people coming from as far away as Japan to see him in his workplace.

As you enjoy this holiday remember to include the cats you see – outdoors mousing – greeting customers in specialty retail stores – and doing lap-sitting time with the elderly – in the workers you remember. They are an important – albeit unnoticed – group of willing workers that enhance our lives with their beauty, affection – and yes – work duties as well. All they need to do their jobs is a kindly human to feed them and pat them on the back.

Happy Labor Day to you and your cats.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Tasha -- A Cat Who Defies The Odds -- Goes Blind Then Regains Her Sight

Tasha’s health continues to diminish. Last Friday morning after I gave her SQ fluids for her kidneys, she jumped off my lap as she normally would, but turned too soon to leave the room, and ended up in a closet instead. When she reached the end of it, she bumped her head against the wall – looking confused as to why she couldn’t go further. When I picked her up I noticed her pupils were fully-dilated – like giant black saucers -- and realized that she had lost her vision. The change was acute -- only the day before she had had no trouble finding her way. But then I remembered that she stayed in her condo the entire previous afternoon and evening – even though her condo door was open. This may have been because she couldn’t see to get out -- and she may have been scared. When a cat first becomes blind, it’s unsettling for them – they don’t have a clue as to what happened.

What caused her sudden blindness? Like many cats with chronic kidney disease, Tasha also has hypertension. We’ve had her on a daily dose of blood pressure medication for several years now – hoping that would control it, and prevent her from becoming blind – one of the negative side effects of hypertension.

Sudden blindness in cats is a medical emergency -- regardless of cause -- so I packed Tasha up and took her in for a blood pressure check and eye exam. On the test, her blood pressure was 170 – high, but not extremely high. Her retinas were detached. We assumed the blindness was blood-pressure related -- although there are other causes -- and that possibly her blood pressure spikes during the day to a level that could cause retinal detachments. To counteract this possibility, we slightly increased her medication and divided it into a morning and afternoon dosage. When we rechecked her blood pressure on Monday morning, it had dropped to 150. Possibly the slight increase in medication was helping. Yea!

Rarely a cat with blindness caused by retinal detachment regains their sight – if it’s caught quickly and if the blood pressure stabilizes. A pet cat of mine did this several years ago, but I didn’t think Tasha would be so lucky – with all the other factors weighing on her health. Yet Tuesday morning when she jumped down after getting fluids, she found her way back to her condo without bumping into anything. And I noticed that her pupils aren’t dilated all the time any more.

At this point, it looks like Tasha’s sight is back – something we’re very relieved about. She’s still a little reclusive – only leaving her condo for a few minutes each day – so possibly she regained only partial vision. But, regardless of how much or how little she sees, Tasha is able to move around without bumping into walls or chairs and that’s what counts. Whether this change is permanent or temporary, only time will tell.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Legislative Alert -- H.R. 3501 Seeks To Make Pet Homes Happy

July 31st, Thomas McCotter – the Republican Representative from the 11th District of Michigan – introduced H.R. 3501 -- an amendment to the IRS Code allowing a $3,500 annual tax deduction for pet care expenses beginning in 2010. H.R. 3501 is entitled “Humanity and Pets Partnered through the Years (HAPPY) Act” and, if enacted, will definitely live up to its name – making families happy by helping them provide quality care for their often under-recognized family members – the cats and other pets living in their homes.

The bill cites the 2007-2008 American Pet Products Association (APPA) Survey that estimates 63% of all American households include pets – and that having pets in the home has a positive impact on the family’s emotional and physical health.

As proposed, HAPPY will consider all amounts paid in connection with pet care – including veterinary expenses – as eligible expenses. It specifically excludes any costs associated with acquiring a pet – including adoption fees.

If you want to show your support for this important bill, visit the Care2 web site for assistance..

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Only The Luckiest Cats Get Forever Homes

Companion Animal Conferences usually include at least one workshop on dealing with anger and frustration caused by dealing -- not with cats -- but with their human guardians . At first I didn’t understand why, but I think I do now. Most people who work with cats – at least in the no-kill arena – believe that cats are family members – no sooner would they give one up than they would their children. What they don’t bargain for is that not everyone’s on the same page. Take this voice mail for example:

“I have a cat that’s approximately 4 years old. He was adopted from a shelter. He’s an orange tabby. We’re having some oral problems with him and we need to find a home for him. We cannot afford the upkeep of the gingivitis and having teeth pulled and he’s currently losing teeth. And I can’t give him the care he needs. He’s absolutely a wonderful cat so I want him to find a good home. Could someone please call me and if you can’t help me at least offer some suggestions?”

Listening to this voice mail, my heart went out to this woman who seemingly cares so deeply for her cat that she’s willing to give him up just to get his dental work done. I promptly returned the call hoping I could explain to her that although dental health is important, it may not be so important that she needs to give up her cat – especially when it’s not easy for an adult cat to adopt out a second time. Fortunately, there are ways to get veterinary work done without paying the entire bill on the front end – such as the Care Credit Card. And there are non-profits like that can grant money to low-income families for veterinary bills if they don’t qualify for Care Credit. And – dental work can be deferred altogether. Certainly many humans defer their own dental work when money is an issue. It’s not ideal, but it does happen. I’m sure from the cat’s standpoint, living with bad teeth is a better deal than being homeless.

Before I got to the Care Credit suggestion, the caregiver interrupted me and told me she wasn’t looking for advice. All she wanted was to place her cat in a different home. She has a new puppy who shares the cat’s water and she’s afraid the bacteria from the cat’s gingivitis will infect him. I explained that all mouths – cat mouths, dog mouths and human mouths are loaded with nasty bacteria but I had never heard that gingivitis (or any of the other mouth bacteria) was contagious through water bowls. Then she said: “That doesn’t matter anyway because we’re planning on having a baby next year and this cat is one big smother-lover and we can’t have him around our baby”.

At that point I realized once again that people often choose socially-acceptable reasons for relinquishing their cats when the actual trigger is usually something more mundane. Gingivitis wasn’t the deal-breaker in this home – nor was the puppy or the coming baby for that matter. The family has simply moved on. Their 4 year old cat is yesterday’s news. To this family the cat was only an object they had purchased and grown weary of. It’s time for the cat to move on – even if the prospects of him placing a second time are slim and none. He’s never been a family member – just a guest in their home who – although he is a wonderful cat -- outstayed his welcome. Sad, isn’t it?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Feral Cats? Why Not Heirloom Cats?

I’ve always had some difficulties calling naturally-occurring outdoor cats “feral”. The Wikipedia definition of a feral organism is “one that has escaped from domestication and returned, partly or wholly, to a wild state.” Yet with cats, this is typically not the case. Most outdoor cats can’t be feral because they were never domesticated to begin with. These are simply cats living outdoors as cats.

True there are exceptions – lost or abandoned companion cats – socialized by people as kittens for adoption as pets – can revert to feral behaviors as a means of adapting to outdoor life. But, when they reproduce and create colonies – the bulk of the cats living in the colony – are technically not feral either --because they’ve had no concentrated human contact to tame them. If the litters aren’t removed from the outdoors when the kittens are 4-8 weeks old, they’ll never become companion cats – even if their mother and/or father were socialized. This is why it’s so critical to get kittens indoors while they’re still babies.

But, those kittens born and left outdoors – if they’re not feral and they’re not socialized – then what are they? Perhaps they’re heirloom cats. Again, from Wikipedia: “In the plant world, an heirloom plant is a cultivar that was commonly grown during earlier periods in human history, but which is not used in modern large-scale agriculture. Many heirloom vegetables have kept their traits through open pollination, while fruit varieties, such as apples have been propagated over the centuries through grafts and cuttings. The trend of growing heirloom plants in gardens has been growing in popularity.”

Make a few substitutions to the above definition and you’ll see what I mean: Prior to the 1950’s the most common cats (cultivar) were the barn, yard and alley cats commonly living outdoors throughout our country – as many still do. The shelters (large-scale agriculture) do not use the heirloom cats for their production, but focus on the modified versions created by intense human socialization of their kittens. Many heirloom cats have kept their traits through open breeding (pollination), while fruit varieties (Siamese, Himalayan, Maine Coon, etc.) have been propagated over time through selective breeding of cats with like traits. The trend of heirloom cats in gardens has been growing in popularity – through a lack of available and affordable spay/neuter support for property owners blessed with naturally-occurring heirloom colonies in their yards.

No, I don’t expect to see a push to stop the misuse of the word “feral” with regard to unsocialized cats any time soon. But I do think that heirloom is more descriptive of these wonderful outdoor cats --whose lifestyle is a throwback to an earlier day. And, possibly more shelters would think twice before automatically killing heirloom cats as it doesn’t have the harsh connotation of “feral”, and would advocate stronger for their sterilization and return to their natural outdoor homes.

Genetically heirloom and companion cats are one and the same – but socially they’re worlds apart. We know from the grim shelter statistics that in Michigan alone over 70,000 cats are killed each year – many of these are heirloom cats that could easily continue living as outdoor wildlife – especially when they are fixed. Until we get spay/neuter to the cats that need it most we’ll have repeated annual bumper crops of heirloom kitties living the lives cats have lived since they first came over on the Mayflower. They don’t need to be saved, rescued or rehabilitated – all they need is to be fixed.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Littermates or Soulmates? Coswell and Onyx Share a Special Bond.

To see how natural they look sharing a couch, you’d think they lived together all their lives. Yet this photo was taken in 2003 literally moments after they met. We rescued them both on the same day from our local animal control shelter’s euthanasia queue. Onyx (left) had just ended his stray-hold period and Coswell (right) had just exhausted his allotted time in their adoption area.

As soon as we got them to our new-cat isolation room, they quickly jumped out of their carriers and onto the couch-- both sighing a long sigh – relieved to be out of the shelter – and perhaps , happy to be together again? Although they ended up at the shelter almost two months apart, they’re about the same age and coloring, and their immediate acceptance of each other has always nagged at me. Could they be littermates -- or at least former housemates -- that were lost or abandoned together? If so, they could have separated and been found individually -- with Croswell reaching the shelter a few months before Onyx. Unlike dogs who run loose when they’re lost, cats first hunker down in a safe hiding place – often close to where they were lost -- leaving only when darkness makes them invisible to people – and then only to hunt for food – or until they’re brave enough to search for their old home. Their hiding creates a lag time – often months -- before someone figures out they’re homeless and takes them to a shelter.

If you’ve ever tried to introduce one cat to another you know how unusual it is for unrelated cats to immediately mingle like Coswell and Onyx did. Even the most tolerant and sociable cats feel obligated to throw at least a few hissy fits before they’ll accept a new cat. Doing something as familial as sitting on a couch together often takes months or years to accomplish. That’s part of the reason why people used to think cats were solitary animals. We know from our retirement cats that most cats do relish feline companionship – so long as they all have their own turf and there’s plenty of food and litter box access for all. Rarely do we have one cat living separately from others -- and most of them enjoy sleeping and eating with or near others – in groups of 4 or 5. And these cats for the most part lived alone as house pets until they were well into middle age.

Whether or not Coswell and Onyx knew each other before we got them will always remain a mystery. Neither one is talking. But if they weren’t housemates in a previous life, they’re definitely soulmates now -- giving each other continual love and companionship – as well as a few friendly head butts – whenever they pass by.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

My Feral Cats Bring Me Dead Mice -- How Can I Stop This?

“I am currently caring for two feral cats in rural Michigan. I have a couple of questions that I thought you might be able to answer."

"First, I have cared for these cats for almost two years, yet it is only in the last few months that one has taken to bringing dead animals (mice and other rodents) back to the feeding/shelter station. Is there a reason for this change in behavior and is there any way to stop it?"

"Second, I believe both have developed tape worms. I cannot take them to a vet – since they were trapped to be fixed, neither will go near a trap no matter how disguised it is! Will non-prescription tape worm tabs help them, and given that they are likely to continue eating raw meat (like the mice they catch) is there any way I can prevent future outbreaks?”

Someone once said that: “People treat cats like people but cats treat people like cats.” You show how much you appreciate the cats by feeding and sheltering them. They reciprocate by sharing their prey with you. Although it may not feel like a compliment, it is. Possibly the reason they didn’t bring you mice earlier is that it takes time for feral cats to trust you. Sharing mice isn’t something you do with just anyone. I don’t know of any way to stop the cats from showing you their prey. If it were me, I’d be a gracious friend, praise the cat for her prowess and then quietly dispose of the remains when they aren’t looking. As time passes you may get fewer mice – as the cats age and become less ambitious hunters -- or when the novelty of sharing wears off. Just be patient.

If you suspect your cats have tapeworms you probably found rice-like segments in their feces or attached to their anus. That’s usually the first sign. There are two common tapeworms that infect outdoor cats. T. taeniaefirnus (commonly called a “cat tapeworm” ) comes from eating dead rodents and Dipylidium canimum (commonly called “dog tapeworm”) comes from ingesting fleas or lice bearing the larval stages of tapeworms. The only sure way to diagnose which kind they are is through a microscope examination of tapeworm eggs in the cat’s feces. Over the counter medication may work but as a rule the ones prescribed by veterinarians are more advanced, work quicker and are generally safer for the cats.

The only sure way to protect cats from various parasites -- including tapeworms -- is to move them indoors. For outdoor cats, it’s a given that they’ll have parasites – fleas, worms, etc. The best you can hope is to minimize them. Make sure that your grass is kept mowed to control fleas as keeping grass short lets the sun warm the soil to kill flea larvae. Use a broad-spectrum product like Revolution to kill adult fleas, prevent heartworm, and treat ear mites and control roundworms and hookworms. Unfortunately, these products are applied topically to the back of the neck so they usually don’t work with feral cats who won’t allow you to handle them. In those situations, ask your vet to recommend a good dewormer that can be mixed in their food periodically. Finally use a product like Droncit to treat tapeworm. The vet can inject it or you can give it as a pill orally or crumbled in food.

Fortunately parasites are very symbiotic with their adult cat hosts and normally don’t harm or discomfort for them – although a heavy infestation can cause problems including anemia, weight loss, and mild diarrhea. Kittens may have more problems because of their immature immune systems – but it’s a good idea to bring kittens indoors to socialize and adopt out as house cats – and when you do, work with your vet on removing their parasites. Some parasites can pass from cats to people so always make sure to use good hygiene and wash your hands after handling outdoor cats.

And, if you occasionally find a dead mouse at your doorstep -- accept it as the gift it is -- and know that your cat(s) are simply telling you how much they appreciate your ongoing care.