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.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Olivia ... The Cat Who Became Oliver

Long before Oliver went to his Older Cats For Older People foster home -- where he still lives -- he delighted the elderly who participated in the other portion of our Program -- farm visitations. We periodically opened our cat farm to assisted living groups serving up an afternoon of lemonade and cat speak.

Their buses would park and the residents would slowly exit using walkers and wheelchairs to navigate the ramp leading to the shelter. It was an ideal escape from the mundane life of residential care -- providing not only a roomful of geriatric cats to enjoy, but also a country visit complete with a 19th century refurbished barn for our show-and-tell colony of feral cats.

For many seniors, the visit triggered fond memories of their childhood when they lived on such a farm and had cats of their own to cherish. Sadly, many assisted living facilities and most nursing homes prohibit pets and the loss the elderly feel when they give up their pets -- just so they can receive necessary care -- is often as difficult as the loss felt at the death of a close family member.

Although there are many pet visitation programs servicing hospitals and nursing homes, they are almost always dog programs. Cats just don't make good travelers. Even those that are cute and cuddly at home become shy and withdrawn in public -- seeking out hidey-holes, not laps. Our unique cage-free setting gave us a chance to turn the tables and make the recipients the visitors so they could enjoy "cat-assisted" therapy at its best.

Oliver (or Olivia as we first knew him) was taken to the local shelter when he was 8 years old without any explanation provided. He lived in our cat retirement shelter for three years before we matched him to an elderly Ann Arbor woman seeking a lifetime companion. The match worked great and six years later Oliver, his foster mom -- and our original visiting volunteer are still together. At 17, Oliver may finally have his forever home.

Oh yes ... you may wonder why we changed Olivia's name to Oliver? Shortly before we fostered Oliver, he became very ill vomiting almost non-stop. When an endoscopy identified a foreign body in his stomach, Oliver had emergency surgery to remove it. We were suprised to find the blockage was an unusually large fur-ball he was unable to pass. Not nearly as surprised, though, as we were when the surgeon also discovered Olivia was a neutered male cat. That pretty fluffy red fur held a secret that the shelter intake information was mistaken -- as pretty as he was, Oliver was definitely not a girl!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Mama Cat -- Our Hospice Specialist

Most of us who have and love cats would no sooner give them up than we would give up a family member. We bond to them with implicit love and learn to manage their care even when it involves personal sacrifice.

Because of this, when we hear of someone surrendering their pet cat to a shelter, we automatically assume the cat "did something wrong" to break their bond with the family. This mind set helps us accept the routine shelter practice of euthanizing older cats rather than trying to find homes for them. Through our older cat program we learned the sad truth that many nice cats find their lives shortened for no other reason than they lost their home. Being a good or bad cat has little to do with it.

Mama was removed from her home of seven years because "the kids were allergic to her". To increase her adoptability, the family front-declawed her before taking her to the shelter not understanding her age would be the problem not her claws.

When we first met Mama we knew she was perfect for our Older Cats for Older People program. We placed her quickly with an assisted living facility that wanted a cat for their Alzheimer’s floor. (We had earlier fostered a little black male cat (BJ) with them and he was working out fine except some residents were superstitious about black cats and wouldn’t interact with him.) When Mama moved in, they changed BJ’s name to Papa and everyone – residents, staff and visitors delighted in the pair.

Over the years Mama showed she had a special gift for hospice care. When she sensed a resident was dying she maintained a vigil at their door until they passed providing comfort to the patient, their family and the staff providing hospice care.

After a few years Papa was returned to us when the staff replaced him with a kitten. Fortunately we found a good home for him with one of our volunteers. Shortly after, a staff member (who was Mama's primary caregiver) returned Mama to us because she was leaving for another job and was worried no one else would pick up the care.

Mama's sixteen now and has blended in well with our other cats -- both companion and feral. She's a little older and a little plumper now, but just as pleasant as ever.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Cat-Assisted Therapy -- Missy's Style

In March, 2000 our local shelter called to see if we would take a long-haired flame calico named Missy into our Older Cat Program. We were new to sheltering and already had our hands full with the 8 cats we had already rescued. Since Missy was "young" by our standards -- only 7 years old -- I suggested they place Missy up for adoption and if, after a reasonable time period, no one adopted her to let us know. The Director hesitated because they had 4- and 5-year olds that no one would adopt, but agreed to try anyway. Two weeks later I got the call to pick her up -- Missy had an upper respiratory infection so they could no longer house her in the adoption shelter. If we would take her, they would not euthanize her. Cats, like people, often develop colds when they get stressed out and, although they are normally treatable with SQ fluids, antibiotics and hand-feeding, many shelters euthanize them instead saving the extra cost, time and attention needed to cure them.

We nursed Missy back to health and put her to work through our Older Cats for Older People foster program. Her first assignment was to provide love and attention to a house-bound elderly woman living alone. Missy would live with her so long as the woman wanted her there and could provide Missy with love and care. Since her daughter lived next door we felt this would be a good foster -- and had our own volunteer visiting them monthly to make sure.

Missy proved to be a good match and they lived happily together for more than three years. When the woman's health diminished, her kids moved her to a nursing home and returned Missy to us. A few months later the woman passed away. At the funeral home Missy's 8x10 photo was prominently displayed on the casket -- testifying to their strong, emotional bond.

Missy stayed with us for a few months before finding a new assignment. This time she was fostered to a geriatric married couple living in a retirement community. The wife suffered from Alzheimer's and shortly after Missy moved in, the husband had a serious stroke. But with the help of their adult children, the apartment staff, and our visiting volunteer, Missy was able to stay with them and provide them with someone to love and care for.

A year ago we took Missy in for her annual physical, the blood work pointed to liver disease. To control it meant taking daily medication, which the couple could not reliably give, so we brought her back with us for treatment.

Now 16 years old, Missy is retired from active duty, but I think she misses her role as Queen Bee although she has many fond memories of the people that were in her care. Her liver disease is well-controlled through mediciation and we hope to enjoy her company for many more years to come.

Friday, March 27, 2009

A Is For Amber

If it weren't so sad, I would have to laugh at some of the reasons used to justify healthy-but-homeless cat euthanasia. Take age, for example. When we started our Cat Retirement Program I called various local organizations that did cat adoptions to see if we were overlapping their work by focusing on orphaned teenaged cats. Most quickly confirmed that they didn't have any older cats to adopt, but one pleasantly replied: "Oh yes, we have several 2-3 year old cats." And we think that humans put too much emphasis on youth! The average cat lives 14-15 years and many indoor pet cats live to 20 or older -- yet 2-3 in the adoption sense is "old".

Just as the lack of full community focus on pro-active, affordable and available spay/neuter creates the bumper crop of kittens that flood the adoption pool each year, the practice of not adopting out cats of all ages (so long as they are healthy or have manageable health problems) adds to the high euthanasia rate too.
Studies show that one demographic that benefits from cat companionship are healthy, independent-living elderly. Yet adopting a kitten to a 70-year old almost guarantees that by the time she's 10, she will be homeless. And -- as often happens -- when the relatives take the cat to the shelter, she'll be euthanized on arrival. If instead shelters made older cats available for adoption, then a 70-year old could have a companion that would live out her life during the same timeframe as the caregiver -- a win-win situation.

Amber, our 19-year old brown long-haired beauty is a good example. We received her in 1999 from an elderly woman who adopted Amber as a kitten. Now in her eighties -- the guardian was fearful of tripping over Amber -- possibly because she already had. If there had been older cats readily available for adoption, this may have been a lifelong home for a cat. Teenaged cats make great companions for the elderly -- and the elderly make great homes for teenaged cats -- who want nothing more than a full bowl of food and a warm lap to snuggle in.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Michigan Legislative Alert

Two state bills have been introduced to the Michigan House:

1. Pound Seizure HB 4663 (Koda's Law)would ban shelters from selling cats and dogs for research. It's named after a dog that was surrendered by his guardian to a shelter and then sold to the University of Michigan for research. The family had assumed the shelter would adopt out Koda. Michigan presently has 4 county shelters selling cats and dogs to research but theoretically any of the shelters could do so under existing code.

2. Humane Euthanasia HB 4263 would mandate shelter and dealer euthanasia be done only with sodium pentobarbital injections. Presently 12 Michigan shelters use either carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide to gas their victims in barrels but, again, this practice could be used at any shelter under existing law.

To learn more about these bills and to provide your support visit Care2. Each bill has its own petition.

As important as these bills are, they are just one more example of the sorry plight of homeless cats (and dogs). In Michigan alone animal control shelters kill one cat or kitten every 7 minutes, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Instead of legislating kinder ways of killing, isn't it about time we outlawed killing cats and dogs altogether? If we directed our tax and donation dollars on providing affordable and accessible spay/neuter for all cats and dogs -- and if we directed our rescue efforts on developing strong foster home networks instead of trying to house the homeless in finite shelter space -- we would be a lot closer to that goal.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Let's Not Forget The Ferals

I failed to mention in the last post that 5 of the cats in our closed retirement center came from the show-and-tell feral cat colony we assembled in the barn of our "cat farm". We created the colony in 2002 with 8 displaced feral cats that had permanently lost their natural homes. At that time the cats ranged in age from 1 to 3 years.

Feral cats are cats that had little or no human attention before they turned 8 weeks of age -- the point at which their personalities are completely developed. As a result they are fearful of people and no amount of human attention after that point will change this. That being said, they may accept the person who feeds them -- thinking of him or her as their "mom cat" and essentially exclude their caregiver from the human race.

Feral cats constitute about half of the total cat population yet very few people know they are there -- like most other wildlife they are nocturnal coming out under the cloak of darkness when people won't see them. When people do catch a glimpse of them they often think that they are seeing a lost or abandoned cat that someone "dumped". Since most of our volunteers came to the farm for the geriatric cats, they started off being wary of our allowing cats to live outdoors in an unheated barn -- even if it was equipped with marsh-grass stuffed beds, custom cat walks and a cat-fenced corral where they could play. Observing the feral cats during their weekly volunteer shifts quickly changed their opinions. The cats were healthy, active and really enjoyed sunning themselves in the barn's windows even in the dead of winter.

In 2005, when we reached our decison to sell the farm, we decided to move the feral cats indoors and start the blending process with the geriatric companion cats. To our surprise, many of the volunteers were now wary of our bring the cats indoors to live and depriving them of their natural cat lifestyle. Fortunately the transition to indoor living went smoothly -- we started them in a room adjacent to the geriatric cat room with a removable window screen where the two groups of cats could observe each other.

When we eventually removed the screen to allow cross-access, we found the geriatric cats were spending a good deal of their time in the feral cat room -- enjoying the expansion of their space. After a few weeks the feral cats returned the favor and came into the original cat room learning quickly how to use the cat door to access the enclosed deck and yard. When the volunteers came for their shifts the feral cats would move back to the feral cat room until they left -- not quite ready to sit with people. Although only a few were able to pet any of the cats, everyone agreed that they enjoyed indoor living as much as they had the outdoors. Cats are very territorial and once they learn a new territory -- a process that takes about three weeks -- that's where they want to be.

Three years later they too are geriatric -- the youngest is now 10 years old -- and they have the run of our house with the companion cats. They remain very bonded to each other -- often sharing food from the same dish and snuggling with each other when they sleep. Cleo and Robin sleep with us, but Larry, Emmy and Joyce only allow infrequent petting. All of them hang out in the house areas we spend the least time in.

Our Shelter Experience

As with many people drawn to helping cats, our involvement started from a concern for their welfare. While researching how to provide successor care for our own cats (in event of our death or disability), we learned the grim truth that the odds of their surviving our demise were slim. Once a cat turns 5 years old, most adoption shelters give up on them -- no matter how cute and cuddly they are. It's not that they are unadoptable, it's just that they take longer to place, hence cost more money to shelter and tie up precious cage space that could be better used on very young and friendly cats and kittens. There are so many kittens born each year, the older cats don't stand a chance competing with them for homes. All too often the cat's age is the sole determinant of whether they live or die. The No Kill Movement is working to change this, but many traditional shelters will either not take in older cats or simply euthanize them on arrival.

In 1999 Cat Fancy Magazine ran an article on Cat Retirement Homes and how they offered people like us the chance to provide successor life care for our cats if we are hit by the proverbial Mack truck. Coincidentally we had recently sold our business and were looking for new avenues to develop in our Foundation. We did our research, attended the annual No Kill conference, and by November had roughed out a program. We recognized that there would be a lag from when we opened to when we would receive our first "true" retirement cat because the people applying were at the estate-planning stage, not the end-of-life stage. To get established we devised a plan to rescue older cats from "death row" at the local shelter to either adopt outright or foster to the elderly through a program we called Older Cats For Older People. We purchased a farm and renovated the house to provide a cage-free shelter that was so nice some of the people who adopted from us said they felt guilty about taking their cat away. We had a resident caregiver, three part-time employees, and 45 volunteers giving the 12-18 cats housed there all the love and attention they could muster.

As perfect as everything appeared, and as rewarding as the farm was for the staff, volunteers and visitors, something seemed to nag at us. Three years into the program we had rescued 70 teenaged cats, placed half in good homes and fostered many to senior citizens. Those aspects ran very well. The problem came from the cats who, as old cats do, developed health issues -- with frequent vet visits, complicated medical routines and the need to observe their behavior more closely, the shelter environment simply did not work. Soon we had a shadow shelter of chronically-ill or hospiced cats living in our home so they could receive round-the-clock care. To add to this, whenever a cat came home, a new cat was rescued to take his or her place at the farm. To calculate our total population, we had to add those at home and out on Older Cat foster to the group living in the shelter and that number was growing beyond the number we could comfortably commit to overall. We soon realized the inherent flaw in our lay-run retirement community and decided to refocus our efforts to an area where we could be infinitely more effective -- pro-active spay/neuter. We sold the farm, phased out the cat shifts, and brought the remaining cats home to live -- thus creating a closed retirement community now containing 18 cats. Fortunately, we had built our home to be cat-friendly and could house the cats at home as well as they were housed at the farm, but with one important difference -- they now have care available 24 hours a day.

Monday, March 23, 2009


Welcome to our premier post of the Zimmer Foundation Mews & Views blog. Some of you may already recognize the title from our TLC/for The Love of Cats newsletter with the same name. We've published it locally (greater Ann Arbor MI area) for many years. You can read our archived newsletters by visiting: If you're not familiar with us, the Zimmer Foundation is a 501(c)3 private operating foundation that believes the lives of all cats (friendly and feral) have value and has established programs aimed at improving their lives.

Our TLC program is one of Michigan's largest cat spay/neuter programs -- and has fixed over 12,000 cats to date. It targets the two groups of cats traditionally living below the spay/neuter radar: pet cats in lower-income families and managed feral cats living in naturally-occurring colonies in residential areas.

In addition to our spay/neuter efforts, we provide life care for a closed retirement shelter housing 18 geriatric cats ranging in age from 10 to 19 years. And, we provide tuition funding for a small group of exceptional veterinary students focusing their life work on feline medicine.

Mews & Views will follow our geriatric cats as they journey through their final life phase, share human interest anecdotes on the cats in our spay/neuter programs -- many have pretty interesting stories to tell -- and present our vision on how the existing cat welfare system can (and should) be improved. As you may have guessed -- we're fully-immersed in these topics and would like to share them with you. Stay tuned.