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.

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.