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.

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!