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, July 28, 2013

Helping The Cats of the Night

We wanted to share an e-mail we received recently about stray cat behavior written by someone who knows it well.  The author, Jeremy, works at night and on his walk home sees the cats most of us daytime people never know exist – the feral and stray cats that hide from humans during the day and then come out in the dark to look for food.  Jeremy’s one of the many unsung heroes of community cat care that -- after seeing these homeless cats -- helps them the best way they can –by providing them with supplemental food and human attention.    Here are his observations:
I recently found the article, “If You Find a Stray Cat” on your web site while Googling “how much to feed a starved cat.”  It was a well-written piece with very sensible advice.  I particularly liked the suggestion to collar a suspected stray with your contact information.  It is a brilliant idea, and I had never thought of that.  I have always been a cat lover and a sucker for strays.  Over time, I have learned a few other tricks that your viewers might also find helpful.
There are SO MANY strays in my neighborhood.  I walk home from work most nights, so I have begun carrying kibble and wet food in my backpack at all times.  Although I’ve only lived here for a few months, most of my “regulars” have picked spots and know to meet me there for dinner.  I also keep my camera with me, so I can try and find homes for these little ones.
In my experience, most strays do not immediately dart away when faced with eye contact.  In fact, you can use eye contact to your advantage with a technique called the “slow blink”.  It is a signal that cats use among each other that means, “We’re cool.  We’re so not in a fight right now that I will even close my eyes while you are staring at me, and I will do it in my slow, lazy way.”  This technique, coupled with soothing words and that “prbt” sound, has had dramatic results for me with startled or skittish cats.  They will often run right up after the signal is given.
What will usually startle a stray are the headlights and noise of an oncoming car.  I have had starving cats bolt away from a meal because of this, so I no longer put their dinner on the open sidewalk.  If you can put their dinner behind a fence, wall, trash barrel, or under a parked car, they will feel much more comfortable.
As for recognizing a stray, well in the neighborhood, it is obvious.  They are too thin.  But the real tell is that once you establish trust, they will meow desperately and follow you for a block or two, sometimes even running ahead of you.  A contented cat with a happy home does not do that. 
We hope Jeremy's comments give you a window into the secret world of the night cats -- we just have one thing to add.  Please don't remove the cats from their outdoor homes until and unless you have a plan that will ensure their future will be better than their present situation.  On balance, outdoor cats do very well in their homes and removing them without a lifelong plan often puts their lives at risk.  

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Kittens 101: If your cat has kittens ...

All too often the motivation to fix a cat happens only after she gives birth to a litter of kittens.  Many are pet cats whose guardians put off spaying for lack of money and/or time, yet many are outdoor cats who show up at someone’s home and the owner unwittingly initiates a relationship with the cat by putting food out for her.    (This latter group would never consider letting their pet cats go unsterilized, but the outdoor cat is different – it’s “not their cat” – they’re just putting food and water out for her daily and petting her and letting her live in their yard.)  Exactly how this differs from what they’re doing for their pet cats is unclear.

Both groups seem caught off guard by the pregnancies – unaware that cats are persistent breeders starting as young as 16 weeks and having 2 or 3 litters each year of 4-6 kittens per litter.  And -- unlike dogs that go into heat once or twice a year -- cats go in and out of heat every two weeks from February to November– even when they’re nursing. 

Once the kittens are born, the caregivers typically react in one of two ways: 

(1)    Scoop up the litter (and often Mom too) and drive them to the nearest rescue or shelter to let them deal with the problem.  This is not a good idea on many levels.

a.       For kittens to become “adoptable” they need to be well socialized and this cannot happen in a shelter cage or in an overloaded foster home.  While their personalities are forming (the first 8 weeks of their lives) they need to have intense human interaction – preferably from a variety of people – young, old, male and female – and they need to learn to live in a home acclimating to typical noises like dogs, doorbells, TVs, washers, etc.   Your home – or that of someone you know that immensely enjoys kittens – is a far better and effective option than a shelter.

b.      Mom needs to be with her kittens for the first month – to feed and care for them – and littermates need to stay together for at least two months so they learn they’re cats and don’t grow up thinking they’re little “humans” because all they saw during those formative weeks were people. 

c.       The darker reason to hold on to Mom and her kittens is that in a shelter they often stand a better chance of being euthanized than being adopted.   Inadequate socialization, lack of foster homes, stress-induced illness, overcrowding are all common reasons shelters euthanize cats and kittens.   And -- if Mom is given to a shelter -- she’ll have to compete against younger, cuddlier kittens for the few homes that adopt from shelters.  Less than 20% of pet cats are formally adopted.  The rest are passed from person-to-person or simply show up at someone’s door and move in.

(2)    Caregivers that don’t turn Mom and the kittens over to shelters often embrace the kittens as part of an extended cat family and want to hold onto all of them for the rest of their lives.  This is typically a better option than turning the family over to a shelter, but it can be a mine field too.   To do this you must be able to make a lifelong commitment to the cats and have the ability to get the entire group spayed and neutered quickly to prevent follow-on litters.    This is a steep financial and emotional commitment – and one that is difficult to undo later on.  The older the kittens get, the less adoptable they become and the more dependent on your lifelong care they become. 

We like a third option – keep the kittens in your home until they’re 8-10 weeks old – and give them loads of love and affection.  While you’re doing this, network with everyone you know to find good homes for them -- preferably adopting them in pairs so they stay with a litter mate.  Often simply giving them matching names (Ben and Jerry or Frick and Frack, etc.) will ensure someone adopting one will want both. 

Just make sure when you give them away that you like and trust the caregiver who adopts them.  With all the care and love you put into their socialization, you’ll want the best for them.  And – if you know in your heart the kittens will have a good life in their new home, giving them away gets easier. 

If any of the kittens don’t find good homes, hold onto them – Mom will appreciate their company and you’ll know they’ll be well cared for.  And – most importantly – get Mom fixed as soon as she’s done nursing so you can enjoy her without the worry of more babies.  Any kittens you end up keeping should be fixed as soon as your vet will do it – typically around 12 to16 weeks of age.