Tuesday, February 20, 2018

National Love Your Pet Day!


Today is National Love Your Pet Day but don't you love your pet EVERY day? Of course you do! Americans are crazy for their companion animals, spending over $60 billion every year on them.  More and more companies are allowing their employees to bring their dogs to work with them because they know this will make for happier workers who don't have to rush home at night to take their dog out and feed him. People are calmer and less anxious when hanging out with a well-behaved, social dog. Dogs are now routinely deployed to communities after a shooting or other tragedy has occurred simply to help those suffering mentally and psychologically. Dogs are usually the species selected as therapy animals but there are certainly lots of other domestic animals who fill that role, officially and unofficially for their guardians.

Yet it's still legal in most U.S. cities to pay a veterinarian to surgically amputate the first digits of your cat's paws. Or to have your veterinarian "debark" your dog by altering his larynx and amputate the tender ends of his ears and tail because of tradition. And it's legal to leave your cat to roam outside in all kinds of weather or your dog chained up outside 24 hours a day and in freezing temperatures as long as there is some sort of shelter.  I propose that we replace the love with the word RESPECT. Respecting animals would mean that we allow them to have some autonomy and agency in their lives, while understanding that they rely on our common sense to know what is safe and healthy for them. We do not force them to meet our every expectation and try to suppress their innate behaviors just because they are inconvenient for us.

I am an advocate of adopting rescued animals but even animals purchased from a breeder can be vastly different than their usual "breed profile." That's why in addition to lots of mixed breed dogs and cats, there are always purebred animals at shelters or in foster homes with purebred rescue groups. Just like the person you once dated and now wonder what attracted you or the "dream job" you left after a few months, these animals turned out to be different than what their guardians wanted or expected. We may end up with a kitty who tends to hide when there is too much activity or company in the house, or a dog who piddles when he gets too anxious. We can use positive reinforcement and lots of affection when our animal chooses to do something we prefer over something we dislike, but ultimately we accept trade-offs within the relationship. We understand that a walk may take three times as long as it should because our dog has to smell everything extensively. We may know that we cannot leave anything remotely edible on the counters because when we turn our backs, it will be eaten by someone who shouldn't have such things. We understand that if we leave clothes, towels, or cotton rugs on the floor our cat may urinate on them because they have an ingrained "surface preference." We may sacrifice a single upholstered chair our kitty started clawing and prefers over any other scratching surface we've offered and just let him have the chair. We stop getting upset about these things because the relationship with our companion animals is worth much more than these small adjustments we make. In turn, our animals are confident and happy, not cowered and constantly having to adjust who they are to make us love them. They are their own little persons and we learn from them when we grow quiet and listen. 

Hannah (pictured above) only came to live with us about four months ago. I knew and loved her before adopting her but since our visits were previously limited I didn't fully appreciate how incredibly sensitive and intuitive Hannah really is. Hannah keeps me on my toes when I am not listening and plodding ahead in typical human fashion. She's a wise and beautiful soul in a cute tuxedo package.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Love and Animals

 "Country living" to me means having lots of animals around, both wildlife who lived here before I did and domestic animals who require my care and attention. Much of my property will be left natural to encourage butterflies, bees and wildlife to flourish here. There are quite a few snags now with lots of woodpeckers taking advantage of them. I've heard owls at night and seen deer and one gorgeous coyote. I don't plan to operate a sanctuary for large animals but maybe someday I'll adopt some domestic animal friends larger than house cats. What the Animals Taught Me is a lovely book about the author's experiences with rescued sheep, a pony, donkeys, cats, chickens and even deer who take up residence on her farm. Stephanie Marohn weaves each of their stories along with life lessons she gained from these special animals. Her amazing relationships with the animals are based on respect and allowing the animals autonomy.

Ms. Marohn's first unconditional love lesson is about letting go of control. "Letting go of the need to dominate allows trust and love to blossom. It is a basic lesson in learning to open the heart and love unconditionally. Loving unconditionally means we do not predicate our love on the other doing what we want. Loving unconditionally means we work together for the highest good of both of us. To enter the realm of unconditional love, we let go of our desire to control, and focus instead on our desire to connect and communicate. And soon, a whole field of flowers is blooming before us," writes Ms. Marohn. Readers will get to know Charlotte, Pegasus, Gabriel, Wonder, and other animals as individuals. The animals' relationships with each other are also remarkable to read about from such an empathetic view. All of use who have shared our lives with a beloved kitty or dog understand the deep bonds that cross species and the love that stays with us long after the animal is no longer physically with us. The word "love" is commercialized, publicized, and tossed about a lot on Valentine's Day but love takes on many forms. What the Animals Taught Me is a wonderful book about love, simple and real.

Friday, December 15, 2017

KittyStar has Relocated!

We moved out of the Seattle area this past Halloween. It was very bittersweet to leave all of my wonderful Seattle clients, some of whom I knew the majority of their lives. (I still miss seeing all my regular kitty clients and taking a Christmas off is actually really tough.) I will be starting my kitty sitting business over in our new location as well as starting up a feline sanctuary. I have plenty of space on our new Camano Island property to provide a life-long home for special needs kitties. I also plan to board kitties, which I had many requests for in Seattle but lacked the space to do. So far, we've been focusing on getting the house catified with fun catio spaces that are also secure from predators such as coyotes and eagles. I saw my first deer on my property this week and have set up incredibly popular bird feeding stations. 

Adjusting to a slower way of life outside of the city has also been a challenge in the short time I've been on "Island Time" but everyone tells me by this summer I will be loving the county life. Lots to do as we sail into 2018. Stay tuned for a completely new KittyStar website featuring many of my own beloved kitties and also adorable kitty clients.

Wishing you and your kitties a fabulous New Year!

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Monday is Global Cat Day!

October 16th, formerly National Feral Cat, is now Global Cat Day. This is an excellent opportunity to appreciate the kitties in your life as well pledge to be an advocate for all cats, whether indoor companions or community cats. Alley Cat Allies coordinates this annual holiday to help educate lawmakers about feline friendly legislation and bring together volunteers and caretakers with cats needing services.

Sadly, many people think taking an outside kitty to their city or county shelter is best for everyone. Actually, TNR (trap/neuter/return) is the sustainable and humane solution. Did you know that approximately 70% of cats who wind up in traditional shelters end up being killed there? Many municipal shelters don't have the resources or staff to spend on cats they consider "unadoptable." Cats living outside don't often get the care they deserve because people feeding them may not know how to humanely trap the kitty, aren't able to transport him to a vet clinic, or simply can't pay for those services. This is where community rescue groups and dedicated volunteers come into play. YOU can volunteer by learning to trap, fostering and socializing, or giving money if you have more dough than time. Or you can make a lifetime commitment with kitties who were likely born outside and may have been passed over by people wanting outgoing, "life of the party" cats. Below is the story of Tom and Jerry, two brothers who have a loving home today because someone cared enough to catch them as kittens and work with them until the Humane Society of Seattle/King County could place them.
Waiting for "outside time"

My client Judy had always had a kitty in the house. After her last cat passed from old age, she knew she wanted to adopt and probably wanted two cats this time instead of one. At the shelter, she met Tom, a gentle, long haired boy and Jerrie, his sleek tuxedo brother with a squeaky voice. Both boys hid when she got them home but they acclimated fine to her quiet household. Judy didn't know about socializing kitties and I imagine the shelter staff thought it might sound like a daunting process if they had suggested it when she took the boys home. Fast forward three years and Judy decided she wanted to reduce the boys' stress levels when they had to meet new people; such as when they needed a petsitter over a few days. Judy called on me to do weekly visits with the kitties. I worked to make interacting with a stranger a positive experience and at the same time, getting them comfortable with being touched (but not held). At first they were anxious for me to leave them alone, but after several month they are excited about our play time and greet me! It's been incredibly satisfying seeing their confidence increase and to watch them having fun with me in their presence.

Tom relaxing in his back yard

Jerrie playing with his favorite wand toy
 You might notice ear tips on these boys but they are far from feral. They are family members. 
Adopt, don't shop. Happy Global Cat Day!

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Book Review: Strays

In the sea of books about people rescuing dogs and dogs rescuing people, Strays is a beacon of hope that cats are (finally) getting some literary creed. And thankfully the heroine is not a precious purebred kitty but a tabby mix with a whole lotta chutzpa. Strays is told by a writer gifted with the ability to see the world from both a feline and human perspective. The story focuses on lost kitty Tabor and homeless man Michael finding each other and their evolving relationship. Tabor becomes a well-seasoned back packer and takes all kinds of crazy experiences in stride with Michael by her side. Living on the street and enduring harsh conditions is second nature for Michael, but with Tabor's well-being now at the forefront of his mind he finds himself drinking less and thinking of her needs and security first. What Michael doesn't know is that Tabor's original daddy Ron and cat brother Creto are still searching for her in Portland where Michael started caring for her. While not a very likable person, Ron does seem to be a dedicated pet parent and the reader is able to empathize with his loss.
Strays is important in that it offers a very humanizing glimpse into a homeless person's lifestyle choices. Like community cats, homeless people are usually marginalized and other people often think they know what's best for them. The point is they are individuals and some, like Michael, prefer their freedom and the option to go anywhere at anytime. Tabor is a domesticated cat but not all cats settle into being house cats after they have been out for a while. I believe in trapping community cats (and street dogs) for a vet visit and sterilization; this makes the individual healthier as well as the whole population of cats in a community. This is accepted as the humane and intelligent action in many countries but sadly some animal control agencies as well as organizations such as PETA think death a better alternative than living on the street.  We must remember that each cat put to death is an individual with a distinct personality. If we acknowledge that people have different lifestyles then why can't we do the same with domestic animals? This book also brings up the controversial issue of homeless people "owning" pets.  There are free clinic days for these animals but not nearly enough resources available. Veterinarians have high overhead costs and medical school debt so I don't know what the answer is. (I would love to see subsidized medicare for rescued pets!)

I've commented before that our companion animals are also "therapy animals." They naturally bring out our better qualities that other humans often cannot. To anyone unaccustomed with how deeply enriching and fulfilling a relationship with a cat can be, Strays is a beautiful testament to such a partnership. I highly recommend this book as it gives us several compelling points to think about. It has some lovely, endearing moments and yet moves quickly enough to be entertaining. Tabor is a brave and adventurous kitty who quickly adapts to new environments and i found myself wishing I could meet her in person.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Odin gets a Dental

Odin, along with his brother Adian, are very healthy 9 year olds now. Odin's mouth however, was not healthy. I could smell his odorous breath and see how inflamed his gums were just by lifting his lips slightly. He was still eating fine but decaying teeth and gingivitis can cause a number of health problems throughout the body if left unchecked, not to mention there was probably some discomfort. I booked an appointment for the pre-dental exam and blood work weeks ago but had to cancel when both boys reacted very badly to my attempts to lure them with treats and wrangle them into carriers. I had left the crates near their eating areas and sprayed them with Feliway but since the boys routinely allow me only limited body contact I wasn't surprised. Odin does let me cuddle him and actually hold him but Adian does not. Butt rubs are Adian's favorite thing and he flees if I try to pick him up. So I know I would have to step up my game plan for round 2!

I thought about trapping them in my humane traps but the chances of getting them both and not the other two kitties they live with were slim. Plus that would be so traumatic for them that I couldn't do that for an elective medical appointment. I researched the possibilities of cannabis topicals that I could rub into their ears but decided I needed something stronger. The operations manager at Seattle Area Feline Rescue suggested gabapentin, a common (and inexpensive) pain medicine. The veterinarian performing the exam and dental could not prescribe this since it had been over a year since they had last seen the boys; this is a state law apparently. Fortunately our house call veterinarian has seen them and could prescribe this drug and work out a dosage for them. I figured that they needed to receive the drug orally at 5 AM since their appointment was scheduled for 9 AM. This involved placing the capsule in a pill pocket as it's a very bitter drug and couldn't be sprinkled on food. Then I placed the pill pockets on top of meat baby food and sprinkled on some freeze-dried salmon. I monitored each cat to make sure they each ate their serving. It worked - better living through chemistry! I also knew that I needed a second person who is experienced and capable around feral kitties to help me. A wonderful volunteer from Seattle Area Feline Rescue was willing to come at 7 AM to help! It took about an hour and in the end Adian became fractious and I had to go with just Odin. By the time I got back several hours later, Adian was incredibly relaxed and allowed me to examine his mouth. By contrast, he had no redness or odor at all, just some tartar along the back molars. I will work on getting him for an exam at a later date.

Odin had to stay overnight and I was told he refused dinner but he stayed calm in the isolette and didn't injure anyone. His blood work came back as perfect and the staff at Cats Exclusive was able to start the procedure early the next morning. In all, six teeth were extracted, including his two top canines. One canine had a fissure on the gum as it was so infected. He received a Convenia antibiotic injection so that I wouldn't have to worry about getting drugs into him. I had hoped he would allow me to squirt pain meds into his mouth every 12 hours for a few days but he wouldn't let me near him unfortunately. Odin is now back to his full routine and eating robustly, and he has let me check the suture sites just to be sure everything healed well.

Not all cats will need dentals during their lifetimes but in my experience most will if they live long enough. I am a huge proponent of high quality diets but in the end I believe genetics is to blame for "good" or "bad" teeth. I also think you get what you pay for with your veterinarian and skimping by using a bare bones vet clinic  is not worth the cost savings. I remember 20 years ago when I used a local vet clinic (still in business) for low-cost spay and neuter surgeries and they asked me if I wanted to pay extra for pain meds! For an ova-hysterectomy! I hope they don't still charge extra but include it in the fee. A lot of "regular people" don't think of these types of things but rely on the doctors to do what they think is best. It was just last year that I had a client approach his vet to discuss meds for his highly aggressive cat and the vet stupidly suggested euthanasia. That particular doctor needs continuing education but the client also needs to seek out a better vet practice and not accept sub-par health care for his cat. There are always solutions - you just need to ask true "cat people" and be creative. And if you know of anyone looking to adopt a kitty, check out Seattle Area Feline Rescue. Remember, ADOPT, DON'T SHOP!

Monday, May 8, 2017

The Trainable Cat?

Last night, on my way home from an evening kitty visit, I pulled a large tabby who had been hit out of the road and rushed him to the animal emergency center off 145th and 15th in north Seattle. He died apparently just before the doctor could asses the extent of his traumatic injuries. This was an "owned" cat or at least was at one time, as he was micro chipped. As angry as I am that a driver hit him and didn't stop, I am also angry that his so-called guardian allowed him to free-roam along Meridian Avenue. I can fully appreciate that cats need stimulation outside of their home, to smell, nibble on grass, and exercise. The hard facts however are that even the most careful driver could accidentally strike down a cat, not to mention the danger of loose dogs, coyotes, pesticides, and deranged and cruel humans.

There are safe ways to allow your kitty outdoor time. Building a catio is one option (best for the wild ones). Leash/harness training your cat is another (good for confident and young kitties). Or have supervised outdoor time where you stick with your cat like his bodyguard and he stays within your fenced yard (ideal for older cats who cannot jump). Being trained to "recall" with his favorite treats can get them indoors if you need to leave the house or for whatever reason you think it might be unsafe for them to stay out. Cats can learn the routine of when they can go out and when they need to come back in; for instance they may expect outside time when you get home from work but then they will start thinking about dinner after that. I just read The Trainable Cat, A practical guide to making life happier for you and your cat, by John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis (Basic Books, 2016). This book explains how cats learn and the most common situations/behaviors guardians may want to "train" their cats for.  An example is accepting a harness and walking outdoors or staying within the boundaries or the yard and "recalling" when it's time to go in. Basically, operant conditioning rewards the desired behavior and ignores or redirects the behavior you want to discourage. Spray bottles or loud noises are NEVER advised.

The Trainable Cat helps readers understand that many of the behaviors we might wish our cats didn't do, are innate and absolutely necessary to their psychological and physical health. Scratching the sofa, stairs or door frames for example are how your cat marks his territory. Placing enough of his "markers" around for him to leave his scent may prevent him from using your stuff; markers can be cardboard scratcher boxes, stable kitty condos that allow him to fully stretch and jump onto, and a variety of textures. Cramming all of your cat's items (scratcher, litter box and food and water bowls) in one small area defeats his ability to have markers and probably doesn't make him feel very comfortable. Hunting behaviors can be exercised with sensory boxes - cardboard boxes with treats and a few furry mice buried with dried leaves. Treat balls, which you load with dried treats, are a similar experience. Obviously leaving a big bowl of dry food out isn't going to encourage your cat to engage in other, more novel ways to "catch" his food!

What I like most about The Trainable Cat is how much the authors stress patience and training at your cat's pace. This book is really about minimizing stress in you kitty's life, not teaching him party tricks. Going to the vet is often tops on the list of stressors in kitty's life. A list of features to look for at a clinic that help reduce stress for cats and helpful hints for you are discussed. We are fortunate to have so many feline-friendly veterinary practices in Seattle (see http://www.catvets.com/). Cats can experience chronic stress as well, which can lead to weakened immune systems, depression and anxiety. Regardless of  your decor, kitties need places to climb (large kitty condos), to hide (boxes, large baskets, re purposed furniture), to sleep (at least several beds to choose from), windows where they can watch other animals or people and feel sunlight, and active time with you, either playing, cuddling or grooming. Bringing in kitty grass, new treats (buy some liver at the store or cook some fish or chicken every so often just for the kitty) and new toys can help keep boredom at bay.

I think The Trainable Cat is a great resource for both new and experienced cat guardians. It gave me some new insights and ideas. "You should think of training not as interfering with your cat's freedom but as a way of channeling his desire to learn towards making his life, and your relationship with him, as good as it can be," comment the authors. I am all about making kitties happy!