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Life with Winnie

July 6, 2012 1 comment

Winnie is my foster kitten. She’s quickly growing into my foster cat. She’s been with us for two months. My dog is intrigued by her. My cats disdain her. My boyfriend and I are probably getting a little too attached to her. She’s taking us all in like a giant gulp of water in a desert oasis.

I met Winnie when she was a nameless 3-month old kitten in a parking lot of a rundown apartment complex. A sweet soul in a scrawny body, she was malnourished, covered in grease from living under cars, and had a broken pelvis. The origin of the pelvis injury remains a mystery to this day.

Winnie’s prognosis in a shelter was guarded, at best. For an owned animal in a private vet clinic, it’s no big deal to order many months of convalescence without the promise of a good outcome. Owners are willing to give their pets the best chance possible, especially when the treatment consists of simply giving them time for their bodies to heal on their own.

But time is a luxury that shelters don’t have. Especially during the busy summer months. It’s hard enough to find a foster parent willing to take on medical cases. It’s even harder for a shelter to take up one of these rare foster homes for several months on one case. Why commit a home to one animal for the summer when multiple easier cases could come and go through that home in the same time frame? It’s the sacrifice one to save many theory, and it’s a concept that shelters unfortunately have to fall back on regularly.

Because of these factors, Winnie would not normally have had much of a chance. But something in her caught my heart, and I volunteered to foster this unlikely foster candidate. I knew the risk: after months of foster care, her pelvis still wouldn’t heal properly and we’d have to euthanize her. But she deserved a chance. And I didn’t like the thought of what denying her that chance would say about me.

Two months have gone by. Winnie has turned into a sleek, active, playful cat who capers around the house causing joyful havoc at every turn. Her severe limp has become a slight limp. She’s put on muscle in her back legs to even out the incredible hulk muscles in her chest that she used to support her weight when her back end couldn’t. Her meow still sounds a little froggy, a little abrasive. It’s a meow that says, “I came from the streets.” And when she looks out the window and watches the birds fly by, I wonder if she remembers her street life. But as she turns to look into my eyes before skittering off in pursuit of a toy in the next room, I’m convinced that she doesn’t miss the street life.

So many pets like Winnie exist—loving creatures who just need a little extra help. Giving that help doesn’t take a giant effort. But it’s easy enough to turn away and not offer, then quickly forget. My life would have gone on as usual had I not brought Winnie home. But hers wouldn’t have.

Life without Winnie would have been fine. But life with Winnie is better.

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Categories: Pets Tags: , , ,

Cat’s Don’t Cry; They Give You the Finger

April 21, 2012 Leave a comment

Photo by Thepriest at nl

A disclaimer: I love cats. I think they’re the coolest species on the planet and I admire their independence. Consider any negatives mentioned here to be the equivalent of someone complaining about their own family: I alone am allowed to complain about my family. Other people are not allowed to complain about my family. And just because I do it, it doesn’t mean that I don’t love them. That said…

My neck is killing me. In the past two days I’ve spent over five hours looking straight up. Why? Because a cat named Indi*has spent the last five days stuck in a tree. Night after night he has kept the neighborhood awake with his pleading meows. And after several hours and all the equipment I could muster (including the local fire department), he is still stuck. Indi is not cooperating.

This is ultimately the nature of the cat. When it’s crunch time, cats have a tendency to look out for number one. Survival instincts kick in, and for a species that is still despised by so many humans, survival means keeping some distance from people.

What that means for Indi is that even though he desperately wants to be out of that tree, he’s not willing to work with me to make that happen. A ladder against the tree spooks him to go higher up. A long pole in the tree spooks him to go higher up. A human climbing the tree spooks him to go higher up. A can of tuna fish being opened at the base of the tree makes him look down and lick his lips. And then he goes higher up.

Indi’s response to climb isn’t as dumb as it sounds. He’s anatomically built to go up and not down. The curvature of his claws makes upwards movement a piece of cake. But it makes the downclimb impossible. (Imagine trying to go face first down a telephone pole with prosthetic hooks for hands.) Could he turn around and go backwards down the tree? Yes. But he doesn’t know that. And any animal used to being prey isn’t about to walk backwards into anything.

Being treed isn’t the only situation in which cats need help but don’t want it. I take a net with me to every cat call I respond to. A threatened cat is a dangerous cat. And if a cat can’t run away, he feels threatened. This therefore, applies to every cat I meet, since my job is to respond to sick, injured, or trapped cats. They are the masters of, “I don’t feel good so leave me alone.” Since I can’t morally leave them alone to wallow in their given woes, I have to scoop them into a net to avoid being shredded like confetti by their teeth and claws.

I don’t begrudge cats their attitudes. In fact, I find it generally endearing. I like their ingrained sense of stranger-danger. I like the fact that I have to practice patience and subtly in order to help them. I like the fact that I have no influence in their timeline. To cats, I surrender. I let go of my notions of time, space, noise, light.

But I try to block off their escape routes first.

As Indi stares down at me from sixty feet above, I try to remember all of this. But it’s tough. As the daily temperatures increase, my patience decreases. Come on, Indi, I think. Help a girl out. In response to my thoughts, he goes higher.

*name changed to protect the innocent

Categories: Pets Tags: , ,

The Downside to Declawing

April 9, 2012 Leave a comment

Despite the fact that many private-practice veterinarians will tell owners that declawing their cats will have no ill effects, shelter workers around the world have a different take. In our experience, cats who have been declawed have some pretty significant behavioral and emotional hurdles to jump over, and some of them just can’t make the jump. Those are the ones that we see in the shelters. And here’s why we see them.

They bit someone.

A cat’s usual line of defensive tactics goes something like this:

      1. Hiss.
      2. Swipe with the claws.
      3. Bite.

Take away their option to use step 2 and they’ll use step 3 instead. They bit someone because they were scared, threatened, or angry, and they didn’t have claws to help express those emotions. So they had to resort to using their teeth to get their point across.

They won’t use the litter box.

After having their claws (and first knuckle) removed, their feet were tender. Walking into a litter box filled with regular clay litter hurt. (Would you feel happy if your toes were just amputated and someone made you walk barefoot on a pebbly beach?) So they started associating the litter box with pain. Their solution: don’t walk in the litter box and they won’t be in pain.

In a shelter environment, cats are stressed to the maximum level, so these bad behaviors are likely to increase. Sometimes they even surface for the first time while at a shelter. I’ve seen cats do fantastic in their own homes after being declawed. In a comfortable and safe environment these guys can act just like any other cat. They’re loving and playful and a huge part of their families. But owners need to be aware of potential problems with this surgery, especially in a stressful situation. Often in shelters, these cats act out so much that it’s not safe to put them up for adoption. Which means that they have to be euthanized. It’s a horrible decision to make, but most shelters don’t have an environment within their facilities that allows cats to destress enough to change their aggressive behavior.

Options to declawing

For those owners who are fiercely protective of their furniture, you have options besides the drastic step of declawing your cat.

  • Give your cat something else to scratch on. Most cats love having a designated scratching post or two around the house. Experiment with different textures, angles, and lengths to find your cat’s favorite scratching surface.
  • Trim your cat’s claws. Yes, this involves a bit of labor on your part, but I’m talking very minimal work here. I trim my cats’ claws every one to two weeks, depending on how fast they grow. Now that they’re used to the procedure, it takes less than a minute per foot. Start slowly with a new cat to get them used to having their feet handled and in no time you can prevent those damaging daggers from getting ahead of you.
  • Deter your cat from being on furniture etc that you’ve deemed off-limits. There are motion-sensing devices that emit loud noise or that vibrate. There are sprays that smell bad to cats. There are a whole host of products specifically designed to help protect your furniture investment from being damaged and that won’t damage your cat.
Categories: Pets Tags: , , ,

Arizona, the Land of Cats. Part 2: The Bystander

March 11, 2012 Leave a comment

You’re awakened every night for a week by yowling cats performing acts in your front yard from which you have to cover your toddler’s eyes. Despite the fact that you don’t own a cat, your yard has become a litter box. There are streaks of tomcat urine on your front door. And your car has little footprints and claw scratches on the hood. Is the neighborhood going to hell? Well, no. But your neighbor is feeding a colony of feral cats.

If you don’t like the cats around…

You’re not alone. Most of the neighborhood feels the way you do. And there are a few things you can do. But be aware that as long as someone in the neighborhood feeds the cats, you’ll never be completely rid of them.

Manage your property. Keep your property free of clutter. If the cats don’t find any place to hide on your property, they’re less likely to hang out there. To prevent the cats from using your yard as a litter box, experiment with different products. There are lots of cat-repellant products out there. Sprays are designed to smell bad to cats, discouraging them to come around. Garden spikes are small clear plastic spikes that you can cover your garden with to prevent cats from walking there. There are other tricks out there, so do your research and be prepared to put in some time. Some work for some cats but not others. You may have to try a few to find the right combination.

You’re allowed to humanely trap cats on your own property and remove them. But here’s the rub. No shelter will accept feral cats for free. Just as they’re a burden to your neighborhood, they’re a burden to the shelters, so shelters have started asking for funds to help with that burden. So call your local shelter before you start trapping to find out what the fees are. They may be too high for you to decide to trap all the cats and you may just decide to focus on a particularly troublesome kitty. You cannot take the cats out into the desert to release them. If you plan to release them anywhere other than to a shelter, you must release them into an environment to which they’re familiar. Basically, this means taking them to someone else’s neighborhood. While it solves your problem, it creates one for that neighborhood, which isn’t fair to them.

You cannot poison, shoot, or otherwise cause any harm to the cats. Squirting them with a hose on a warm summer day is okay. Drowning them is not.

Contact your city councilman. Or your congressman. Or the mayor’s office. The people who make the laws need to know that feral cats are a problem. Use your voice to make them aware of the problem. Ask for laws regulating the movement of cats. Maybe we need laws requiring that cats be licensed and neutered. Maybe we need laws that require cats to be indoor only, or contained to the owner’s property, like dogs. Government agencies are not likely to devote any funding to cats if they don’t have to. The only way to get them to respond to the cat problem is to pass laws that require them to respond.

No matter which side of the argument you find yourself on, remember that the other side exists. The cats are stuck in the middle of the human debate. So keep an open dialog going with your neighbors. Come together to develop a solution that works for everyone.

Arizona, the Land of Cats. Part 1: The Player

March 11, 2012 Leave a comment

In a state where cats are unregulated (meaning cats don’t have to be licensed, altered, or contained by their owners) cats have taken over many neighborhoods, leaving residents frustrated and angry. At least once every day, we respond to an ambulance call for a sick cat.

When we arrive, we find a feral cat suffering from severe upper respiratory symptoms. These include thick eye and nose discharge to the point where the cat can’t see or smell. This lack of sight and smell has led to a loss of appetite so the cat has lost weight and is severely dehydrated. Upper respiratory infections (URI) are extremely contagious to other cats, so there’s usually a significant portion of a colony that’s all sick at the same time. URI are like head colds in an elementary school. With a high concentration of bodies sharing a small space, disease spreads. And while URI is easily treatable when caught early in cats that can be handled, in feral populations it can be devastating.

The person who has called us to get the sick cat is on one or the other side of the argument. He is either the person in the neighborhood feeding the cats, thus encouraging them to stay around and new cats to arrive, or he is the grumpy neighbor of the person feeding the cats, and does not want any of the cats to stay around. Either way, as we pick up the sick cat (with a net, because even though these cats are sick, they still try to bolt and then bite) we explain the person’s options to him, which are limited.

If you feel the need to feed your neighborhood cats…

Realize the enormity of the task you’re about to take on. Like adopting any other animal, you’re making a commitment for that animal’s lifetime. There’s no such thing as feeding a single cat outside for a couple weeks and then stopping. That single cat will realize the good fortune he’s found, and he won’t leave. He’ll also call his friends, and they’ll come over for food like a pack of teenage boys. Other cats will sniff out the easy meal and they’ll arrive too. Before you know it, you’ve got a frat party of cats in your backyard, complete with fighting, sex, and poop on the patio.

Take early steps to prevent pregnancy. If you want to take care of the cats, get them fixed. Trap, Neuter, Return (TNR) is a popular and common program available to trap feral cats, have them spayed or neutered, and return them to your property with a promise from you that you’ll care for the colony. There are a couple benefits of this. Obviously, keeping your numbers down is one. Another benefit is that the decreased levels of testosterone in male cats mean less fighting and territorial spraying on their part.

If you see illness or injury among your colony, address it. Trap the sick cats and either treat them or have them euthanized. Allowing diseases to spread amongst your colony is dangerous and unfair to those cats. It encourages predators to come in, because slow cats are easy targets for a snack. It also adds danger to your neighbor’s cats that go outside once in a while. And you don’t want to anger your neighbors.

Recognize that you’re neighbors may not love cats as much as you do. Take steps to minimize the impact that the cats make on their property. Put litter boxes on your own property to help keep cats from using your neighbor’s yard. Keep food and water dishes clean to prevent insects from invading. And be open to hearing your neighbors’ complaints. Courtesy begets courtesy. They’ll be much more likely to work with you if they know you’re sympathetic to their issues.

See Arizona: the Land of Cats Part 2, the Bystander

Categories: Pets Tags: , , ,