Thursday, July 28, 2011

How long does it take to grow your own catnip?

Catnip plant growing and blooming in a sunny windowsill
Note the small flowers at the top of this plant.
I started growing catnip in the deep of winter, hoping I'd have a few sprouts available to give to Eamon as part of his 10th birthday celebration. As it turns out, I should have read the seed packet just a tiny bit more carefully.

While I started the catnip seeds at just the right time, the plants take a very, very long time to come to the adult stage. In fact, if you plant them outside in the early spring, you may not be able to harvest the plants until the fall rolls around.

The plants aren't considered truly "ripe" until they have produced a tiny pocket of seeds at the top of a pretty thick stalk. It can take months for a plant to grow like this, and it the place in which you're growing the plants is slightly chilly, the growing season is even more delayed. 

Here's how I know.

I have something like six catnip pots scattered about the house. All three of my cats are wild about catnip, but they don't seem to pay these plants any mind at all. In fact, the plant pictured above is located on a windowsill that sits right above Lucy's favorite napping chair. You'd think that she would smell the plant and head up to check it out, but she remains blissfully unaware of what is going on above her.

That probably means these 7-month-old plants aren't ripe yet. If they were, my cats would be feasting right now.

But I'm not ready to give up just yet. In fact, all of this may change this weekend when I snip off this blossom and give it to Eamon as a belated birthday present. I'm hoping he'll do as my previous cats have done and simply go wild for the fresh catnip. It's much more potent and fragrant that dried catnip, and cats often act like complete drug-addled fools when they're given a fresh stalk.

Don't fret. I'll keep the camera nearby.

I am hoping that this little taste won't cause the cats to investigate the remaining plants as they grow in their pots. These remaining plants are far from harvest-ready, and I don't want the cats to ruin my crop after my months of effort.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Parents: Teach your kids to approach strange dogs the right way

Liam the pug tries to ignore the children behind him
Liam tries to ignore the strange children behind him
On Friday, we took Liam to the Tin Shed for his birthday. We were situated right on the aisle, so there was a lot of hustle and bustle about. And there were also plenty of small children running about. While some children clearly had a bit of training about how to approach a dog, others needed a few lessons.

This is a story that could have ended badly. 

As Liam was eating his dinner, one small boy crawled up and put his hands right in Liam's food dish. Let me reiterate: This tiny child put his tiny fingers inside the bowl while Liam was eating.

At the easy end of the spectrum, he could have been inadvertently nipped while Liam was trying to grab his food. He's a dog. He isn't careful.

But at the severe end of things, Liam could have tried to defend his food by biting that child's face, hands, legs and neck. The child could have been injured or disfigured. And Liam? He could have been investigated and/or euthanized due to his "aggression."

Who is to blame here?

The parents. And there's an easy fix. It's something that takes just 2 seconds to demonstrate.

Children should ask if they can pet strange dogs. If the owner agrees, then the child should stand slightly sideways and let the the dog take a quick sniff. If the dog seems comfortable, the dog will approach. Then the child should pet the dog on the back (NOT the head) for a few moments. That should conclude the visit.

When I'm out and about with Liam, people ignore this altogether. Or they use a modified approach that is no safer. These kids rush up, yelling requests for petting sessions and patting Liam long before I have a chance to respond. And, many small children grab at Liam's tail and ears. Others run right up and hug him without saying anything in particular in advance.

I don't have kids myself, but I do know that controlling a little person can be hard. I also know that most parents encourage children to love dogs and express that love. But I don't want to be responsible for your child at all times. I don't want you to sue me if my dog knocks your child down or snaps at your child.

Instead, I want you to teach your child how to approach a dog, and I want you to come with your child during that approach.

It's only fair. I control my dog, you control your child. Everyone stays safe, and everyone gets along.

Harsh? Maybe. But safer? Most assuredly.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Liam the pug turns 4! How we will celebrating his dog birthday

Liam the pug snuggled with his older Boston terrier brother
Baby Liam with older brother, Seamus.
Today is Liam's 4th birthday. In four years, he's tripled in size, learned over 10 tricks, been to the vet 20+ times and has, in general, been an absolute joy. I can't imagine my life without my little pug dog in there somewhere.

So it only makes sense that I would try to figure out how to mark the day of his birth in some way, without getting freaky enough to hold a party with guests. Even I think that's going a bit overboard.

Therefore, I've been on the hunt for something special. And I think I found it in The Tin Shed. This is a great Portland-area restaurant that serves organic food at reasonable prices, and they serve entrees designed specifically for dogs. There are a few meal options to choose from, in fact, and they make the meals in the kitchen. No kibble allowed!

We take Liam here once per year for his birthday, and he truly loves it. He adores novel foods, of course, but he also likes to go to dog-friendly places and revel in the attention of strangers.

We've spent a lot of time during the past year working on Liam's social skills, so he can be around other people without completely freaking out and wailing his fool head off. We'll put that training to the test tonight, and here's hoping he's up to the challenge. If he's good, there's a special stuffed frog in his future.

I know it might seem a little crazy to celebrate this dog's birthday. But I know I am not alone. Most major cities have at least one restaurant in which people can dine alongside their dogs. And, even small towns have bars and pubs that allow pets to sit in the outdoor sections.

So if your dog's birthday is coming up, why not head out for a family meal? It's a great way to mark the occasion, and do a little training, all at once.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Taming feral cats: Is it really possible?

Franklin the feral cat huddles by the stairs
Franklin, close to the stairs, is making big progress, but still has far to go.
"Train your feral cat in just 2 weeks!" That's the title of a blog post I stumbled across this morning. Sadly, it's not the first one I've seen.

People who advocate feral training believe, deep down, that most feral cats simply adore people and want to live with them in close, tight-knit relationships. While I think it's admirable that people would want to work with feral cats, this theory of quick taming is basically just hokum, in my opinion.

A feral cat, like our Franklin, wasn't raised around humans. He fought for his food. The people he did come into contact with probably tried to remove him. Maybe they yelled at him. Maybe they kicked at him. Maybe he lived with a group of other cats that all scattered when people came around. It's hard to know (and he isn't telling) what happened, in detail, but it is clear that he is terrified of all people and that fear is deep set.

Over the last year I have spent time just sitting near Franklin. I talk to and pet the other outdoor cats, and he watches. Sometimes I hold my hands out and he smells them. One time, he did let me touch his foot before he pulled that foot away. He will hang out by the door and run away when I am a foot away. A year ago, he wouldn't even go by the door.

All of this is huge progress, but I reiterate that it's been a year in coming. Not 2 weeks. And if I pushed him into going faster, he might have lashed out to protect himself, and both of us would have been seriously injured. And I'm not sure that I'll ever be able to pet him, pick him up or cuddle him. The damage, in him, runs too deep. He doesn't want to be with people. He wants to be left alone.

That's not to say that feral cats don't need help, food and affection. They certainly do, and we should all do a better job of providing that. But people who choose to try to tame a feral so should know that it takes an incredibly long time. You can't force the issue.


And sadly, you should know that some feral cats simply can't be trained to love people. The damage they've experienced runs deep, and they've lost the ability to trust. They may never be tamed, no matter how hard one tries.

So, please. If you're writing posts about quick feral taming, just stop. Write about how to support a feral colony. Or better yet, volunteer with an organization that helps to trap, spay and release feral cats. But don't suggest that all cats can be tamed. Because it just isn't true.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Have a nervous dog? Use the "watch me" command!

Liam the pug looking right at me on command
A gigantic dog was barking across the street when I shot this photo.
Liam can be a bit reactive, both on his leash and off the leash. He likes to say hello to everyone he meets, and he loves to run over to check out interesting dogs he hears. He's never been aggressive in any way, but he does tend to buck and pull when he wants to see something, and other people (and dogs) often view this as aggression.

I took Liam to a class to correct the behavior, but quickly realized that this wasn't the greatest idea. Dogs that are reactive on a leash are often BIG dogs and they are often aggressive because they'd like to attack smaller dogs. Asking friendly Liam to be bait for these reactive dogs might have been helpful in the long run, but it wasn't a chance I was willing to take.

Instead, we've been working on a command called "Watch me." Here's how it works.

Liam is asked to sit and look directly at me, no matter what else is going on.

Seems simple, right? And it's an easy one to teach. Just hold a treat at the level of your eyes while you say "Watch Me." When the dog makes eye contact, give the treat. Then, increase the time distance between the look at the treat.

Liam can hold his for about a minute with no cookie. To me, that's really helpful. 

It's a useful way to break him from seeing something, getting anxious to see something and then charging over to check it out in person. Instead, he looks at me and the other person (or dog) has time to walk away before I release him from the command.


The best part? This is a command that's tailor-made for on-the-street tests. It's actually easier to train your dog to do this command when you're out and about than it is to teach it when you're at home in the quiet.

So go ahead! Teach your dog to watch. You'll be glad you did.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

How to help your blind cat succeed at the veterinarian's office

Lucy the blind cat needs to go to the veterinarian
Lucy was born with a severe birth defect that caused her blindness. She also has several extra, mutant claws that don't seem functional, and she had a few extra kitten teeth in strange places. I've always worried that she has other, hidden defects that I didn't quite know about that might shorten her life, but I've never taken her in for advanced testing as going to the veterinarian is so hard on her.

This weekend, she will have to go in, though, and I am a little worried. I think I've found another birth-defect-related problem and she probably needs advanced care.

I've noticed that she's taking a long time to eat her food, and she's been spending a lot of time licking her lips. She also has breath that could stop a truck. After peeking in her mouth, I know why this is going on. Her teeth are simply black and brown with plaque and her gums are scarlet red. She's only 3 years old, and it looks like she needs a dental procedure.

Like most blind cats, Lucy doesn't like to go to the veterinarian. She's fine with the extra attention, of course, but she's extremely resistant to having any procedures done when I am not in the room. She yells and screams as soon as they take her into any treatment room and leave me in the waiting room. When she had her eye surgery, she spent the entire day screaming and shaking. They thought she was painful, but it turns out, she was just frightened.

Dental procedures require anesthesia, which means she'll have to have her teeth worked on when I am not in the room, and she'll probably have to stay in the clinic for at least part of the day. I'm hoping I can convince the staff of the veterinary office to allow me to bring her home early, so I can reduce her stress and help her heal quickly. As soon as they take her out of my arms, they'll understand the request, I am sure.

There's not much you can do, as an owner, when your blind cat has to go to the veterinarian. If the pet needs care, you probably can't handle that request on your own.

But there are some things you can do to make the visit easier. Most of them involve asking the staff to do a few extra things for you.
  1. Request a high kennel, far away from dogs, for your kitty.
  2. Bring Feliway spray with you, and ask the staff to spray it in the kennel the kitty will stay in during the day. 
  3. Ask the staff to use the towels in your kitty's kennel to line kitty's cage. 
  4. Ask for an early release, so kitty can go home as soon as possible. 
If you use the same veterinary office every time, the staff may accommodate these requests easily. But beware: Some may not.

If the office you must use will not comply with your requests, do what I do: Hang out in the office during the procedure. That way, you'll be the first to get released when the whole ordeal is over, as you'll be sitting right there. 

Monday, July 18, 2011

Dog food allergy testing: Sometimes, reactions are part of the learning

Liam the pug has a very swollen face in this blurry photo
No, the blue eyes aren't part of the reaction. But the swollen muzzle certainly is.
Liam typically has a gorgeous little pug face. His expression is open and calm, his muzzle is dark and his forehead is cream. He really is a stunner. But if you look at the blurry photo I've linked up here, you'll see that something is terribly wrong.

See that raised and weeping thing on the right side of his face? See how it's pushing into his eye?

Yup, that is no trick of the camera. It's a very serious allergic problem. And I know just how it happened.

Over the past few months, in an effort to keep Liam's health in tip-top shape, I have:
  • Changed floor cleaners
  • Swapped out detergents
  • Eliminated scented dog shampoos
  • Made my own dog treats
  • Swapped out flea medications 
 I also started making Liam's food from scratch, paying close attention to each and every ingredient that went into his food. I read the labels, bought meats that were free of antibiotics and disinfected all of the tools I used to make his food.

Since he'd been doing so well over the last several months, I started the terrible task of adding items back into his diet and looking for reactions.

Last week, I added back peanut butter. Things seemed to go fine, so I gave him a little jerky treat. I came home from a night out to see this sad little face peeping out from the edge of his dog bed.

Dealing with allergic reactions like this is truly terrible. I felt absolutely horrible for giving Liam something that would cause a reaction. Whipping a dog to the emergency room is also no walk in the park.

But, I am grateful that I know at least one more small piece about his allergy situation.

I'm spending the next few days removing all nut products and jerky products from his treat cupboard, and I'll scour his food ingredients to ferret out hidden jerky or nuts.

Then, when things have calmed back down, I'll try adding back another little nut or jerky bit, just to see if this comes back.

The one thing I'll do differently? Add in Benadryl. Using an antihistamine at the first sign of inflammation could keep a small reaction from snowballing. But unfortunately, I can't keep the testing from happening. I need to know what it causing the problem, so I can keep him safe in the future.

Thinking of following in my footsteps? Remember: Ask your veterinarian for advice first. Some reactions in dogs can be life-threatening. Never test anything without the permission of a trained medical professional. Only follow these steps if you have a formal okay.

And if you do it: Good luck!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Please spay/neuter your cats

This little kitten is very curious about the camera
There's no doubt that a curious kitten is incredibly cute.
Many people simply love to look at little kittens. Just go to Instagram and run a search for the word "kitten." Then see how many "likes" each post has. It proves my point.

Little kittens are soft, funny, strangely fierce and often very affectionate. I love them myself.

But I disagree with some kitten lovers out there. 

Many of these kitten lovers allow their cats to have litter after litter of kittens, which allows them to enjoy kitten fever. These people might find homes for every single kitten that comes from their adult cat. But there's still the little problem of math.

In 6 months, those little kittens can start breeding and having their own kittens. And those kittens have kittens. Some experts say that just two kittens can add up to a whopping 80 THOUSAND kittens in 10 years.

I mean, really. I love kittens. But it doesn't take a math whiz to understand that there simply aren't enough homes for all of these cats. And that people who keep on having more and more cats are adding to the overpopulation problem. Every litter they have could be part of that 80k kitten issue. 

And sometimes, breeding kittens can overwhelm even dedicated owners. 

These people may not be able to afford a neuter surgery on one cat, and the next year, they may have six or eight surgeries to save up for. It's just too much for anyone to bear.

And it happened to one Oregon family—and the family ended up with 17 cats. Think about living with 17 cats for a moment, and how much you'd pay in food and cat litter. How could you ever hope to control the problem? The family realized this, fortunately, and the Oregon Humane Society was prepared to step in to help. Unfortunately, the home caught fire in the interim. Several cats were killed, and others were injured. See this link (no longer functional; sorry!) for more information. I can't help but wonder if this family could have had a better outcome if they hadn't been enduring the stress of living with so many cats. It's tragic on so many levels.

It doesn't have to be this way. If you can afford to have your pets altered, do so right now. Don't delay. Play with kittens at the shelter to get your kitten fix. Just don't let your cats breed.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Blind cats hunting bees (Yes, they can do it)

Lucy the blind cat attempting to catch a bee behind the blinds
Lucy attempting to catch a bee behind the blinds.
Let's get one thing straight: Blind cats are excellent hunters, especially when the prey is an insect.

Lucy relies on her hearing to navigate the house, and she's very alert to any changes in noise levels in the house. She will sneak up upon insects she hears and cock her ears and sway her head to zero in on where that insect is located. She'll wait patiently for hours for that insect to tire and begin to move more slowly. Then, she'll pounce.

If she doesn't want to wait, she has another method up her sleeve: I've seen her grab flying insects out of the air. She tracks them as they fly, gets underneath the planned trajectory, and jumps straight up to eat them. She rarely (if ever) misses.

The one problem comes when the insect is actually dead. When it's not making noise, she can no longer tell where the insect is.

My other cats love this.

They lurk and hide, waiting for the kill shot. And if Lucy can't find the body, they swoop in. Often, my other cats will eat the bugs Lucy kills while she circles the area, trying to figure out where the bug went.

Today, she was on the hunt for a bee. It was trapped behind heavy blinds, beating itself against the window. Lucy was perched outside the blinds, waiting for the bee to come out. My other cats were waiting in a row, hoping Lucy would kill the bee so they could eat it (lazy things).

Bees are in serious decline all across the world, and I've spent a lot of time this year planting bee-friendly plants in my garden to help with the situation. It makes sense that a bee would get into my house, since there are so many in the yard. I didn't want the cats to kill the bee, since I've been trying to keep the things alive and I don't want anyone to have an allergic reaction to a sting. So, I tried to capture the thing with a glass jar and cardboard lid, but the bee ended up stinging the lid like a crazy man, and he died from his injuries. My husband tells me I should be thankful that I am not ending this blog with a story about the emergency veterinarian, but I still feel guilty.

For another perspective on blind cats and hunting, click here. For more information on bee decline and how you can help, click here. I'm going to try to convince Lucy that the bee is actually gone, since she's still downstairs listening for it, patiently waiting for her moment to pounce.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Planning a painting project? Remember to plan for cat safety

Eamon the cat in a room that has been painted
I can't keep Eamon out of an open window, even if the room has been freshly painted.
Since the weather has finally warmed above 70 degrees, I've embarked upon a series of painting projects. Many of the rooms upstairs need a bit of sprucing, and there's nothing like a fresh coat of paint to cover up the flaws and give the room a bit of style.

There's just one problem: The cats simply won't allow me to do the work without supervision.

They clamber over the baby gate to see why the windows are open. They sniff at the paint cans. They hide beneath the drop cloths. I can't close the door while I work, of course, or the fumes would drive me away. So instead, I spend a lot of time shooing them out, and then inspecting them for stray paint that must be washed out in the sink.

This is a serious issue. Traditional home paint is full of lung irritants and chemicals that can be deeply harmful to a cat. They are much smaller than we are, so they need to breathe less of it in order to feel ill. And if they lick traditional paint from their paws or bodies, they could get even sicker. 

Last weekend, I invested in low VOC paint. This paint is designed to cure quickly, so the "terrible paint" smell disappears rapidly. I didn't get a headache while painting, and that's a first for me. Additionally, the paint is likely much safer to use around the cats. If I am getting headaches, it's hard to imagine how much trouble they had around the paint fumes.

You can read more about low VOC paint at this link. It is more expensive than standard paint, to be sure, and I do think it streaks a bit more. But having safer air to breathe is worth it.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Your obsessed dog: How to helping your dog break the licking habit

Liam the pug using his Kong toy
A diversion can sometimes keep your dog from chewing his feet
There's nothing quite like the sound of a dog licking his or her feet. Smack, smack, smack. It's enough to drive you around the bend, especially if your dog chooses to indulge in this habit in the middle of the night.

Liam is a power licker. If given the opportunity, he would lick all day long. Something about licking seems to soothe him, and it's his absolute favorite hobby. It's not something I encourage, however.

Licking is not only annoying to listen to, it's not healthy for a dog to lick in this way. Dogs who lick their feet obsessively, as Liam used to do, can do real damage.

In Liam's case, his foot licking stopped when we changed his food. I am not certain what he was allergic to in the previous food, but I do know that the hair between his toes was a scarlet red and those feet seemed to itch and drive him wild. Now that he's on an appropriate food, he doesn't lick his feet with nearly the same frequency or intensity.

But his overall habit of licking hasn't decreased. Now, he just targets me or his toys and leaves his own feet alone. His toys end up soggy and I spend the day squirming around in my chair to keep my feet out of his range.

To break him from the habit of licking all day long (and impeding my work), I fill a Kong toy with peanut butter and let him gnaw that out in the morning. It takes him a good 2 hours of solid licking to get that treat out, and when he's done, he seems to have fulfilled his licking quota and he doesn't lick any more for the rest of the day and night.

I like solutions that make both Liam and I happy.

But some obsessions aren't so easily cured.

Some dogs engage in truly obsessive habits like scratching or staring at lights or howling. You can exercise them, play with them, work with them and otherwise provide solutions, but the behavior doesn't stop. For dogs like this, there's a chemical imbalance issue at play. These dogs don't stop their behaviors because they're bad. They can't stop due to a brain problem.

A visit to the vet is the best option for dogs like this. Medications can work wonders to fix those imbalances and help these dogs to live a much more balanced life. If your efforts to fix the problem just aren't working, a trip to the vet might do the trick. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Brushing long-haired cats: An endless battle

Lucy has incredibly long hair
Lucy looking incredibly untidy.
If you look at this picture of Lucy cuddled in her favorite spot, you might think that I am a careless cat caretaker. Her ear hair is curling down into her face and her beard is tangled (it also looks like it's been dipped in water a few times).

She's a step away from looking like a matted mess, and I'm here to tell you that it is totally not my fault.

For starters, Lucy is blind and she uses her wild ear hair for navigation. That ear hair lets her know when she's about to whack the top of her head on something. Normally, I would keep ear hair trimmed, so it doesn't become a nesting ground for fleas and dirt and moisture. But I can't bear to cut off something Lucy is actually using.

As for the beard, she often dips it in water or her food or something she's exploring. She is a bit of a tomboy, so she likes to get into everything and shove her face down close to smell everything before she decides it's safe. This may be due to her blindness, of course, or it may be just her.

And finally, she simply HATES to be brushed. Many cats do. They find the experience to be incredibly stimulating and they go into a bit of sensory overload when you brush them. Lucy seems to like it at first, and then begins to growl and hiss when she's had enough. I am usually not close to being done when she decides our brushing sessions are over.

I know I am not alone in this. Many people who have long-haired cats report that their cats hate to be brushed. Don't believe me? Watch this video of a cat named Janelle totally losing her temper with her owner during a grooming session. Lucy wouldn't dare get this bad, but then again, I wouldn't push her this hard, either.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Pets make a 4th of July plea: Make the fireworks stop!

Liam the pug covers his eyes with his paws
Those darn fireworks! I need my beauty sleep!
Last night, our house sounded like it was smack in the middle of a war zone. Our windows rattled with big booms. Small crackling sounds seemed to be coming from all directions. Whistles punctuated the air. It seemed like nearly everyone was lighting something on fire.

Liam, who is usually pretty unflappable, got a little nervous in the middle of all of this commotion, and I had to place him in the bedroom with a loud air conditioner running full blast to muffle some of the noises. He fell asleep fairly quickly.

We were lucky.

Many of my friends report sleepless nights spent comforting their terrified animals. Others talk about looking for their animals that ran away to escape the noise.

According to this article (now inactive) from the local news, many other people were even less lucky. Many fires were started in the Portland area as a result of fireworks. Many families are homeless, and two businesses were severely damaged. One dog was caught in a burning home, and that dog died.

Now, why is this fun?

Is it fun to light things on fire and terrify small animals?

Is it fun to catch businesses on fire?

Is it fun to light homes on fire?

Am I the only one who hates the firework tradition?

Next year, I may spend this week in Canada on holiday, as long as I can ensure that my neighbors won't burn my home down in my absence.