Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Blind cats in high places: How to keep your kitty safe

Lucy the blind cat in a very high place
Lucy demonstrating her climbing ability.
Most of the pictures on this blog show my bright yellow workroom, mainly because that's where I sit all day long and I'm too lazy to get up and snap pictures in any of the other rooms in the house. But, there are indeed other rooms in this house. And there is one large stairwell that culminates in a big newel post.

When I moved into this house, I knew that post was going to be a problem. It's about 10 to 12 feet off the ground on one side, bumping right up against the ceiling, and it's easily accessible by little cats who want to walk across the handrail. If they make it across, they have a perfect view of the entire first floor of the house, and they're bathed in heat because they're close to the ceiling.

I've been here 1 1/2 years or so, and the only cat brave enough to make it up there was Maggie. She's young and agile, so I didn't have an issue with that. She's also a loner, so I thought she might like the opportunity to have her own space.

Unfortunately, Lucy has also decided that this is a good place to sleep. This is the problem I knew was coming.

As a blind cat, Lucy startles easily. She tends to spring off and run if she's worried, and one spring in the wrong direction off this post means a 12-foot drop and a land on a bookcase below. Not a great idea.

So, once again, the Cat Scram saves the day. I bought this a few months ago (and wrote about it here) and since that time, I've found all kinds of uses for it. Anytime the cats are going anywhere they should not go, the Cat Scram is soon to follow. Now it is sitting on the railing, and Lucy is back in her bed where she belongs. (The downside is that Maggie is also banished from her sleeping spot, but here's hoping she'll forgive me in time. I'm giving her extra catnip in the hopes of wiping her memory of my betrayal.)

Friday, February 24, 2012

Cat yoga: Let your kitty be your exercise buddy!

Lucy the cat shows off her yoga skills
Check out this flexibility!
As part of my physical therapy program for this bum shoulder, I am considering a yoga class. My friends swear that yoga can help me improve my flexibility and gain back strength. There's only one problem: Yoga doesn't look like it's all that easy to learn. There's a lot of specialized terminology involved, and it looks like many classes in this area aren't designed for newbies like me. I suppose 90 percent of people in Portland have been taking yoga classes since they were wee tots just out of homespun socks. I'm a little late to the party.

Today, when I was once again trying to find a beginner's yoga class, I turned around to see Lucy demonstrating an almost perfect mastery of the flexibility of yoga. At first glance, she's all fur and feet. How in the world do they do it?

Apparently, cats are so flexible, in part, because of the way their skeletons are constructed. They have backs that are designed to stretch and bend, so they can extend to their full length when running and therefore reach top speed in just a few moments. They also have shoulder blades that are attached only by cords of muscle, and they don't have big collarbones, so they can hold their arms in strange positions and squeeze in tight spaces. No wonder they're yoga masters! I'll bet they still couldn't handle instructions in class, however.

I'm not the only person, by far, to see this connection. This joke site (which I love) combines yoga, live cats and cat puppets. Check out a few of these videos when you need a chuckle.

While your cat may not be able to bark yoga terms at you, there is a way to let your cat be your yogi. For starters, look at how your cat sleeps and stretches. Try to replicate that move, to the best of your body's ability, and hold that pose for 15 seconds or so. Breathe deeply, in and out, as you hold that pose. And if your kitty moves, try to move, too.

It may not be yoga, per se, but it can be a form of moving meditation you do with your cat. And that could be good for your mind, if not your body. Plus, it's bonding time for you and your cat. Win win!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Preparing a view for your indoor cats

Maggie the cat and Seamus the Boston terrier looking out the window
Since 2007, when this photo was taken, Maggie has been obsessed with birdwatching.
I know that the Republican lawmakers would like to convince us that global warming is a myth (Wasn't it Santorum who called it a "hoax" this week?), but it looks like spring has arrived in Portland about a month early. The crocus is up, the night jasmine is blooming and the morning walk resounds with the sounds of bird calls. Pretty sure global warming is NOT a hoax, and I'm also pretty sure that my cats aren't completely unhappy about that.

My two sighted indoor cats have a long-standing love affair with birds. They like to watch them through the closed glass of the windows, but they also love to sit in the screens when the windows are open and listen to the birds call. Sometimes they do the chatter of frustration, because they can't catch the things, but mainly they seem to simply enjoy watching things flutter by.

Last year, I set up a hummingbird feeder for the cats, close to the big windows by the back of the house. Hummingbirds move incredibly quickly, so I thought the cats would like to see them fly by, and they rarely come down to ground level, so they would be safe from the outdoor cats. (Just to be safe, we hung the feeder about 12 feet off the ground as well.) In any case, much as I changed the water, we never did see a bird visit.

Since I'm stubborn, I refused to give up on the project, and I planned to set up the feeder at the very first sign of spring. If the jasmine and lilac in the yard could lure them in, I thought, the feeder might make them stay. So, two weeks ago, I set up the feeder.

On Saturday, I was sitting by this big window, sipping some coffee, and I was rewarded with a glimpse of our very first visitor. The cats didn't see him, but I hope he'll come back and bring friends.

Later this summer, I hope to set up a butterfly feeder to give the cats an added show. Last year, we had hundreds of black-and-gold butterflies as big as my hand, and I hope to recreate that vision this summer.

Yep, it's cat television season. Time to get planting!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Finding the perfect pet-sitter

Lucy Maggie and Eamon the cats are all sleeping together
These spoiled cats clearly won't settle for any-old pet sitter.
I am a giant home-body. In fact, I am extremely liable to take a "vacation" and spend it at home working on the garden or reading a good book on the couch. But, there are times when I need to go out of town for a day or two, and then the hunt begins for a good pet sitter. Since the pug either comes along on these trips, or he goes to a reputable kennel, I am only looking for a cat-sitter.

When I search for a cat sitter, I look for people who also have cats. It sounds silly, I know, but some people simply don't know how to deal with cats. They slam doors, plop down dishes, stomp their feet and otherwise scare the crap out of cats. People who have cats, by contrast, know how to treat the animals gently, and they know how to appeal to these shy critters.

I also like to work with people who live in the neighborhood in a sort of "I'll scratch your back, you'll scratch mine" arrangement. I watch their cats, they watch mine. I could hire pet sitters, of course, but close neighbors can also watch the house and make sure that no nasty people break in and steal my things. No pet sitter would be able to do that.

In addition, most people who provide professional pet-sitting charge by the pet, and the going rate in the Portland area is $20 for three cats. Since I have six cats, I could rack up $40 per day, and they won't watch my house! Now, I'm all for supporting small business, but even I think this is a tad much. I'd rather use the neighborly approach, thank you very much.

Now, working with neighborhood people can also be risky, depending on your neighbors. Often, setting few ground rules can ease the pressure:
  • No outside pets. Unbelievably, there are people who bring their own pets for "visits" when they visit yours. This is a definite no-no.
  • No outside food. Special treats might seem like a good idea, but when you're gone, your pets are stressed enough. No need to add to their pressure with gastrointestinal distress.
  • Call with concerns. Anytime that my pets act strangely, seem off, won't eat, whatever, I want a CALL. Sometimes, this stuff is totally normal and I know all about it. If I don't, I want to tell the person where to take my pet for medical care. Information is power!
  • Keep your promises. If someone says they will feed my pets, I want reassurance that they will actually do it. Yes, unbelievably, I've heard of neighbors who have "forgotten" to drop by for a meal. Totally not okay.
I am an excellent pet-sitter, by the way. I am currently watching my neighbor's lovely cat and she is a joy to sit for. She's gentle, kind and extremely happy to see me when I come over for my visits. Sometimes, being a perfect pet-sitter is just as rewarding as finding the perfect pet sitter.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Misbehaving dog? A time-out might help

Liam the pug hangs his head while he is in time out
Liam hangs his head in shame.
Even the most well-behaved dog is apt to break out the bad behavior from time to time. In my opinion, dogs like to test the waters on occasion, just to see who is really in charge. If you enforce the rules, you're in charge. If you don't, the dog is in charge. Fun test, to be sure!

Yesterday, hopped up with his excitement from his new toy, Liam decided to test the boundaries. We had a walk full of pulling, followed by a prolonged episode of jumping up and then (the kicker) an episode of roughhousing with a screaming blind cat. We ended all of this fun with 3 minutes in time-out.

I am a big believer in the time-out system for this sort of augmented bad behavior. A time-out allows me to show Liam that his behavior is completely unacceptable, and it gives him a moment to collect his thoughts and calm down so he can rejoin polite society. I usually give him some sort of warning signal ("Enough!") and if the behavior continues, I say "Time out!" and put him in the bedroom or the bathroom and shut the door. I leave him there for 3 minutes (tops), and when I open the door, he is sitting nicely and is much better behaved.

Now, I use this system sparingly. In fact, I think I only resort to this punishment once or twice per year. In my opinion, it should be saved for big offenses (such as hurting the family cat). But there are many trainers out there, including this one, who suggest that it can be used for a wide variety of behaviors. I'm not sure about that, but then again, I don't have a dog who chronically misbehaves. If I did, I might feel a bit differently.

As an aside, I found this article while doing my research, and it has me a bit bemused. Firstly, the trainer suggests that once the dog understands what the warning command means, you can skip it altogether and progress to time out. I think that's a BIG mistake. The goal is not to put the dog in more time-out sessions. The goal is to get the dog to stop on the warning command. I have no idea why you would eliminate that cue. And secondly, this trainer suggests that a time-out should last 30 seconds to 2 minutes. In my opinion, a 30-second time-out is just too short to allow an excited dog to calm down. But you might disagree.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The "crazy cat lady" bias

Two cats snuggled together in one chair
The benefits of a multi-cat household are clear to see...
On Valentine's Day, I've come to expect the barrage of "crazy cat lady" jokes to appear. Cartoons pop up on Facebook. Single women with cats make disparaging remarks about how they need to get more cats. Single women with no cats are encouraged to get some.

I know. I know. It's all done in fun. But still, I'm a little sick of it.

Not every single woman has cats. In fact, according to a recent article in the New York Times, many single MEN are now unabashed cat lovers. (People wax poetic about why this is the case, including some crazy guy who claims that men love living with another predator. This is yet another case of sexism playing out via companion pets, but that's a topic for another day.) In any case, no matter how many men may own their own cats, I have yet to see anyone report on a "crazy cat man" joke circulating.

I don't disagree that people who own cats have more than one. I, in fact, have three cats (and I married into a family with three cats, bringing the total to six ... for the math-impaired out there). Far be it for me to say that no single woman has multiple cats.

But those of us who have cats know that felines do better in pairs. Multiple cat experts suggest that cats prefer to live in pairs. They engage in less destructive behaviors, and they tend to keep one another company, so they spend less time harassing their owners.

So next year, let's stop with the single woman = crazy cat lady bias. Let's remember that men also love cats. And let's remember that having more than one cat is probably good for the cat, and results in LESS work for the owner, therefore less obsessive behavior on the part of the owner and the cat.

In other words, give it a break, will ya'?

Friday, February 10, 2012

Dogs, cats and laser pointers

Liam the pug with a laser pointer
Liam prepares his attack.
Run a search on the Web for "best dog and cat toys," and you may be led to believe that laser pointers represent the pinnacle of the play experience. Sales pages say that animals will play with these things for hours on end, losing weight and burning energy, and all you have to do is sit in your easy chair and watch it happen.

I'm here to tell you that it ain't necessarily so.

Most dogs and cats aren't dumb, and they won't do anything that doesn't seem worthwhile. Playing with a laser toy might seem fun, but all of my cats and the dog have figured out the main drawback of this toy: They can't catch it. If I try to engage the pets in laser play, the cats will just ignore me, and the dog ends up doing something like this a few times until he gives up.

Liam the pug looking the wrong direction for a laser toy
Note that the red dot is behind him.
He will run through the dot a few times, madly snapping, before he figures out that this must be some sort of trick or else he'd be able to catch it.

So, hours of play are pretty much impossible. Minutes of play might be possible, but only if your pet is very trusting.

I don't use the laser toy at all anymore. It makes me feel too much like Lucy, pulling the football away from Charlie Brown. Throwing the ball for the dog or using a feather toy with the cat is much more entertaining for everyone involved.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Motivating a dog using cookies: It can work too well


As this video clearly demonstrates, Liam is obsessed with treats. At the mere mention of the word "cookie," he becomes focused and alert. When the cookie is in my hand, he loses all control. He cannot hold the position long enough to even earn the cookie, and resorts to popping up and begging instead. Then, the snorting begins and the whole training session is a total loss.

Having a dog that is food-obsessed like this has some specific drawbacks. It's hard to get Liam to do tricks in front of other people, for example, and it's hard to use a cookie to train a specific behavior, as he rarely holds the action long enough. In addition, an action that earns him a cookie is likely to be repeated, over and over, just in case you'll give him a cookie.

I've learned this the hard way. I recently switched cookie brands, and the new flavor seems to be a big hit with the pug. Now, he's started gaming a specific system I use with him, in the hopes of earning more cookies.

I ask Liam to ring a bell by the door when he needs to go outside. If he actually needs to go outside to do his business, he gets a cookie. Since these cookies are so tasty, Liam has become a bell-ringing fool, hitting the bells every 5 to 10 minutes in the hopes of earning a cookie.

As all trainers know, ignoring a trick is never a good idea. In fact, ignoring a trick is a great way to help a dog forget the trick altogether. So, I've been forced to pick up the bells when we come in from a potty trip outside, and then I walk back and put them down an hour or so later. It's a bit of a hassle, but it's the only solution I can think of at the moment.

Now, if I could only think of a way to get him to stick to the "down" position....

Monday, February 6, 2012

Dogs barking at the television and computer

Liam the pug prepares to bark at the computer
Note the pricked ears. Liam prepares to bark as the commercial plays.
Over the weekend, I discovered a hilarious video showing dogs dressed in Star Wars costumes. They barked out a theme from the movie, and there were so many details to catch, that the thing worked best if you watched it five or six times in a row.

I did that. And now Liam the pug hates me.

As much as I might try to convince him otherwise, he's certain that I've got an entire herd of dogs lodged inside the computer and he's determined to bark at these dogs and scare them away.

This reaction isn't unique, either, as this video and this video and this video demonstrate. It seems that many dogs hate this commercial.

Dog training experts like this person claim that you can train your dog to stop barking at the television and the computer by providing treats whenever the animals appear on screen. If that's true, perhaps this commercial could function as a training tool for a whole generation of barking dogs.

The force lives on!

But in general, when your dog begins to bark at a computer screen, it's best to bust out the headphones. It might seem silly or funny, but dogs really find this whole thing stressful. They think they're being invaded, and they get worried. Why stress them out for your own entertainment? Use your headphones instead. Your dogs will thank you. 

Friday, February 3, 2012

How can pugs breathe like that?

Liam the pug with his face pushed into his bed
Liam, dead asleep.
With their wrinkled faces and scrunched noses, it's surprising that pugs can breathe at all. But breathe they do, albeit noisily, and often they put themselves in amazing positions that make breathing even more difficult.

Liam, for example, loves to sleep with his face buried in something soft. Toys, blankets or cats are all favorite pillows for his little wrinkled head. And as he grows more comfortable, he pushes his face deep into these materials until his entire nose is buried.

Why he does this, I'll never know. It could be that he likes to breathe in air that's slightly warm. If he heads outside in the cold when the house has been warm, he'll sputter, cough and reverse sneeze. Perhaps he tries to prevent this by smooshing his face into something soft and warming the air with his breath.

Or, perhaps he's just a freaky dog who likes to prepare for a photo shoot, 24/7.

In general, if your pug seems to be breathing comfortably, there's no need to intervene when they get into positions like this. If they become uncomfortable, they will adjust and move. But, if you notice very loud or very slow breathing patterns, it's best to intervene. Offer a quick cookie or a play session, and remove the item the pug is nuzzled into. If that bit of bed is consistently troublesome, donate it.

Let me say that it's rare. Most pugs know when enough is enough. But there are some pugs that sleep soundly and that need a few reminders about sleep hygiene. It's a simple service we can provide. (Just be sure to get a photo of it first!)

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Are you neglecting your shy pet?

Maggie the cat resting in her bed
Maggie gives the half-lidded look a try.
This household is full of some big personalities and most of these animals demand a significant amount of attention. When Liam isn't asking me to throw the ball, Eamon decides it's playtime and he begins to caper and scamper at my feet. When Eamon decides to rest, Lucy begins to wail for her grooming session. As soon as I'm done with that, Liam returns with the ball in his mouth. Often, it seems like I spend most of my pet-related time just reacting to the demands the animals make.

Gentle, quiet pets like Maggie tend to get lost in the shuffle.

Maggie rarely, if ever, asks for attention. Often, she's simply lurking in the background, hoping you'll notice her. Even her meow is quiet. In fact, sometimes she opens her mouth and makes no sound at all.

Cats like this are sometimes called "loners," and it's suggested that they should live in single-cat households. I'm glad that Maggie wasn't advertised this way. Since she can't get all the attention she wants from the humans, she asks the other animals to provide her with affection. She and Eamon are notorious snugglers, and lately, Maggie has even been approaching Lucy for quick grooming sessions. If she lived in a single-cat household, I'm not convinced she'd be more vocal with her attention demands. Perhaps she'd simply get no attention at all.

For my part, I'm trying hard to give Maggie some individualized time each day. I pet her each time I see her, and often, I scoop her up off the floor and take her to a chair to sit with me in the evenings. I'm hoping this will encourage her to speak up and demand attention when she wants it, but if not, at least I'm making sure she's not neglected in this wild and crazy household.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

How much do cats need to eat every day?

Eamon the cat looking out the window
Eamon patiently waits for his food.
For much of his life, Eamon has been pretty laid-back about food. In fact, he could be downright picky when it came to food, and sometimes it was a struggle to get him to deign to eat in the first place. Over the last several months, however, he's become a food-obsessed freak. He even took to climbing on the counters, in search of food.

I had a bit of an "Aha!" moment at the veterinarian's office a few months ago, when the staff notified me that he'd lost a few pounds. I asked the doctor about this, but at the time, she told me that Eamon seemed to be at a healthy weight and the loss wasn't cause for alarm. As the weeks went on and the food roving continued, however, I decided to do a bit of research and experimentation.

Most websites are quick to point out that the amount of calories a cat should eat are based on a variety of factors, including the cat's age, breed and activity level. However, articles like this are more direct and suggest that a cat should eat the equivalent of about a can of wet food per day, plus about 4/5 cup of dry food. At first, I thought I was in the clear. Eamon eats about two cans worth (in quantity) of a raw diet per day. Should be enough, right?

Maybe not. As articles like this suggest, these low-carb (or in his case, no-carb) diets are considered weight loss diets. Whack out the fats and carbs, and the food just doesn't have the same caloric punch. Perhaps Eamon simply wasn't getting enough calories per day, so his weight was dropping and he was just plain hungry. The behavior I was seeing could have a medical component to it.

So I did an experiment. For about a week, I gave him about a 1/2 cup of dried kibble at lunchtime, and I waited to see if his behavior would change. Lo and behold, he stopped coming into the kitchen altogether, and he was much quieter at mealtime. He also began to recover a bit of that lost weight.

Normally, I don't go against medical advice. But there are times when being a good pet guardian means doing your research and making decisions that are best for your individual pet. Honestly, I think this was one of those times. If Eamon is so hungry that he's out hunting for food in our house, he needs more food. Plain and simple. He feels better, and I feel better.

So Eamon now gets a lunchtime feeding every day. Here's hoping the good behavior continues.