Friday, September 26, 2014

A review of the September BarkBox: Dog toys and treats galore!

Sinead the Boston terrier and her dog toy
This month's BarkBox had a football theme, meaning that almost everything in there had something to do with either college life or watching sports. (Well, almost everything.)

I'm not a big football fan, but my dogs were over the moon about a lot of the toys and treats in this month's box. In fact, this might be their favorite box of all time. Here's what they got:

Safemade Barkeley Pennant

This is listed as a "BarkBox exclusive," and that's a bit of a shame, as this is a pretty cool little toy. It's shaped like a flag, and it's stuffed with both a squeeker and crinkling material, so it makes a lot of noise and it flies through the air pretty easily. My dogs just love this thing.

In fact, here's a little video that proves how much Sinead loves this particular toy.

Loopies Letterman Jacket

This toy also has crinkles and squeekers, and the arms make excellent dog chews. Sinead has been actively chewing on this toy for about a week, and some of the dye from the cuffs of said sleeves is leaking onto the white material. This toy isn't as pretty as it once was, but she still loves it.
Boston terrier and her toy

Nootie Jerky Burger BBQ Duck 

These treats are about the size of a grape, and they're very dense and chewy. I like them, as they're made of American duck and they don't contain wheat, grains, soy or corn. I also like them because the dogs have to really chew on them. Even gobblers like Liam need a little time to work these down.

We also have some Indigo Smokehouse Strips from Petsafe that I haven't yet tried. But they look like nice treats, as they're small and they're made with 100 percent pork.

And Liam and Sinead were thrilled, as usual, to see that an Etta Says chew made it into the box. They love those.

So this was a great box! We're happy! Want to get your own? Use my code. You'll get a discount, and so will I!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Cats and birds: Finding a peaceful solution

cat outside cardboard scratching posts
Typically, I'm the sort of person that dedicated bird watchers despise, because I am responsible for two creatures capable of devastating a bird population in mere minutes.

Yes, I have two cats that live outdoors, but I am also a dedicated birder, and I've recently redesigned my yard in order to lure more birds to my little patch of paradise. For me, bird watching and cat ownership aren't necessarily incompatible, although I'll admit that negotiating the peace in my yard has been a bit of a difficult process.

The Outdoor Cat Problem 

The best way to keep birds safe from cat predation is to keep the cats indoors. That's a simple, basic, common fact that everyone can agree upon. But sometimes, it's just not possible to keep our cats inside.

Senior cat on the couch
Eamon can't get birds, as he doesn't go out.

One of the two cats that lives in my yard was rescued from a shipyard. He had no human contact for the first few months of his life, and he was forced to fight for each and every scrap of food he managed to find, or else someone else would eat it. He wouldn't allow anyone to pet him, and he ran from any kind of food that was put in his dish.

Since his rescue, he's become somewhat tame and he will allow petting sessions, as long as he's well acquainted with the person who hopes to touch him. He'll also gladly accept any food I put in his bowl. But he's retained a feral streak, which means he likes to mark his territory. No training method I've tried could break him of this habit.

His outdoor companion, who was born under much less horrifying circumstances, has picked up these terrible peeing habits. He marks anything he can back into, and again, this isn't a habit I've managed to train away.

These are very old cats, and allowing them to live in the house means dealing with a life that's far less than sanitary. The damage they can do in just minutes might take a significant amount of money to repair, as cat urine can sink into carpet, hardwoods, dry wall and other hard-to-replace parts of a home. It's just not something I can live with. So the cats live outside.

But, I live in a birder's paradise, and I don't want to miss out on the action. And I don't think I have to, either.

Placement is Key

My yard contains two key elements I've used in a cat-and-bird friendly design: An incense cedar and a holly tree. I've used both of them to both lure birds to the yard, and they have elements that can keep the birds safe.

The holly provides winter berries for the robins that descend on my home in the winter months. The dense foliage also makes it an ideal nesting home for many smaller birds that need protection from the rain that's so common in Oregon. The spiky leaves, however, are quite painful for soft cat paws, and they make climbing said holly very difficult.

I've left fallen holly leaves on the ground year round, raked into piles to discourage cat exploration. I rearrange the leaves frequently during the tenuous nesting months, when I can hear the little birds calling out for their mothers. This natural moat has, at this point, discouraged the cats from climbing.

The feeders I use are placed near the incense cedar. This allows for quick arrivals and getaways by the birds, so they can grab a nibble and take it to a branch to finish the snack, but the feeders are placed several feet from the trunk of the tree, so cats can't climb up and chow down.

In the evenings, when the birds seem less interested in the seed and more interested in heading home, I rake up anything left underneath the feeders. I'd like the birds to stay up off of the ground, so there's less of a chance that a cat can attack them, and removing spent seeds seems like a good way to keep those birds safe.

Training Purposes

In addition to using smart placement, I've also done an extensive amount of training with these old cats. It's simply not true that cats cannot be trained to stay away from birds. These are intelligent creatures, capable of both learning and growing, and they should be allowed to do so.

In the early days, I used collars with bells. I made the bells a little bigger and louder, when the cats seemed capable of mounting an attack on surprised birds, but I left the collars on at all times. I also sat in my lawn chair for hours with one hand on my squirt bottle. When the cats came close to the feeders, they got a squirt. In time, I was able to squirt them from the back door, on the off chance that they decided to try my resolve. Now, I don't need to squirt them very much at all.

This kind of training is time-consuming, and the boys did manage to kill one bird early in the training process. But, the only death I've had in my yard in the last several months came from a kestrel attack, not from a cat attack. These furry cats are no longer interested in the birds, and my feeders are simply teeming.

Final Thoughts

I know that outdoor cats are the bane of any birder's existence, and I've railed about cats many times myself. They do a lot of damage, and they're hard to control. But, I hope we can all work together to keep our birds safe. Some of us cat owners have difficult critters we're working with as best we can, and we are trying to be responsible. Maybe, if birders and cat lovers do try to get along, we'll have safer neighborhoods for everyone.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Reclaiming a yard for the birds

Birdbath and roses
Salem is nestled in the center of the Oregon wine country, and in the summer months, when the grapes hang thick on the vines that encircle the city, the sound of birdsong is almost deafening. It's a birder's paradise, to be sure, but it took my husband and I more than a year, and a significant amount of heartache to lure birds to our feeders.

Possible Visitors

Black-capped chickadees, purple finches and red-breasted nuthatches, along with the odd robin and blue jay, were all common in my neighborhood, and as I walked with Liam and Sinead in the early hours of the morning, I could hear the chirrup of Anna's hummingbirds filling the air. But, the house I moved into was surrounded by a yard that had been neglected for a year or more, and the birds seem to have given up on finding anything of value in the weeds, sticks and dead grasses I saw when I looked out the window.

I started by filling feeders with black sunflower seed, hoping to entice most of these little birds to give the yard a try, and I filled a few hummingbird feeders with sugar water. I suppose I hoped that the little Annas would lure the others in for a spin.

But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get these little ones to come into the yard. I heard their calls, but they really weren't interested in my feeders.

Quick Solutions

I started a yard rehab by removing a large, dying apple tree. This big obstacle prevented long swoops of bird flight, and it made easy lookouts difficult. The birds seemed much more willing to enter the yard when they could see where they were going, and what might be coming to get them.

Next, I added in some bird baths. The neighborhood can be remarkably dry, particularly in the depths of winter, and I thought the birds might enjoy a small pool of water that they could both drink and eat.

Finally, I installed the feeders on top of a pole that was squirrel resistant. The pole also kept the feeders about 4 feet from the ground, and it wasn't located close to any large structure that an outdoor cat might be able to stand on or hide behind.

All of these restorations took several months, and as I worked, I started to hear more and more birds taking advantage of the changes. Little fluttering wings accompanied my trips to refill the birdbath, and the feeders needed frequent changes of food.

Sudden Invasions

Birds in a bird feeder

All of my hard work was paying off, until other creatures started noticing that I had frequent bird visitors. Cats, in particular, proved to be a problem. Feeder placement ensured no cat sneak attacks happened mid-meal, but my cats became adept at lingering on the ground, and they managed to snap up one bird mid-flight. Bells on their collars, along with judicious use of a squirt bottle, helped to amend that issue. But, I'm in the process of building a very large fence to keep the other neighborhood cats out of the yard. They seem to like to linger. (More on this in next week's blog.)

One death I blamed on the cats had nothing to do with their handiwork at all, however, and I haven't managed to correct this problem.

After a long bike ride, I came home to see feathers on the ground and more falling from the air above. I couldn't figure out what was happening, until I pulled out the binoculars and saw the kestrel eviscerating one of my chickadees. That guy hasn't been back, but it's something I'm watching for.

More on birds next week!

Friday, September 5, 2014

Why do so many cats have kidney disease, and what can we do about it?

Senior Russian blue cat watching the peppers in the garden
Cats just don't live forever. It's something we cat owners learn to live with. But, many cats have their lives cut short due to kidney disease. In fact, Cornell University suggests that kidney disease is one of the most frequently observed illnesses in cats that are older than 7. Sadly, I have a cat that fits into this statistic quite nicely.

Beorn is creeping up on 15 years old, and recently, I learned that we're losing him due to chronic kidney problems. There's not much I can do for him now, although there are many things I am trying, but I set out to find out a little more about what causes the problem in cats, so I could perhaps prevent the issue from cropping up in my other cats. Here's what I found out.

Common causes for cat kidney disease

There's no real consensus on what lies beneath most cases of kidney disease, but many organizations (including the ASPCA) suggest that at least some cats are genetically predisposed to struggle with their kidneys. This means that cats who have bad kidneys likely have kittens who have bad kidneys. On the one hand, this is good news, as it suggests that the solution involves taking cats with bum organs out of the breeding pool with spays and neuters. This is the kind of thing dog breeders do (if they're reputable, but that's a whole different issue).

Cats, however, are a sticky wicket. Most people get their cats from shelters or rescues, so they don't have the opportunity to ask about the health of the parents or the health of the breed line as a whole. Those who do get cats from an individual owner might only know about the mother cat, as the father(s) might be roaming through the neighborhood without leaving papers behind. It's just harder to track this problem in pets who breed independently.

In addition, this problem tends to show up late in life, long after cats are all done with the whole parenthood business. This means cats could have multiple litters before anyone knows that they're passing bad things down to their kittens. I'll bet this happens more often than we might think.

Some bloggers and cat people point to the low water content in commercial cat food, when they look to assign blame for kidney disease. The theory is that cats don't drink enough water on a daily basis to flush toxins out of their bodies, and that dry kibble has no moisture at all that could help them. This constant dehydration could damage the kidneys to such a degree that they simply shut down. It's an interesting theory, but so far, it's not been definitively proven.

What can I do to help my senior cat?

Beorn's dealing with very little kidney function at this point, so there's not much I can do to help him. I'm working on feeding him a low-protein diet that's stuffed with high-value foods (like organ meats). The low protein content reduces some of the stress his kidneys are facing, while the yummy meats included help prompt him to eat. He's so very thin right now, so packing on the pounds is important.
Thin senior cat on the hot tub
Beorn right now.
Magestic Russian blue cat protects his stray cat friend
Beorn in healthier times.
He really needs to gain some weight, so he'll be stronger. That's one thing I can help with.

I'm also working to give him a lot of water. I change the water in the bowl almost hourly these days, and I'm adding water to the meals he'll eat. In time, I'll likely need to give him injections of fluid underneath the skin, too, so he'll have enough hydration.

But overall, I'm just trying to keep him comfortable. I'm looking for ways to spend more time with him, cuddle him and help him to feel safe. That's what these end-of-life treatments are all about.

And for the other cats? I'm kicking up their water quotient, too, and I continue to look for a definitive link between food and kidney problems. If any of you have resources to kick my way, I'd love the info!