Monday, November 30, 2009

Sleeps with Cats or Waste Management 102

If you've gone to a cat show, you may have seen this statement, "Sleeps with Cats" in rhinestone on a black t-shirt, sported by several cat ladies. Some of the cat ladies look pretty good modeling the shirt. By the way, if you've never gone to a cat show and would like to, check out the show calendar schedule for a show near you on TICA or CFA. I don't own one of these slutty garments for two reasons: One, too many are already wearing one and black is not a good color to wear around cats if one doesn't want to spend the day rolling the hair off. Two, sleeping with cats is usually an oxymoron.

As someone who loves all animals and breeds the Maine Coon cat, you might expect my bed to be inhabited by hairy creatures. Jay doesn't count; he really isn't that hairy. However, our bedroom is also the kitten nursery until I can get a teenager to move out and give up his room. As many queens (breeding female cats) tend to go into labor in the middle of the night and newborn kittens need a watchful eye, our bedroom makes the most sense as the room for moms and babies. I'm a light sleeper and when a queen is close to her due date, I wake up several times during the night at the slightest noise. That's usually a good thing. After the kittens have arrived, my light sleeping is more of a handicap to a good night's sleep.

Last night was typical. Kinsey's litter of four kittens were recently moved from their birthing cage to our master bathroom as they were getting too big and needed to move to the next stage in their development; solid food and litter box training. I put a plastic gate in the bathroom door, like those to sequester dogs or toddlers, to keep the kittens in the bathroom. The mother can then jump over the gate for a mommy break in our bedroom and the humans step over it. Last week, I had more kittens and moms to deal with; Amy and Ally's combined litters of 8 were in the bathroom. Kinsey had to jump over the gate to the bathroom in order to use the litter box as her kittens were still in the birthing cage. Having moved the older litter of eight and their mothers downstairs, Kinsey and litter of four were a sigh of relief.

But the problem isn't the kittens when you're trying to get to sleep. The problem is the litter box and the adult cat (in this case Kinsey) who decides to empty her bowels right as you are drifting off to sleep. A few of my queens are smart enough to realize that when I'm brushing and flossing, it's human bedtime. These more considerate girls will make the big stinky at that time. Not that I like to smell crap when I'm flossing my teeth, but at least I'm still awake and can conveniently scoop the offending poo, spray the Febreeze and limit the odor invasion. Kitten poop doesn't pack the stench that mom's does, so their assault to my senses are minimal.

When I am awakened by the sound of a cat incessantly scratching her way to China through her plastic litter box, I know what's coming. The longer the dig, the greater the load. A cat will scratch, and scratch, and scratch, and scratch….probably for 3 minutes before deciding she's ready to go. When one is half asleep, the scratching goes on for a good 30 minutes I swear. Sometimes, I'll be proactive and get up, waiting with the pooper scooper for her to finish. Sometimes I try to sleep through it and hope that this one won't stink. Then comes the cover up. Another 30 minutes of scratching, trying to pull the paint off the wall, the sides of the litter box, the toilet paper, whatever is close by, into the box. The scratching never seems to end. When I hear the cat finally jump out, I sigh with relief. If only that were the end. The scratching instinct continues, however, to the food dish (which apparently smells like crap to a cat who has just pooped). The whole pooping process, from digging the hole to vainly trying to cover up the stench, takes hours it seems. That's an exaggeration, but I probably lose that much sleep over it.

A cat's instinct is to cover up any odors which may attract predators, from kitten afterbirth to poop. However, that instinct hasn't taught most of them how to EFFECTIVELY hide the source of the smell. After all that incessant, mind-numbing scratching, I still see poop! Most of it is untouched by cat litter, the odoriferous septic smell wafting unhampered into my nostrils. They completely miss the point.

After Kinsey's production, I stayed in bed, convinced I honestly didn't smell anything. She had already gone a couple of times that day so she probably didn't have a major load to leave. Jay apparently was offended though and noisily disposed of the poop, sighing in exasperation several times for my benefit and throwing in an "oh my God!" when he pulled out the litter box. I stayed in bed. At least that was over; now we could go to sleep. We were Just dozing off again when Kinsey decided to join us, using us both as spring boards and knocking the wind out of me when she pounced on the bed. I kicked her off and she stayed down for a while. Unfortunately, the aroma of her recent movement still followed her. I just hoped that she hadn't stepped in anything that I would find on my bed in the morning.

A few minutes after being rejected, Kinsey decided to take a different approach to our bed. She landed on my nightstand, knocking off my Kleenex box as she prepared to launch herself on my pillow. That's it. I had gone to bed early; it was now an hour later and I was still awake. I picked up a purring kitty and deposited her in the bathroom with her kittens and shut the door. Why didn't I think of that earlier?

Monday, November 16, 2009

My First Litter from Hell

I was lucky when I started breeding Maine Coons. Sure, I had the usual issues of finding a suitable stud to breed to Sassy and then her daughters, making my way into the show halls, learning as much as I could about showing and feline health. But I was lucky in the sense that I didn’t have a single kitten fatality for the first three years of kitten mid-wifery. I had a friend in my cat club, Susan, who started the same time as I did. Susan’s breed of choice was silver shaded Exotics, the short-haired version of the Persian. For as long as I stayed in touch with Susan, she never had a viable litter during those few years. I felt guilty over my cats’ breeding success whenever I spoke with Susan. That all changed when I brought in an adult female, a pretty but shy little silver tabby girl named Isadora or “Izzy” from a Maine Coon breeder in Massachusetts.

Izzy got off to a bad start when I stupidly assumed she’d follow the habits of my other females and deliver between 66 and 68 days of gestation. I kept her my bedroom at night, but allowed her to roam during the day. On day 62, December 12, 2004, Izzy gave birth in Kelsey’s room in the afternoon. I found her with blood soaking into the carpet, surrounded by 7 kittens. They were cold and crying. I yelled for backup and the whole family kicked in. We moved Izzy and her litter into our bedroom and we each took a kitten to rub dry. Jay took the non-moving one and tried to revive him, but to no avail. My first fatality. I still feel guilty for not being there when he arrived; maybe it would have made a difference if he were warmed immediately. Or maybe he was stillborn. Seven is a large litter, especially for a first-time mom.

Izzy seemed to settle in nicely to the tent I have for a kitten nursery. The tent zips up in front. When the kittens were 2 days old, Izzy wanted to move them. Suddenly she was frantic. I put a blanket over the tent for privacy to try to calm her and kept the front zipped, hoping she’d calm down. When I check on her a few minutes later, she was clawing at the tent, holding a kitten’s paw in her mouth, still trying to get out. I had to pry her jaws apart to get the kitten away from her. Trying to keep Izzy happy, I moved the litter into a basket in my bathroom and she calmed down almost immediately. Then I saw the blood on my hand. I examined the kitten I’d taken from her mouth and panicked. By picking her kitten up with such a strong grip by the foot, Izzy had skinned him; the flesh was exposed from his wrist down to his paw, shreds of the remaining skin and fur still hanging onto some of his toes.

Little Eddy - note the red bandage
My vet, Karen Brown of Stonington Veterinary Hospital, showed me how to change the kitten’s bandage every day, giving me a supply of gauze and antiseptic gel. The theme for this litter was Christmas names and this little brown boy was called St. Nicholas originally. As I stood there while Karen tended to the little guy and his mangled foot, he became Edward Scissorhand. I took little Eddy home with his front leg bandaged all the way up to his shoulder and then the real hell started with Izzy and her kittens.

Izzy seemed content with her kittens now in the bathroom and didn’t try to move them again. However, when one cried, she would jump up from nursing them, anxious to see what was wrong. Sometimes she’d lay on them, then freak when she heard a kitten cry and jump up again, never seeming to understand that if she laid down carefully and stayed there the kittens would be quiet. If she was nursing and I walked in, she’d rush to the door, hoping to get out of the room. I likened her to a 13-year-old human mother, not mature enough to want to stay with her babies, ready to go on with her life as it was before. The day after Eddy’s accident, Izzy killed one of her kittens. I found it with two puncture wounds in its chest from her teeth and flattened by her weight. My vet and I theorized that she became frustrated with the crying and bit it to make the crying stop. This is not something normally seen in cats, but isn’t that uncommon in some breeds of dogs. By this time, we determined that Izzy may be suffering from severe post-partum depression and unfit to leave alone with her kittens.

The kittens stayed behind a closed bathroom door and Izzy had to stay in our bedroom. She seemed to want to be with her kittens desperately, but it was now supervised visits to nurse only. She would wake me up in the middle of the night for that feeding and I would escort Izzy in, sitting on the bathroom floor with my head leaning against the bathtub while she nursed them from 2 until 3 am. I supplemented the kittens with a bottle, especially Eddy and one of the little girls, Noelle. Noelle at times seemed to be fading, then she’d rally. Finally at 6 weeks, she gave up the fight and we lost another one.

Eddy’s paw developed a major infection, swelling all the way up his leg and the pus finding an exit in his chest. The chest wound had to be reopened regularly to allow the infection to drain. Every night, Jay and I would unwrap the little guy’s leg, listening to him cry as his raw flesh was exposed to the air. Sometimes the gauze would be stuck to him and we’d have to run his foot under water to get the gauze off without removing any new skin. One such time, it was so heart-wrenching when Eddy looked at me and cried I got nauseous. This was four years ago but I still remember how ecstatic I was when little Eddy finally got his weight over 6 ounces. He was way behind his litter mates in size, but still gamely scrambled for the milk bar, dragging his bad arm behind him. Over and over, I told Eddy, “You will NOT die on me.” I was emotionally vested in this kitten. Writing about him even now gets me choked up with the memories.

Over the Christmas holiday, we took Izzy and her kittens with us to my sister’s house in Harrisburg, PA. I still supplemented with a bottle and weighed them all daily, but Izzy had since visibly gotten past her post-partum hormonal issues and settled down to a trust-worthy mother. It’s funny, but when the kittens were about a week old, Izzy suddenly became a rational cat again; I swear I could see the change in her face.

Then more bad news: when the kittens were about 10 days old, the female, Silver Belle had a swollen foot and I noticed that two of the male kittens had rib cages that weren’t shaped correctly. Pectus. The sternum (front of the chest) actually curved in. When I got them in to see Karen, she confirmed my diagnosis. I could already tell the Pectus Boys had labored breathing and feared that their organs would eventually get so crowded in the compressed rib cage they’d die too. This was the first time I broke down sobbing in my vet’s office. I had been to her office 8 times within two weeks. She was good enough to dismiss most of the charges. I was ready to have the kittens with pectus euthanized, but Karen told me to think about it over the weekend. They held their own and shortly after the Pectus Boys starting walking, gravity pulled their sternums down enough to give them room to grow. Both are normal sized Maine Coons today, living normal healthy lives. Belle’s swollen foot was x-rayed, but the cause remained a mystery. The swelling went down on its own.

Silver Belle all grown up
Four kittens remaining out of seven. One has a deformed foot as he lost a couple of his toes. Two have pectus. The other seemed okay. I eventually decided that Eddy deserved a home where he could be spoiled properly. I couldn’t show or breed him and a very patient woman really wanted a brown tabby male, deformed or not. So I let Eddy go live with Susan and John.
Oscar, one of the Pectus boys, and friend in his new home
When Susan and John got their second kitten from me a year later, I delivered her personally to their home so I could see my Eddy. I even brought a strip of his red bandage I still had. Eddy was renamed Merlin (they had a close relative named Eddie and didn’t want to confuse things). Little Eddy-Merlin grew into an 19-pound handsome, friendly cat where he lives with his people, his 20-pound little sister Feebe, two Great Danes and 3 parrots. It was wonderful closure for me to see him again. His right foot is stunted, but he walks and plays normally.
Merlin, formerly known as tough kitty
Izzy was spayed and found a nice quiet home nearby where she plays fetch with their teenage son. When I went to visit her shortly after she left, she seemed more concerned that I would take her back. Motherhood isn’t for everyone, even cats.

My Litter from Hell challenged me a lot that winter and indoctrinated me into the tragic side of breeding. It was the kind of challenge that persuades many to give up breeding for good. It was probably a good thing I'd had healthy kittens and cats with excellent mothering instincts for the first three years to build up my confidence. I still try to see the positive side of things: the beauty of a healthy litter of newborn kittens who instinctively know how to root around their purring mother's belly; the thunder of 8-week-old kittens chasing each other and any victim that dares to move; the love the owners and my kittens have for one another. Fortunately, that’s still the case most of the time.

NOTE: For more pictures of Dracoonfly kittens after they're all grown up, visit my Pictures Pages.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


Increasing chest pressure which was first noticed the last week of September. Higher than normal blood pressure on the first stress test. Then the fearful conclusion following the nuclear stress test; you have a shadow on your heart. It could be a blocked artery. Shock and denial. I'm only 45! I've gained weight but I'm not obese. I work out. I haven't eaten red meat since 1984. My cholesterol level is good. There's no history of heart disease in my family. I'm not a saltaholic or fried food freak. Rationalizations and denial weren't making me feel better.

The abnormal stress test results came in on Friday. I had an appointment with a cardiologist the following Tuesday. By Saturday morning, the pressure was so bad I could barely function. I was trying to push through it and take new photos of the kittens to update my website. That got me out of breath. Fearful that I was a walking time bomb, I called the doctor again. He suggested I go directly to Yale-New Haven Hospital an hour away, rationalizing that if I did need to have something done, I'd end up there anyway.

I stayed calm while the kids freaked out. I had been an emotional mess the day before when I got the results, but was amazed at my level demeanor that day. I did, however, struggle with my own emotions when Kelsey broke down, telling her I needed her to be strong for me. Tyler intervened and pulled her away to another room to talk her down.

As soon as we got to Yale-New Haven, I regretted coming there. Paranoid about the H1N1, everyone coming into the emergency room had to wear a mask. We were also told that Kelsey would have to leave because she's under 18. Most cases of swine flu are in minors so she was considered at risk. Fortunately, one nurse felt sorry for Kelsey when she started crying and argued that it was okay to let her stay because she looked 18 and was obviously upset. So is it a blessing or a curse when your teenage daughter looks older than her age?

Once taken back to the emergency area for monitoring, I asked if I could use the bathroom before all the equipment was hooked up to me. I was told that it was too risky because I had chest pain. "It's too risky to not allow me to pee", I replied. "Is the bathroom up stairs?" Just around the corner. "It's a risk I'm willing to take." So the kids and I waited around for the rest of the afternoon, putting our masks on if a medical person came in our curtained off area. About an hour after Jay got there around 3 pm, I was finally moved into a regular room and the masks came off permanently. My angiogram was scheduled for the next morning.

The last time I stayed at a hospital, it was over 14 years ago. I call that hospital stay "Kelsey Marie". This time, I had to share a room with Rosa, a woman who was also hooked up to a heart monitor and spoke little English. At first, I was fine with all the conversation behind my roommate's curtain because it was Spanish and therefore easy for me to tune out. It was at times loud enough that I couldn't have my own conversations without difficulty. Her phone rang a lot, and the sound of the ringer was obnoxious. After the first night, I had Jay try to turn down the volume on her phone while Rosa was off having tests done. That didn't help. Apparently the volume controls are an empty tease.

I learned from eavesdropping that Rosa was originally from Ecuador. Her grown son seemed to be an aggravation to her, hence the yelling over the phone. She needed a nurse or aid who spoke Spanish to help her with ordering her food from room service or translating the more complicated communication.

I kept my fingers crossed that Rosa would be able to leave on Saturday if I couldn't. My hopes fell when the nurse told Rosa she could leave but she could stay if she wanted. What insurance covers using the hospital as a hotel? Rosa wanted to stay.

My coronary angiogram showed no blockages in my heart at all. That's great! My heart IS healthy after all. However, they wanted to rule out possible blood clots in my lungs. That would involve injecting more radioactive dye which would be safer to do after my kidneys had time to clean things out. Another night for me too. At least I got to remove the heart monitor that had been attached to six electrodes and wires coming out of the front of my top. I looked like a robot and felt weird sleeping with the monitor box like it was some sort of teddy bear.

Rosa and I were going to be roommates another night. Our interactions thus far had been minimal. I was in the bed closest to the door and the bathroom, Rosa had the window. We would exchange greetings only when she had to schlep past my bed to go to the bathroom, one of her hands securing her modesty by holding her johnnie together in the back. I felt good that I'd thought ahead enough to pack pajamas, clean underwear and basic toiletries. I asked a few times to be moved into a private room, but was told those were for the contagious patients and they had no spare rooms. I tried to tell myself it could be roommate could have been some old complaining lady who tried to talk to me all the time. I tried to accept it, but the resentment was building.

Jay decided to spend the next night in the hospital so he wouldn't have to do so much driving. The kids visited Sunday and seemed relieved when I told them they could leave, giving them a list of animal care chores to do and nagging Kelsey to get herself up in the morning for school. That evening, I was lying in bed either reading or watching TV and Jay sat beside me studying. Rosa was on the phone for two hours straight, full of animated loud conversation. I turned up the volume on the TV, holding the remote with the speaker built in next to my ear to hear. At 9 pm, Rosa's nurse came in and I thanked her, hinting quietly that maybe she could get her patient off the phone. Finally some quiet. Then Rosa started watching her TV. She was obviously feeling better than she had the first night when she fell asleep early. The problem with her watching TV was that apparently the movie was an action film. Every time something happened, Rose reacted audibly with an "oh!" or gasping. It almost sounded like she was having sex over there. Which, by the way, I wondered about at one point earlier when her husband was visiting and I heard a lot of kissing and bed creaking. How sick is this woman, my new Nemesis?

I asked for a sleeping pill and a percocet to relieve the ache in my leg from the invasion of my femoral artery earlier that day and help me sleep. My aggravation level was high at this point but I tried to go to sleep. Rosa's phone rang at 11 pm. I had been told that calls wouldn't be put through after 10. She obviously still wanted to talk and I was not happy. I unplugged my IV from the wall socket and rolling the IV stand with me, walked to the front nurse station to complain. That worked. Rosa got off the phone and fell asleep quickly. I was awakened again at 1 am by the alarm going off on my IV indicating that it was empty.

Next morning, I'm tired and desperately want a shower. Because of the whole angiogram, major hole in a major artery thing, I was instructed to wait 24 hours before showering to allow it to heal. After the shower, my mood improved considerably although Jay joked that I must be feeling better because I was complaining so much. I had a CT scan done and while we were in the room waiting for results and clearance to be discharged, we learned more about Rosa.

A translator and a social worker were talking to her. Through the translator we found that Rosa had only completed her education through the 8th grade, her grown children were okay except for her oldest son. He and she had an argument that turned violent, the police were called, and she suffered chest pain from the stress, bringing her to our shared world. My resentment turned to sympathy.

Interestingly enough, once Rosa overheard that I was leaving, she came over to talk to us. I'm sure she was happy to see me leave but as it turned out she works as a housekeeper. She wanted to know if we needed her services. She didn't seem to understand that we lived an hour away and insisted upon giving us her phone number.

I've left Rosa and the hospital experience behind, grateful to come home to cat litter, hair on the furniture and chickens. My veins are recovering from their abuse and I'm still finding sticky residue from the electrodes on my torso. I don't know what's wrong with me, only that it's not likely to kill me any time soon. More tests to come. Next stop, an endoscopy.

I know this is not a great story, no cute photos of me with wires attached my body, no near death experiences or miracles. But I wanted to write this for myself since judging by the lack of comments, I'm not sure anyone other than Howard really reads these anyway. (hint, hint)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

First Egg!

On Halloween morning, I awoke up to the distinctive sound of a kitten being born; a kind of bluuurp sound of something wet exiting its mother. Upon getting up and checking the birthing cage, I found that Kinsey had just given birth to her second kitten; the first was already dry. Kinsey, the whacked out adventurer, didn't need my assistance with birthing. One hour later, there were four little ones and a purring mother who was very pleased with herself and rightfully so.

Not to be outdone, the chickens decided to make this a momentous day also. That afternoon, I found our first egg, a perfectly formed light green egg. The color indicates that it was laid by an Americauna (also known as Easter Eggers). I credit the egg to Fae, as she's the largest and has the best egg laying hips so far. Yes, that's right, egg laying hips. A hen's "spread" is an indication of her egg producing abilities and readiness. No correlations to humans necessary.

Jay boiled the egg the next morning along with some others for breakfast so we could have an egg tasting. It was, without a doubt, the best boiled egg we've ever eaten. We got a ration of grief from Kelsey who was convinced that we'd be eating a fertilized egg with a baby chick in it. Luckily, the father of her current beau Nate, works at a chicken research facility and convinced her it was okay if the egg was collected within 2 days of being laid.

It's now been 3 days since the first egg appeared and apparently that's going to be all. No more eggs have been laid. I'm back to listening to Jay tease me about how my chickens are all duds and only good for the stew pot.