Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Pa in His Kerchief and I in My Cat

Hey, to those of you who have told me privately how much you like my blogs, Thank You!  I've been waiting for the next blog topic to come to me, but nothing other than the above title and a few other random thoughts are in my head lately.  The title comes from our current situation with mother cats, kittens and our master bedroom.  We have Trifle and her two kittens, Laverne and Shirley, and Cassie's Thanksgiving Litter of four.  Trifle is a bit stand-offish, but an incredible mother.  The kittens from her first litter with Bugger all turned out with very gregarious personalities, not at all like their mother's, so the breeding was repeated.  I trust that Laverne and Shirley will also be fearless, affectionate kitties.  I've blogged a few times before about Cassie, how she's my favorite and why.  Well, when I am sharing a room with Cassie, I love her so much that she is allowed to get away with things the other cats don't. 
Me with Cassie

Leaving the care of her kittens in the bathroom with Trifle, Cassie's nightly ritual is to curl herself around my head on my pillow.  After my turn is over, she does the same for Jay.  Jay is less enamored with this behavior than I am, even after I remind him that back in the olden days the bedrooms were so cold people had to wear night caps to bed for warmth, so perhaps Cassie thinks she's doing us a favor in keeping our heads warm.  Jay's hair is much thinner than mine so I'd think he'd appreciate the kitty cap more. 

Trifle and Cassie's Litters at 6 and 4 weeks old

Another habit Cassie has that is common in Maine Coons; curling up to sleep in the cool bathroom sink.  The sink contains her perfectly and gives her a mommy break from her demanding kittens.  Cassie seems to need a lot more breaks than Trifle does, but I've seen both mothers nursing all six kittens equally.  I've had water-obsessed cats before and they are frankly a pain when I am trying to brush my teeth and the cat gets in the way by trying to get water coming out of the faucet.  I usually lose patience with these cats and push them aside so I can brush and spit in peace.  With Cassie, however, I can't bring myself to get her out of the sink when she looks so pretty and peaceful sleeping there so I brush less often.   I should take charge, rouse her up and out of my way.  Instead, I think I'll put a toothbrush in the downstairs bathroom.

Monday, December 13, 2010

My Holiday Newletter

I emailed my annual newsletter to everyone who has a cat or kitten from me.  If you were supposed to get this and did not, please let me know so I can correct your email address in my contacts lists.  

Happy Holidays to the Dracoonfly Family!

As I resorted to last year, I’m emailing rather than snail mailing out my annual holiday card and newsletter to save on postage. I hope everyone and their cat family members have had another wonderful year. This is normally the time of year when I receive lots of photo updates from you all. It’s always a major feat if I get to post adult pictures of an entire litter. I try to be organized enough to get them up on the Pictures pages of the website under the names of your kitten’s mother, along with their baby picture so be sure to check there to see your cat. If you sent in a picture and I didn’t get your cat up, please remind me as I lose track of my emails more easily this time of year.

If you haven’t been reading my blog or stalking my site regularly, then you may not know how Dracoonfly has made the news this past year. I took Bugger and one of his son’s, Copper John (formerly known as “Boston”) to NECN this summer for an interview I did about Maine Coon cats. Here’s a link if you’d like to watch on your PC. Plus, Bugger’s modeling debut is finally out in print in the new Arm & Hammer Cat Litter ad as their new spokes cat “Spike”. So far, his ad has been sighted on the back cover of Cat Fancy, and in Health, Country Living and Family Circle magazines. Get your autographs now as Bugger will be retiring from breeding later in 2011 and become a regular pet, as soon as our new young studs, Downy and Bates, prove themselves. Bugger’s lion-like look will continue on with his many breeding offspring.

As a reminder, please be careful to cat and kitten-proof your house, especially during the holidays. One of our kitten buyers had a close call recently with her cat Ceilidh (pronounced “Kay-lay”, formerly Jennyanydots). Ceilidh swallowed a plastic fastener, like those used to attached price tags to clothing. The fastener cut through her intestinal wall, requiring major surgery and the removal of part of the intestine. Thank goodness her owners had pet insurance to help with the tremendous expense of Ceilidh’s surgery and she is recovering nicely. That being said, don’t be afraid to put up a tree if you celebrate Christmas. We cut our own every year and have only had it come down once (not the cats’ fault; it had a twisted trunk). Our breakable ornaments are hung at the top. Unlike in the attached Simon video, most Maine Coons aren’t really into climbing the tree, just knocking down ornaments and drinking the tree’s water.

Rather than my own photos, this year I’m attaching a couple of the Christmas pictures I’ve received recently from my kitten buyers.

Lady Antebellum


Have a wonderful holiday season and please give your kitties a hug from me.


Sunday, December 5, 2010

Thanksgiving Day Kittens

I knew Cassie could have kittens any day last week, with Day 63 of gestation falling on November 24th, Thanksgiving Eve. Historically, Cassie has been my least reliable breeder so the fact that she was even pregnant was momentous for me.  She is a cat that never seemed to cycle, but managed to go into heat when I sent her out to a friend's stud just to see if anything happened.  In the beginning, I would room her with Bugger, in case she was having silent heats, figuring he would be able to detect what I couldn't see or hear from a normal cat in heat.  Not all cats howl when in heat, but an experienced eye notices behaviors like increased vocalization, affection, and the tell-tale sign of her rear in the air, tail to the side (did you notice I used three different spellings of the same word in that sentence?).  If unsure, normally stroking her near the base of the tail brings forth the posturing known as lordosis behavior in which her back becomes concave.  This is kind of like the effect that high heels have on an upright mammal trying to look sexy.  A woman wears her FMP's*, looks good, her rear sticks out, she can't walk very fast and her feet hurt, but the men come a running just like a tom cat.

But I digress.  Normally I wouldn't keep a cat like Cassie in my breeding  program, but her personality and type (meaning a good physical example of the Maine Coon standard) are something I'd like to reproduce, especially her personality.  I've blogged before about Cassie and have declared from the time I got her that she would always stay with us, if not as a breeder, then as a pet.  She has only had one viable litter and Cassie is three-years-old.  In order to keep my numbers down, all other females who retire from breeding are placed in pet homes after being spayed.  Cassie is so demonstrative with her affection that she will jump from the floor into the arms of strangers, she reaches up to be picked up like a small child, she is just....special.   Her only fault is that she gets terribly carsick so her show career got cut short after I spent an hour cleaning poop out of her fur at a show.  Her other fault is that she has had a hard time conceiving kittens. 

This Thanksgiving, the kids were at their dad's house so Jay and I had invited friends over to celebrate.  We couldn't go anywhere because of Cassie's expected delivery.  I slept little the night before Thanksgiving, waking up every couple of hours to make sure Cassie wasn't in labor.  That morning, she acted like she was content to stay pregnant forever, ate breakfast and tried to sneak out of our bedroom several times.  Jay and I got busy cleaning and cooking.  An hour or so later, I came into our room to find Cassie and her newly delivered kitten on the rug. 

I yelled out the door to Jay, "We're having kittens!" so he'd know why I suddenly disappeared.  Of course I should thank Cassie for getting me out of the bulk of the cleaning as Jay finished it.  That's right ladies, my husband finished cleaning the house, changed the litter boxes and cooked the turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes while I sat on the floor and waited for kittens. 

The first three kittens arrived quickly then labor seemed to stop.  She had looked like she was carrying five so I expected more.  I palpated Cassie's sides and felt at least one head.  After an hour, I suspected we may have a stillborn as a dead kitten doesn't release the natural oxytocin to stimulate contractions.  I gave Cassie a shot of oxytocin to help things along, something I'd never do unless a cat had already delivered a kitten so I knew her cervix was fully dilated.  Some breeders think that when it takes a kitten a long time to deliver and the result is a dead kitten that it was killed by the delay in the birth canal.  My vet explains it differently.  The birth canal is very short, shorter than the length of the kitten. The delay in birth is more likely caused by the lack of enough oxytocin necessary to produce strong contractions.  Obviously, all the kittens need to come out or the mother could develop an infection.  Sure enough, the fourth kitten was stillborn, its cause of death was gastroschism, an unfortunately occasional birth defect we see when the abdominal wall doesn't completely close up before birth. 

I still felt another hard head yet to be delivered and Cassie's contractions were sporadic and unproductive.  Fearing the worst, I gave her another shot of oxytocin after waiting 30 minutes.  Nothing.  Contractions every 5 minutes or so, but that's not frequent enough to produce a kitten.  Not wanting to push the man-made oxytocin, I decided to help Jay downstairs and revisit Cassie in another hour.  I considered calling my vet, but hesitated because I didn't want to disrupt her Thanksgiving preparation.  My guests were on their way and received regular play-by-play on the delivery.  They were hoping to watch the birth and the way things were going, they may just get that opportunity.  I should mention that my guests were also cat breeders and Cassie fans so they were naturally intrigued.  Only cat breeders and midwives can talk placentas and amniotic fluid while eating and not lose their appetites. 

After peeling the sweet potatoes and putting them into the Crockpot, I checked on Cassie.  Bingo!  She had just delivered another kitten on her own and she was a live squirmy little thing, born about 2 hours after the rest of her littermates.  Further palpatation revealed that Cassie was finished with the hard part.

Now that I knew we had four live babies, I could critique them.  Cassie is a ticked torbie, meaning she lacks the classic or mackeral stripes on her body like the traditional Maine Coon.  I'm not crazy about the ticked pattern, but it does look pretty on a silver or a red as the cats resemble a fox's coloring.  To me, most of the brown ticked tabbies look like mud.  Well, the whole litter is ticked.  With the exception of the blue ticked girl, their coloring is akin to watered down chocolate, like a Yoohoo chocolate drink.  As their coats come in, these kittens should be beautiful warm brown ticked tabbies.  See the Maine Coon Breeders and Fanciers site for examples of the ticked tabby Maine Coons in different colors.  My current plan is keep a female, ticked or not, so I at least have a Cassie daughter to carry on that winning personality. 

Thanksgiving Day Litter

Coming up with call names for a litter born on Thanksgiving Day, names like Pilgrim, Pocahontas, Chief Powhatan, John Smith, etc. were suggested.  However, most of them sounded masculine and I had 3 girls to name.  So I focused on the word "thanks" and my guests helped with the translation into various foreign languages; Spasibo (Russian) for the one male, Gracias (Spanish), Danke (German), and Merci (French) for the girls.  

Cassie Cleans Up Her New Kittens

*FMP - initials for F... Me Pumps

Friday, November 26, 2010

Cooperation (or Who's Going to Raise the Kittens?)

Many cat breeders will plan the birth of litters close together, just in case the mother of one litter needs help from the other mother.  Other breeders find this difficult to do if two females don't get along or they don't have the space.  When you read or watch news stories about how a mother dog or cat adopted a wild baby animal like a fox, skunk, squirrel, rabbit, etc, the reporters always express surprise that an animal would choose to nurse its natural enemy or prey.  The maternal instinct is incredibly strong and shouldn't be underestimated.  A crying baby calls to a new mother like no other, even to the point where my cats once came to the defense of one of my distraught baby chicks.

The first time I planned two litters together was for the simple reason of giving my stud male the confidence to breed.  I wrote about this in my blog "Cat Sex Therapy 101" Bugger was intimidated by Sassy because she'd bullied him as a youngster, but he grew up with Ginger and felt very comfortable with her.  I let Bugger build up his confidence with Ginger so that he felt "man enough" to breed a very willing Sassy two days later.  Eleven kittens resulted between the two of them and after a few growls and hisses, the two moms agreed to combine litters for space reasons.  Since Ginger had seven kittens and Sassy had four, I figured it would help Ginger's kittens to have a foster mom and even out the load. 

Sassy and Ginger with Their Combined Litter of Eleven

The most likely time a kitten will need a foster mom will be when it is a singleton, an only child.  It is not uncommon for the mother of one kitten to feel disconnected from her offspring.  One theory is a single kitten does not trigger the same hormonal release a normal sized litter does so the new mom goes into heat again very quickly, her body telling her to move on and get pregnant.  Also, since cats are designed to have multiple births, she instinctively feels like the kitten won't survive anyway.  If no other lactating queen with similar aged kittens is available, the breeder is left with bottle feeding and filling in for the mother, often with a decreased survival rate.

My black tortie, Amy, started out with 3 singleton litters in a row.  She went into heat by the time each kitten was two weeks old and Amy was ready to move on.  Luckily, each time I had another litter arrive a week before or after Amy's so she had another queen to take on her mothering duties.   The most memorable combination of litters was between Amy and Boom Boom.  The two queens couldn't look more different physically; Amy a small, dark, busy cat and Boom Boom, the largest breeding female I've had, 16-pounds, long, beautiful coat, somewhat shy.  Boom Boom delivered first as I recall and a pregnant Amy jumped right in to assist with the birth.  Initially, I found Amy's interference a nuisance, but I noticed that Boom Boom really didn't mind the help.  Amy cleaned up the kittens and Boom Boom.  All Boom Boom had to do was push.  They made a beautiful working team.  Later the two were very happy to nurse each other's kittens. 

Boom Boom and Amy - a Terrific Team

My cats have also fostered other breeders' litters, sometimes a singleton, sometimes an entire litter if the mother was sick.  Most were from fellow Maine Coon breeders who needed a lactating queen.  The funniest of these was when we took on a completely different breed, a sable Burmese from my friend Priscilla.  He was a singleton, his mother had lost interest in him and he was failing.  I warned Priscilla that I wasn't sure if I could save him since he had no suckle reflex anymore.  Ginger had a litter of 3 red males at home who were two days older than the Burmese.  The Burmese is one of the smaller breeds of cats, so you can imagine how a week-old kitten looks.  I called him Mouse.  When I first introduced Mouse to Ginger, I held him carefully, not sure how she'd react to a such a different-looking kitten.  She sniffed him and looked confused.  Then Mouse cried a little kitten meow. "Oh! It's a kitten!" Ginger immediately started licking the little guy.  Mouse thrived with Ginger's care.  She seemed to know he needed extra attention and kept his whiskers trimmed down to his muzzle, the way the Burmese do.  If Mouse cried, Ginger came running. He was louder than his Maine Coon brothers and developed more slowly, but he played just as rough and developed into a very confident Burmese cat.  Ginger and I were heralded as Mouse's saviors that year and I made lots of friends in the Burmese world as the word spread of Mouse and Maines.

Mouse the Burmese with His Maine Coon Brothers

Our current litter combo was one initiated by the mother cat.  Olivia had her litter of five in the cat cage in our bedroom since that offers more space.  I like to keep the cage door open so the moms can use the litter box in our bathroom, further away from my senses at night.  Trifle's litter of two were in the basket in my bathroom, two weeks younger.  Last week, I found Trifle in the cage, happily nursing Olivia's kittens while Olivia stood by looking perplexed.  The two litters are combined now and the mothers tag-team most of the time, with Trifle happy to carrying most of the load and Olivia glad to let her.
Trifle and Olivia et al

Monday, November 15, 2010

Cat Peeves

I've been reminded recently of those cat breeders who are less than desirable from a kitten buyer's perspective. A frequent complaint I hear from kitten seekers is outdated websites and failure to reply to kitten inquiries. However, few things get under my craw more than getting a phone call from a future or current Maine Coon owner who has had a negative encounter with a fellow breeder. While I can't name names, I often counsel prospective kitten buyers on what questions they should ask a breeder if I don't have a kitten for them. 

On the top of my cat peeve list are Maine Coon breeders who don't screen their breeding cats' hearts by ultrasound (or sonogram or echo-cardiogram, same thing). One upset person I spoke to referred to the breeder she'd gotten her kitten from as having cats that were "drop dead gorgeous", emphasis on the first two words. Maine Coon cats are certainly not the only cat to be subject to heart disease, but since we were the first breed that became part of a research project studying the heritability of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) in cats, we are often associated with the disease. Read more about HCM hereHCM affects many cats, pedigreed and not. It does seem to be hereditary, which is why responsible cat breeders (notice I didn't limit my statement to Maine Coon breeders) will have the hearts of their breeding cats echoed on a regular basis (one echo at a year of age isn't enough) to try to eliminate the disease from their lines. Copies of the echoes should be provided to the kitten buyer if requested.

A DNA test came out a few years ago which identifies one of the mutations (called cMyBP-C) responsible for HCM in the Maine Coon. A similar DNA test is also available specific to the Ragdoll breed. More such tests could become the norm if research funds were there. A cat who has been tested as homozygous negative (N/N) will not develop HCM from that particular mutation, nor will its offspring if it has been bred to a homozygous negative cat. It's a nice predictor, however, a DNA negative cat can still get HCM from other genetic mutations which don't have a reliable test yet. If you keep in mind that humans have over 1000 such mutation possibilities for heart disease, you see just how complex this can be.

Therefore, ultrasound performed by a board certified cardiologist familiar with Maine Coons is still the best screening device we have. Better yet is getting a kitten not only from recently echoed parents, but who also has several screened cats behind its pedigree. Still, it's no guarantee. Heart disease is complicated, but responsible breeders do the best they can with the information available and stand behind the kittens they sell. The worst phone call a breeder gets is the one from a buyer telling them the kitten they sold died at an early age. It's news we don't like to hear, but that we need to know for future generations. While HCM in an older cat isn't desirable, many factors play into the health of a geriatric feline so we focus on HCM in the young cats.

Excuses and claims I've heard from certain Maine Coon breeders regarding HCM:
  • Don't believe it's a valid test
  • Can't afford to test
  • It's not in my lines
  • All of our kittens have their hearts checked by our veterinarian (a vet listening to a kitten's heart does not qualify as HCM screening, it just detects heart murmurs)
  • All our cats are DNA negative, therefore they will never get HCM (see above explanations on DNA testing)
  • No matter what you've heard, none of our cats have ever died of HCM (and if you say otherwise we will sue you in court)
  • The cardiologist told me that my cats' hearts were so perfect that I shouldn't waste my money by continuing to test them. 
Other areas in which potential kitten buyers may need to beware:
  • Cats and kittens in the U.S. should be registered in one or more of the major cat associations such as CFA, TICA, CFF or ACFA. Beware of non-legit cat registries that only require photos of the cat to determine its breed.
  • Breeders who don't allow kitten buyers to visit the kittens in their home, but want to meet the buyer offsite or ship instead.
  • Breeders that seem to have a hard time selling their kittens while still actively breeding their cats. "We couldn't sell these kittens, so we just kept them." The Maine Coon is a very popular breed so there's little excuse in the United States for having a litter of four or five-month-old kittens hanging around. Exception: breeders may keep a couple of kittens to see how they develop or show in order to decide which one(s) stays with them.
  • Breeders who say negative things about other breeders and their cats. 
  • Breeders who contractually require you feed a certain diet to your kitten, sometimes to their own personal benefit (i.e. ordering a cat food online from which they will receive a cut of the profit). By the way, this kind of contractual agreement is NOT legal according to the attorney I sleep with. 
  • A breeder who doesn't know how to properly spell or pronounce the name of their cat's breed. It's Maine Coon, with an "e" on the end, as in the state of Maine, up there next to the Canadian border, not "Man Coon" or "Main Coon".
  • Breeders who can't tell the difference between male and female kittens. Sometimes it's confusing in newborns, but after two weeks of age a cat breeder should be able to determine the genders of their kittens.
  • Breeders who don't know enough about color genetics or the proper name for a certain color.  A knowledgeable breeder should know the color possibilities before a litter is born. Granted, most average cat owners don't know or care about how their cat inherited its color or pattern, but it still annoys me. Case in point, a Maine Coon pet owner once told me he'd paid $100 more for his kitten because the breeder informed him it was a rare "buff" color. Um, do you mean it was a cream tabby, the dilute expression of a red tabby? I get cream tabby kittens all the time. Pretty cats, but not pretty rare.

Bonnie and Clyde, two cream classic tabbies (not buff)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Roller Coaster of Life

The past week or so has been an emotional roller coaster for my family and me.  In one day, I found out three bad things happened.  Logan, the service dog I blogged about last year when she and her owners came to visit their future kitten, had surgery to remove her oral cancer.  I had just been thinking about Logan the day before as I hiked through the woods with our Golden Retriever, Chardonnay.  Logan is not only valuable because of the job she does for her person Suzan, but she is a beautiful, gentle animal who captured my heart when I met her.  I will continue to think positive thoughts for Logan as she goes through treatment. 

The same day, we got news that Kristen, my kids' cousin, was very sick and in the hospital.  It turns out she apparently had toxic shock syndrome and her condition was very serious.  I'm happy to report that Kristen is now home and doing better. 

Then, Kelsey came home from school with the news that Mr. Conlon, a Ledyard High School math teacher was found dead in the woods after missing for two days.  Mr. Conlon had hanged himself.  Fortunately, Kelsey never knew Mr. Conlon, but Tyler considered him the best math teacher he ever had so he was pretty upset.  We don't understand the full story behind Mr. Conlon's pain and don't expect to; he had a wife and 10-year-old daughter he left behind.  The students and teachers who loved him are confused as to why a grown-up who apparently had everything going for him would take his own life. 

Then, my mother called to report that she had an MRI done to look at the half of her liver which was subjected to chemoembolization treatment in September.  The MRI shows that all signs of cancer on that half of her liver are gone!  This is the same liver that was "covered in malignant lesions" originally.  Modern medicine is incredibly hopeful sometimes.  Mom had the other half of her liver zapped yesterday in Chapel Hill.  The same positive results are expected by her doctors.  I started a blog (what else?) for my mom soon after she was diagnosed called The Organ Within Me to keep her friends and family updated.  My mother's news was certainly a welcome change from the way things seemed to be going early last week.

On Saturday afternoon, as I stepped out of the shower, Olivia greeted me with repeated meows.  Hmmmm.  She definitely wanted my attention.  Olivia's kittens weren't due for another two days at least....but there was no mistaking her urgent behavior.  Sure enough, within a couple of hours, we had a blue tabby boy.  Next came a solid black girl.  "Mine!" Kelsey immediately claimed.  Kelsey has been wanting a solid black Maine Coon ever since we lost our black domestic short-hair, Creole, a few years ago to kidney disease. 

Kelsey left the room and I called a friend to report the arrivals so far while Olivia rested and waited for the next round of contractions.  I had predicted, based upon Olivia's size, that she was carrying 3 to 4 kittens.  As I was happily chatting away, Jay came in and indicated with a finger drawn across his throat that I should cut the conversation short.  After I got off the phone, he told me that while he was outside, he witnessed a hawk striking our red Silkie chicken, Frodo, killing her instantly.  He was too far away at the time to prevent the attack, but Jay and Chardonnay did manage to keep the hawk from carrying Frodo's body away. 

We only had Frodo for slightly more than 6 months, but during that time we came to care for her deeply because she was so obviously handicapped.  I've blogged about Frodo a few times, in fact my last blog was about Frodo and her first egg.  True to her nature, Frodo was out in the yard by herself, the rest of the flock was elsewhere.  She had no idea the hawk was approaching.  Of all the chickens to meet such an awful demise, we ask, "Why our favorite one?" all the while knowing that she was the most likely to be attacked as she was more vulnerable than the other chickens.  Frodo is now buried beside Kelsey's favorite rock.  We don't have to worry about her anymore, put her up to roost at night because she can't fly up there by herself, look around for her well after the rest of the flock has come in, provide her with a ground-level nesting box for her eggs....it's amazing how one little chicken stole our hearts with her neediness and cute little squawking face. 

Frodo's Grave Marker

After the news of Frodo's death and consoling a very distraught teenage girl, I still had to deliver Olivia's kittens.  She had 3 more - a black boy, another black girl, and a silver tabby boy (bonus!).  All are big and healthy and growing like they're supposed to.  We have a choice of 3 black kittens to choose from for our breeding program.  It makes more sense to keep a girl, but then again, a solid black male who looks like his grandfather Bugger would be hard to pass up.  Kelsey came up with a Poet theme so the kittens are named accordingly:  Edgar Allen Poe, Shel Silverstein, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, and Langston Hughes. 

And so we move forward, accepting that we can't change the past, just how we deal with it.  Here's to the emotional roller coaster of life and all that it offers. 

Olivia with Her Little Poets

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Lost Chicken and Eggs

We have two Silkie pullets, Frodo the red one and Mumble the blue.  Frodo has gotten most of the attention since she was just a wee chick due to her apparent brain injury.  I blogged before about how Silkies are designed to have holes in the tops of their skulls from which part of their little chicken protrudes.  This head shape contributes to top notch of feathers sticking up.  Without a hard skull to protect their heads, the breed is more susceptible to brain injuries.  Mumble's brain seems to be normal although she is very shy.  Frodo is our Special Needs Chicken.  She seems to need to sleep more often and will often be napping while the rest of the flock is roaming around.  Also, when she panics, like she did the other day when a hawk got too close, she starts doing somersaults and running into things.  Yes, she is still the Flippin' Chicken, but only when under extreme stress.  Not the best survival skills. 

The chickens have free range of our yard during the day and are confined to their fenced-in space around the coop at dawn and dusk, prime predator times.  The girls are normally very good about not wandering far from our yard.  They are completely locked up in the coop after dark for safety.  The other afternoon I got the chickens in their yard, a process which is pretty easy since every time they see a human, they come running for hand outs.  I tossed chicken scratch on the ground and counted 13 out of 14 chickens.  Where's Frodo?  Whenever a chicken is missing, a feeling of dread slowly builds as I walk around the yard calling (yes, our chickens do come when called).  If she isn't found, the whole family participates in a chicken search.

Frodo and Kelsey
We've only lost one chicken, a Jersey Giant chick last year who just never came back.  In the grand scheme of things, I guess that's not bad considering we live in a rural area surrounded by acres of woods.  Jay credits our dog Chardonnay for intimidating the predators from coming too close.  Not that a Golden Retriever is a great guard dog by nature, but she is big and has a bark to go with it.  She also clearly understands that her job is to protect our yard from outside critters and has chased a fox and a raccoon into the woods before with pit bull-like intent. 

After 20 minutes of searching and calling for Frodo, I got worried.  However, looking for a missing Frodo has happened numerous times before so I tried to keep it in perspective.  I looked behind our garden shed several times as Jay found our first Silkie egg back there in the leaves the day before.  Silkies are a bantam (miniature) variety of chicken so the eggs are tiny and cute.  Frodo had recently started doing the Chicken Squat, a behavior where a hen will squat, flatten her back, wings slightly out, and stomp her feet when a human reaches to pet her on the back.  I've found that when a young hen starts doing this, she is "coming of age" and will start laying eggs soon.  So we knew Frodo had recently matured to the point of egg production.  Since Mumble was not squatting yet, we surmised that the Silkie egg was Frodo's. 

Frodo's egg with a medium brown egg

We have an old doghouse behind the garden shed among the bike, ladders, snow blower and other stuff.  The doghouse is one of those large plastic ones that have top and bottom halves.  I looked under the top half...nothing but a couple of buckets.  I looked under the separate bottom half and found exactly 12 brown eggs.  So that's why my brown egg production was so low!  I look up to see if there was a container nearby I could put the eggs in and saw Frodo, casually strutting around the back yard.  She had probably just woken up from a nap and come out of hiding, wherever that was.  

Now that I'd solved two dilemmas, the next one was whether or not the dozen found eggs were still edible.  Store-bought eggs have been washed to remove any chicken poop.  However, washing them also removes the natural "bloom" or coating they have which enables eggs to safely remain unrefrigerated for weeks.  So unless it's really hot outside and/or the eggs could be fertile, 2-week-old unrefrigerated eggs are still safe for consumption.  I knew this but how to convince my husband who throws out anything once it hits the expiration date?  I have explained and provided written proof to Jay that the Sell By date isn't the date an item suddenly develops salmonella.  With proper refrigeration, many foods are perfectly fine a week after that time. 

With the dozen eggs I'd found, how to determine just how long they had been there under the dog house?  I turned to Backyard Chicken's Chicken Forum and found the answer.  It's called the Float Test.  If the egg sinks to the bottom of a bowl of water, it's good.  If it floats to the top, it's over 4-weeks-old and should be tossed.  If the egg stands vertically on its narrow end, fat side up, it's 3-weeks-old and stale.  Many of your factory farmed grocery store eggs are a month old, however, they've been refrigerated from the beginning.  This test applies to eggs kept at room temperature.  I imagine that if there's a rooster around, you'd only want to keep the sinkers.  We no longer have a rooster and all these eggs sank to the bottom, so I had some reassurance we wouldn't get food poisoning or find a partially developed chick inside.  Knowing that a hen spends 1-2 hours a day in order to lay each egg would be a waste of nutrition and hen labor if they had to be thrown out.

Assortment of eggs, Frodo's mini-egg on the right

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Paws and Claws Part Two

I promised in the last blog to write some claw clipping tips.  There are many sites and videos you can Google on how to trim a cat's claws; Cat Scratching Solutions is really informative.  Every expert has their own method, but I'll just mention what techniques work best for me and my cats. 

In general, an adult cat needs its claws trimmed every 3-4 weeks.  Kittens grow at such a rapid rate, it's better to trim their claws once a week until they pass their major growth spurts.  When the claws are allowed to grow and hook around like scythes, they get caught on bedding, rugs and furniture.  The cat is at risk for injury if she jumps down from the bed and her claw is hung up, suspending the cat by one nail.  Something has to give; either the fabric or the cat's claw.  Also, a cat with long claws can't fully sheathe them and the sharp, pointy tips can hurt someone unintentionally.  The goal with trimming the claws is simply to blunt the claw by eliminating the sharp point on the end. 

Each of my kitten buyers receives claw clippers with their Kitten Kit so they don't have an excuse.  Human fingernail clippers will work for smaller claws if they are turned sideways so you don't crush the claw.  As cats age, their claws get thicker and tougher, so a good, sharp clipper is necessary.  The best claw clipper for my adult Maine Coons is one designed for dogs. 

The best advice I can offer is to be firm in your approach.  Too many people are intimidated when clipping their cat's claws and the cat will take advantage of your wimpy attitude.  You are in charge.  I usually tell the reluctant feline that we can do this the hard way or the easy way, but we will do it.  Actually, those words are mainly for myself, but I say them out loud just to get my point across.  You need to be in a patient, yet determined mood yourself if your cat is not the best at claw clipping. Also, if your cat is really difficult, you may have to resign yourself to doing one paw at a time, giving kitty time to calm down before the next pedi session.

My next advice is to handle your cat's paws frequently.  If your cat likes to sit in your lap, play with his feet, extend his claws gently.  Most cats don't seem to like the feeling of having someone manually extend their claws for them so the more you can get them to trust you with their feet, the better.  I think this feeling is the main reason cats naturally don't like having a pedicure.  That, and a fear you're going to hurt them. 

The other tip is timing.  Cats are most active in the early morning and evening hours.  Trying to convince your cat that it's time for a mani/pedi when she'd rather be chasing imaginary creatures on the wall is not the way to go.  She has to be in a relaxed mood.  Cat nap time is ideal (theirs, not yours) as sleepy cats make the best patients. Since cats sleep an average of 16-20 hours a day, the opportunities are there.  I keep claw clippers in several easy-to-reach places in my house, especially where I sit, like by the television or the computer.  Then if a cat lies in my lap and I determine that her claws are past due, the clippers are right there.  If I have a litter of kittens fast asleep, my first thought is, "Oh, how adorable! Where are my claw clippers?" 

To me, kittens are the most difficult to give a pedicure because they are small and squirmy.  I can usually get a head start if they are sleeping, but for the very wriggly ones, I resort to scruffing them.  Most of the time, simply holding a cat or kitten by the scruff briefly gets her attention and causes her to submit.  Remember, you're the boss here.  I may have to scruff, clip, scruff, clip, but it'll get done.  Keeping a long-haired kitten still while clipping her nails is important because unlike the short-haired cats, it is harder to find the claw with all the cute little hair tufts obstructing your view. 

By far, the easiest and most efficient way for me to clip a kitten's or moody cat's claws is to have someone else hold it still by the scruff.  It doesn't have to be a major inconvenience for your helper.  I have often taken a cat or kitten that isn't cooperative, plopped him on the lap of whomever is watching TV, and said, "Here, hold this."  My kids and husband are well-trained in reluctant cat holding.  I treat the scruff of the neck like a handle on the cat, using my whole hand to gently but firmly grasp the loose skin while keeping the animal on a table or lap to support its weight.  Suspending a fully grown cat by the scruff where all its weight is on the skin is NOT recommended except in emergencies.  The goal is to teach the cat that clipping his claws is not painful and submitting is better than fighting.  I don't like to scruff the cat automatically unless necessary in order to keep him still or from biting me.  I see scruffing as cat language for "I'm in charge here.  Give it up and cooperate."  

For most of my cats, I clip claws by myself while she is in my lap or on a table.  The cat's behind is against my stomach so she can't back away, my arms around her with one hand holding the paw and the other has the clippers.  This approach is to keep the cat contained, giving no options for easy escape.  Back claws don't grow as quickly as front ones, so I often just extend and look at those, clipping only the necessary ones. 

Most of my Maine Coons are cooperative with having their claws clipped since they have had this done regularly since they were babies.  All cats that are shown are required to have their claws clipped for the judges' safety and since my cats are shown during their first year, they get used to being handled a lot.  Our European Burmese cat, Bubba, is another story as he would rather slice your head off than let you win.  Bubba requires two people, scruffing, and determination greater than his.  For cats such as Bubba, the less brave may find that wrapping the cat in a towel or blanket to contain him may be a safer solution. 
Bubba, our moody European Burmese pet

Enticements such as kitty treats are helpful to distract the reluctant cat while you give it a pedicure.  Also, stroking the ears or sides of the muzzle can do wonders for calming a scared cat.  With my big boy, Bugger, I stroke his muzzle after each paw to keep him calm and relaxed.  The feline cardiologist I use reinforced my theory when he told me that it actually slows their heart rate, something that was supported when Bugger had his heart ultrasounded.  I stroked the sides of his lion-like muzzle while he was on the exam table and watched the results on the monitor as he relaxed.  Make sure you speak softly and reassure a scared cat during the process.  Praise your kitty and give him a treat after a pedicure.  Human baby food like Gerber's chicken, turkey or beef (all meat, no veggies) is like crack to cats.  Open a jar and let your cat chow down while you clip.
Bugger protects his pencil with his giant mitt

Another point to consider is that if you consistently keep your cat's claws cut, the quick (pink part of the claw) will naturally recede, enabling you to maintain shorter, more blunt nails.  If you allow the claws to grow for months each time before cutting them, it not only doesn't train your cat to let you trim, but the quick will have grown longer also, so you can't clip it as short.  Most people know to avoid cutting so short that the nail bleeds.  It can be intimidating to think you might hurt the cat.  Styptic powder is recommended to apply in that instance almost as if it's assumed that making your cat's claws bleed is normal.  It isn't normal and shouldn't be a problem.  I can count on one paw how many times I've caused a claw to bleed when trimming.  Everytime was with a squirmy kitten and I couldn't see well enough due to the kitten's movement and cut too short. 

Image from Cat Scratching Solutions
The more often you clip your cat's claws, the more comfortable you and your cat will be with it.  My tips summarized and bulletized:
  • Handle your cat's feet often
  • Keep claw clippers handy where ever your cat sleeps
  • Timing is key - trim claws when the cat is sleeping or relaxed
  • If your cat is in a bad mood, get help or just wait until he calms down
  • Hold the cat in your lap or on a table with his back to you, your arms around him
  • If necessary, scruff the neck as a reminder to the cat who is in charge, then release
  • Distract your cat with treats while you clip
  • Get someone else to hold the cat if it's more stressful for you to do it by yourself
  • Try to make it a positive experience for your cat by following up with praise and a treat

Monday, October 18, 2010

Paws and Claws

As a breeder of Maine Coon cats, I get a lot of kitten inquires through my website.  I strive to respond to everyone consistently.  Emailed kitten inquiries are met with a page-long reply summarized as "This is how I do it, what you get, what I require, how much it costs, and what I have available or expected.  If you're still interested, please complete the attached Kitten Application and return it to me.  If I approve of you as the potential owner of one of my kittens, I'll put you on the waiting list."  My dad has referred to me as a Kitten Nazi (a Seinfeld's Soup Nazi reference). 

My kitten application asks open-ended questions because I don't believe in telling the potential kitten buyer what I want to hear.  My theory is I will get more honest answers that way.  This is also why I don't state the expectations on my website that all responsible breeders contractually require.  That's right, you sign a contract.  Realistically, it's difficult and expensive to legally pursue a kitten buyer who doesn't adhere to the rules, so we try to prevent problems in advance by asking the right questions, such as:

12. Regarding any cats you have now or have had in the past, are/were they indoors only, indoor/outdoor, or outdoors only?

13. Was/is your previous/current cat declawed?

22.   When this kitten is altered do you want it declawed, too?

Outdoor cats and intention to declaw will get a kitten buyer refused if I'm not convinced they can be reformed.  I have to mention that most animal rescue organizations and shelters have the same requirements as it's not just the purebred breeders who realize that all cats are worth protecting.  I do try to educate the naive rather than just refuse them.  The hardest to convince are those who believe that cats SHOULD go outdoors.  The easier ones are those who aren't sure about declawing.  Some will honestly say that their previous cat was declawed but they have since learned that the procedure is inhumane and would never do it again.  Some will ask if they should, thinking that perhaps I'm recommending their kitten be declawed because they've never had a Maine Coon before and such a large cat may be dangerous with its claws intact.  They're not tigers People, just large, beautiful, domestic cats.  I normally refer the declawing ignorant to a site which describes the procedure in which the cat's fingertips are amputated up to the first knuckle.  Yep....ouch!  Being that anyone who wants to invest in a Maine Coon is a cat lover, that description usually convinces them as they had no idea what was involved. 

According to research, most veterinarians state that 95% of their declawing surgeries are performed in order to save the cat owner's furniture.  The procedure is most common in North America and Asian countries, and outlawed in most of Europe, New Zealand and Australia as inhumane.  My theory is that as the American public became more aware that indoor-only cats were the way to go, conflicts arose when the indoor cats started doing what was natural to them - clawing on whatever worked for them, usually furniture.  In order to prevent cat owners from giving up their pets, veterinarians offered the solution of declawing. 

In my twenties, I was similarly ignorant.  As a child, all our cats were required to live outdoors by my parents.  Once I moved out on my own, the cats I adopted were kept indoors.  I didn't know about scratching posts and it wasn't a problem until we got Creole, a solid black domestic short hair.   After we moved from Manassas, Virginia to Florence, South Carolina, Creole started clawing the couch.  Once, after a weekend out of town, we came home to a couch with its arm gutted open down to the wooden frame.  Now granted, it was a second-hand couch, but enough was enough. 

I had never considered declawing a cat, but my sister had her cats declawed (thanks to her controlling now ex-husband) and loved the way it felt when her cats kneaded on her legs with their soft claw less paws.  I didn't know what else to do and my veterinarian's advice was to have her declawed.  Creole came home with her front legs bandaged all the way up and looked pathetic, but she eventually recovered from her surgery and seemed to be fine. 

A few years later, I got a new kitten, Remy.  My vet advised me to have her declawed when she was spayed, explaining that if she developed clawing issues later, it was easier to do it when she was young and already under anesthesia.  Having young children and new furniture, I agreed.  The thought now of what that poor cat had to endure with two surgeries makes me cringe.  Remy never developed the behavior issues declawed cats are supposed to have (usually aggression and not using the litter box), but she did become slightly lame.  One onychectomy study showed that 33% of declawed cats have behavior problems and are twice as likely as intact cats to be relinquished to animal shelters. Remy's paws still seem disproportionately small for her size, but she is a family favorite because of her outgoing, affectionate nature.

When I got my first Maine Coon, Sassy, from a breeder, I admitted to her that I had two declawed cats at the time (Creole has since passed away from kidney disease).  Her advice was not to tell anyone so as to avoid harsh judgement from other breeders.  I took Sassy to Companion Animal Hospital in Groton, CT for her check up and found he had kitten package plans which automatically included vaccinations, spay/neuter and declawing.  I changed vets as I no longer wanted to be associated with one that recommends declawing as a standard practice. 

I've chosen to blog about my past sins in order to educate and not condemn.  Having been there, I understand the concerns of cat lovers who want to keep their furniture intact.  Now I preach about the necessity of a good scratching post and a cat's physical need to claw something, equating the absence of a scratching post to not providing a litter box.  Had I known (or been advised of alternatives by my vet at the time) to provide my cats with a good scratching post as kittens, Creole and Remy could have kept their claws and fingertips. 

I can honestly claim that very few of my kitten buyers ever complain about their Maine Coon kitten clawing where it isn't supposed to.  It helps tremendously that the kittens learn to use a scratching post almost as soon as they can walk.  It's amazing to watch a 4-week-old kitten waddle up to the sisal post and claw it just like Mommy does.  We have leather couches and the cats have never tried to claw them.  There are scratches across the leather due to the furniture being used as take off and landing strips during playtime, but nothing deliberate.  I have a cat tree or sisal post in most rooms so everyone has access. 

I can't undo what I did to Creole and Remy years ago, but I can move forward by educating the unaware.  My contract stipulates that if you get a kitten or cat from me, you agree to never have it declawed.  Since I have my kittens spayed/neutered before they leave me, any kitten buyer's vet who may suggest declawing at the time of altering doesn't get that opportunity. 

I was going to include tips for clipping your cat's claws, but as this blog is getting pretty long, that'll have be the sequel. 

Remy, our Domestic Short Hair

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Mysterious Sandcastle

Most Saturday nights the grand kids stay over at our house since their mother has to report to work early Sunday mornings.  For those who don't know, Amanda and Ben are technically my step-grand kids as I am WAY too young to be a grandmother.  They do call me Grandma Sharon since in their minds anybody over the age of 20 is old. 

We like to try to plan things to do with them on Sunday.  Two weeks ago, we took them apple picking, an annual event where they also get to select their own pumpkin.  Last year, Ben was so attached to his pumpkin, he took it to bed with him, only relinquishing it when it started to smell a little too ripe. 

This past Sunday, we had no real plans but since the weather in Connecticut is looking and feeling more autumnal, Jay wanted to prepare the wood stove for the winter.  Few things make my husband happier than splitting, stacking and maintaining his woodpile.  The anticipation of lighting the wood stove at the first hint of frost is so overwhelming to him that I've had to declare that the outside temperature must be no greater than 40 degrees before he jumps the gun.  We've had a few occasions in the past where Jay gets excited because it feels "raw" out so he lights the stove in the basement.  If it isn't really that raw, but actually 55 degrees, the prematurely lit wood stove has driven us to open windows in response to a house that is now heated up to a balmy 85.

Being a firefighter while in college has also made Jay a stickler for cleaning the chimney and the wood stove in order to rid them of any nasty hazardous creosote.  Even though we have a Cape Cod style house with a steep roof, Jay walks it easily while it terrifies me.  He doesn't quite dance and sing on the roof the way Dick Van Dyke did in Mary Poppins, but the soot-smudged image of Jay usually inspires me to sing songs from the musical the rest of the day.  This Sunday morning, Ben had no interest in helping his grandfather, so he directed his 5-year-old energy to drawing facial hair on people in the newspaper.  Eight-year-old Amanda was Jay's little helper, holding the ladder, carrying out wood stove pipes to be cleaned, and basically making her grandfather feel good about being able to share with her. 

After fulfilling her chimney/wood stove cleaning duties, Amanda joined her brother at the kitchen counter to draw, but she also wrote a short story.  It was so cute I'm sharing it here with the spelling corrected for readability.

The Mysterious Sandcastle
by Amanda

Once day I was walking on the beach and I saw a mysterious sandcastle.  I dipped my finger in the moat and I shrunk.  Suddenly the drawbridge fell down.  There were two men guarding the sandcastle and I snuck past them. Once I got in I heard a rumble; it was a king and a queen and they said, "If you want to stay here, you have to haul firewood and clean the chimney."  I said, "Okay!" 

But then I heard my name and woke up.  It was just a dream.

The End

Ben, Jay and Amanda at Holmberg Orchards

Saturday, September 25, 2010

That's Some Egg

The newer hens have started laying eggs now.  Not all of them, but about half of the seven newbies so we're getting more brown eggs these days.  Good thing, because some of the older hens (by older I mean they are about 18 months) are not laying at all.  Since I pointed out in a previous blog about the uniqueness of each hen's egg, I have a good idea of who my non-producers are.   Shout out to Flo, Foster and Righty, hey, it's been a couple of months....what the cluck? Probable reasons were the extreme summer heat, their current excuse is moulting.  Righty has actually lost the feathers in her tail that tilted to the right like a rudder.

In background, a headless Buffy, Flo and Thelma. Chad, our beautiful Light Brahma and Frodo the Red Silkie

Of the younger set, Hybrid, the Red Sex Link pullet, has matured quickly into a large hen with a pronounced comb and wattle that would make the Corn Flakes rooster jealous.  The Red Sex Link, also called the Red Comet or Red Star, is a breed created by mating a Rhode Island Red with a Plymouth Barred Rock.  The resulting chicks which hatch with red on them are females, making the sexing of newborn chicks a lot easier.  Hybrid lays brown eggs that are mottled with lighter colored spots.  Then she layed this ginormous egg, so large I felt compelled to check her bottom for injury and ask her if she was okay.  The egg earned the initials of BAE for "Big Ass Egg".  After a day of photo ops and admiration by the rest of the family, I cracked it open to reveal the equivalent of two eggs inside.  Fortunately for Hybrid, she lays normal-sized eggs most of the time. 


Normal-sized egg with Hybrid's BAE

Turkey Bacon and the Big Egg Revealed

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Allergic to Cats?

Kelsey with Bubba and friend at a cat show in 2005
I recently wrote about my son Tyler going away to college at USC. When I spoke to him last week, he made me nervous after he mentioned that he had a major allergy attack soon after he opened the care package I sent. What if he has developed an allergy to cats? I knew the box I mailed had been used as a cat bed before I loaded it up with goodies. Just try keeping a cat out of an empty box; they assume you got it specifically for their use and mine will fight over whose turn it is to sleep in the new box. 

I read an article years ago which referred to the allergy problem some college students face when they come home at Thanksgiving after being away from the family cat for a few months. This happened to my sister-in-law. I even experienced it myself after I left my pets with my mother in Weaverville, North Carolina at the age of 14 and went to live with my pet-deprived father all the way up in Ithaca, New York. When I came back to visit Mom, suddenly the long-haired black and white cat named Hal drove my allergies over a cliff every time he tried to get in my lap. I actually sympathized with all those people who declared they hated cats because they were allergic to them. The theory is that while one is living with cats or dogs, your body creates an immunity to their dander. Contrary to popular belief, it's the animal's dander and not their fur that causes an allergic reaction. Living in a pet household is similar to getting regular allergy shots, only a lot more cuddly. Once you leave a cat environment, your resistance gradually diminishes and you may find yourself a sneezing, snotty, miserable mess whenever a cat is nearby. 

I've had allergies most of my life. They started when I was a young child and because no one in my immediate family had allergies, at first Mom couldn't understand why I always seemed to have a cold. Because my allergies worsened at times of stress (i.e. Sunday morning when I was supposed to be getting ready for church), it was often insinuated that my allergy attacks were "all in my head". I can tell you the only thing in my head was snot. Many of my childhood memories are fogged by images of Triaminic Syrup, choosing clothing with large pockets to carry Kleenex, and my perpetually red, runny nose. I slept with a Kleenex box, littering my bedroom floor with used "snot wads" of tissue by morning. Why it took so long to move a trash can beside my bed I don't know.  Add that image to a girl who already had enormous buck teeth and you have a little Sharon. 

There was no Claritin back then and my mother didn't want to put me on the only medicine the family doctor offered to prescribe because it caused drowsiness. Lovebird the parakeet was moved out my bedroom and my feather pillow exchanged for a cotton one, but this wasn't enough. When I was finally taken to an allergist as a teenager, I tested positive for just about every known allergen, including cats and dogs. Still think it's all in my head Mom and Dad? The swollen reactions to the test stripes all over my back gave me the medical proof I needed to get my parents' attention. My major allergens were (and still are) grass pollen (especially ragweed), dust and mold. The mold allergy explained why Mom had always suggested that I was allergic to rain since that really sets me off. As a die hard animal lover, there was no conceivable way I was going to give up pets and since it's hard to avoid many environmental allergens, I got allergy shots for all five allergens through college. Pollen, dust, mold, dogs and cats. The arm that took the pollen, dust and mold shot always had the strongest reaction, becoming swollen, tender, hot and red for a day or so. The allergist also had more effective drugs to treat my symptoms than the country doctor in Weaverville so at last I found relief. Meanwhile, I convinced my father to let me adopt two kittens from the Ithaca animal shelter whom I named Simon and Garfunkel. 

It is believed that growing up in a pet household gives children a natural resistance to allergens they might not otherwise have. There's a video on Web MD regarding this, so I'm not just pulling this out of the dander-laden air I breathe. I found an article on strategies for living with cats if you have allergies. I will also point out that my cat allergies were profoundly worse back in the day when our cats went outside. Think about it; if the cat lies in the grass and you're also allergic to grass, you've just doubled your exposure when Fluffy comes in and gets in your lap. Just one more reason for cat owners to keep their cats inside.

A few tips for dealing with allergies I've learned over the years rather than moving to Arizona and living a life of misery without animals:
  • Get your children a pet while they are toddlers to build their resistance to pet allergies. I recommend a Maine Coon cat. The choice of dog breed is up to you but I have a personal fondness for Golden Retrievers.
  • If you are just allergic to dander and not to cat saliva, try visiting the homes of breeders who have more allergy-friendly cats like the Sphynx, Devon Rex or Cornish Rex to see how your allergies react. The Siberian is also supposed to be a good choice, but I can't verify that.   Breeders of these cats are experienced in working with allergy sufferers.
  • If you have asthma or chronic sinus infections, assume you have allergies and treat them first. 
  • Don't be afraid to try allergy drugs. Drugs are my friend and could have saved me a lot of Kleenex and embarrassment if I'd had them as a child.  
  • Lack of sleep and stress seem to worsen allergy attacks. Take a Benedryl and a nap if possible.
  • Keep your cat inside and if necessary, out of your bedroom. An occasional bath (for the cat) is helpful. If you start them as kittens, it makes a big difference to your cat's acceptance and your success.
  • Central air conditioning is a must, especially during the heavy pollen seasons in spring (trees) and fall (ragweed). Opening the windows to let in the cool autumn air can really backfire when the grass pollen settles on your pillow.
  • Consider allergy shots to build up your immunity to your allergens. A couple of years of regular shots may make a big difference in your comfort.
  • Don't drink beer or wine if your allergies are acting up. The hops and tannins will just exacerbate your symptoms. Instead, try a mixed drink.  
I am obviously biased, but unless someone has severe health concerns, there is hope for committed animal lovers who suffer from allergies. I know I couldn't live without the hairy little rascals.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The C Word

Hearing that a loved one has cancer can be emotional, heart-wrenching news.  When it happens to the person who brought you into this world and and has loved you unconditionally from the time you were conceived, it can be terrifying.  My mother has lived her life the right way; never smoked, in good physical shape (still mowing the lawn at 71) and doesn't drink except for the occasional glass of cheap sweet wine. She always took care of her teeth, got regular physicals and had any available preventive health screening done.  She's tall for a woman of her generation, 5'10", slender, and still has her original hair color without the assistance of Loreal.  She's easy to envy with her natural beauty. 

So what's the point, many may ask, of doing all the right things when you can still get cancer?  I don't know, but I guess one could project that since our family is predisposed to cancer, bad habits like smoking would bring about problems a lot earlier in life.  My mom's mother died from stomach cancer in 1982, soon after I started college.  Grandmama also did all the right things, but back then we didn't have colonoscopies and CT scans.  Her cancer was found with exploratory surgery, but by then it was too late and she passed a few months later.  There seems to be a genetic component, obviously, but my wish has been that by the time I get to be around that age, we will have a cure.

We're getting there.  A good friend who works on research for cancer drugs at Pfizer reassured me that with all the progress we're making, the day will come when we manage cancer the same way diabetes and high blood pressure are managed now. 

Fortunately, even though my mom's cancer has metastasized from her small intestine to her liver which is covered in malignant lesions, there now exists a treatment which should enable her to live another 20-30 years without a lot of negative side-effects.  The fine doctors at the UNC Cancer Hospital in Chapel Hill will do a localized chemo treatment called chemoembolization on half of my mother's liver tomorrow.  They will do the same thing to the other half of her liver in a couple of months as it's important for the liver to function while its other half is being blasted with chemo.  It reminds me of the "one to wash, one to wear" philosophy for the liver.  All without surgery, utilizing the major artery in her leg to access the liver, the meds will be injected and sealed within her liver.  Being ever positive, Mom reserved tickets for a Caribbean cruise in October and expects to have a great time. 

When visiting a few days ago, I set up a blog for my mother so she could keep all interested parties informed of her progress.  Her blog is titled "The Organ Within Me"; a play on words since in addition to being a high school choral director, mom was also a church organist for most of her life. 

Sharon, Ruth (Mom), Paul and Diana

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Breeding Decisions

Gargoyle is an outcrossed female I brought in as a kitten.  Her registered name is Grey Ghost (a fishing fly of course), but Kelsey came up with the call name of Gargoyle.  Although she's not exceptional as far as the Maine Coon standard is considered, she has the qualities of extreme affection toward humans, smoke tortie coloring masking a mackeral pattern (a new pattern in my house, my other cats are classic tabbies), and a great chin.  Since she was also a trade from another breeder, she was more or less free. 

The problem with Gargoyle is that from an early age, she asserted herself by peeing in the wrong place.  I've mentioned before that intact females can be worse than males; this cat is what we in the field refer to as a Hoser with a capital H.  If I asked her, "Hey Gargoyle!  Did you do this on the wall?", she'd respond with, "Not only that, but I can demonstrate my hosing skills right now against this wall."  I think she was a firefighter in her previous life.  Having multiple females sometimes leads to pissing contests (major pun intended) between a couple of them.  Most females are not hosers.  Some will only spray when they are in heat.  All my females stop the unwanted behavior while nursing kittens.  Sometimes the hormonal effect of giving birth straightens them out enough that they change behaviors post-partum and behave themselves even after their kittens are weaned.  This is what I've been hoping for with Gargoyle.  If she goes back to her hosing behavior, then Gargoyle will be spayed and re-homed, hopefully with one of her kittens.  Don't worry, I've placed many horrible hosers who are completely reformed after losing their hormonal influences and changing environments.  Retired breeders make great pets, even if they weren't the easiest to live with while breeding.

Fortunately, I have a built-in cage in our basement with access via catdoor to an enclosed outdoor run to confine any cats with bad aim.  This is where Miss Piss has been living until recently.  Gargoyle had been bred to Bugger and was due.  I brought her into our bedroom and put her up in the 2-level birthing cage on Day 62 of her gestation.  Although she meowed a lot, she never peed anywhere inappropriate.  On Saturday morning, Day 64, she showed no signs of an impending labor.  I had to take Kelsey to an appointment an hour away and had plans to leave at 8:30 am.  At 8:20, I was ironing Kelsey's shirt on my bed when I glanced up at Gargoyle.  Crap.  She was panting heavily.  Not feeling comfortable being gone potentially for the next 4 hours while Gargoyle was in early labor, I rescheduled Kelsey's appointment, citing a "family emergency".  We waited.  And waited.  And Gargoyle panted.  And we waited some more.  By that afternoon, the husband and the grandkids were around.  I took Kelsey and Amanda to run some errands, leaving "the boys" in charge. 

Finally, at 8:30 pm, a full 12 hours after my watch began, I saw a red tail and a two hind legs appear.  I knew just by the color that this was a male kitten.  Approximately 1/3 of all kitten births are breech, but I always hope for the cat's sake that it won't be the first kitten out.  It's a lot harder when the kitten isn't as aerodynamic as it would be head first and the mother isn't stretched out "down there" yet.  Sure enough, this kitten was not only breech, but the sac was broken already so the natural lubrication was gone.  I grabbed a clean washcloth so I could get a grip and gently pulled on the legs and tail (NEVER pull on a tail by itself unless you want to risk detaching it from the kitten) with her contractions.  We got the hips out but then the belly was stuck.  Next push.  Just the head was left.  It didn't want to come out.  Gargoyle cried in distress and pain, I held my breath and hoped that he would survive the ordeal and pulled again, certain that this kitten was going to have a giraffe neck.  Out the kitten came, 4.5 ounces, a good size for such a small mom and none the worse for his ordeal.  Amanda was excited that she was getting to watch the birth.  Kelsey pretended it was old hat for her, but there is always something intriguing about what the next kitten is going to look like.

Gargoyle relaxed, cleaned up her new prize and I started calling my friends to let them know we finally had one.  An hour and a half later, she delivered a stillborn kitten with gastroschism.  Gastroschism is the medical term for the reality we breeders call "guts out".  The stomach area is the last to close up in the development of mammals and sometimes it doesn't always work.  I've seen it occasionally and it's not pretty.  At least this one wasn't alive.  When they're born alive with gastroschism, it breaks your heart as in most cases, it's so bad there's nothing you can do for them.  My vet advised me long ago that in the event a kitten was born that was obviously not "meant to be" and a vet wasn't readily available to euthanize (cats are notorious for delivering at 2 am), to humanely suffocate the kitten by putting it in a zip-lock baggie in the freezer.  Nauseating I know, but it essentially puts the kitten to sleep.  Fortunately, Jay has been around the few times this has happened to take care of the deed, something I'm for which I'm grateful.  So the second kitten was disappointing and created more anxiety about the next arrival, which fortunately came almost immediately. 

This one looked black.  After all these years, did Bugger carry the gene for solid colors (no tabby stripes)?  Nope, I saw the tell-tale white eye-liner which gives away the tabby pattern.  It was a boy, probably a silver, maybe a brown tabby, but very dark and apparently healthy.  After he dried, I could discern a mackeral tabby pattern on his sides, the first I've ever had born in my house.  The silver boy was 3.5 ounces, smaller than his brother, but still within the normal range for a newborn Maine Coon. 

Worth mentioning is the discovery that Gargoyle has eleven nipples.  The standard number for a cat is eight, but in-between the normally spaced nipples, I found three "mini-nips".  I've had one cat before who had nine and heard about a Persian with 18 once, so it's not that rare.  Good thing cats don't have to be fitted for bras.

After all this, we have two new kittens in the house.  Right now I'm thinking I'll let both go as pets instead of keeping one.  It may be a different decision had one been a girl.  I had guessed that Gargoyle would have 3-4 kittens; she delivered three so I was pretty accurate.  Kelsey and Amanda couldn't come up with call names so I researched suggestions for this small litter.  On the internet I rediscovered an animated TV show "Gargoyles" shown in the 90's based upon a comic book.  My son Tyler used to watch it.  I chose names of two of the characters, but since the names are French, I had to go with two I could pronounce easily.  The red classic boy is Behemoth and the silver/brown mackeral boy is Cyrano (and no, he doesn't have a big nose for those of you familiar with Cyrano de Bergerac). 

Gargoyle's First (and last?) Litter
Gargoyle and her boys are doing extremely well. I've opened the cage door at the top so she can get out for a mommy break if she wants.  She is using the litterbox like she never had a problem.  True to the nature of a good mom, Gargoyle doesn't want to leave her kittens for more than a minute, if at all.  Nothing would make me happier than for Gargoyle to change her hosing ways so I can keep her in the breeding program as she is unrelated to any of my other cats.

Meanwhile, after a kitten hiatus during the summer, we finally have new babies to watch grow from little rodent-type things to adorable fuzzy kittens.  The Circle of Life and all that.  Kind of neat when it all works out right.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Gone Away to College

My son Tyler has finally gone off to college.  He transferred to USC (that's U of South Carolina, not Southern California) as a sophomore. Last year, Tyler commuted to UCONN's Avery Point campus in nearby Groton, CT, a big disappointment for all of us.  UCONN is in such demand that unless you are in the very top echelon academically, you have to go to one of their smaller campuses for two years before qualifying to transfer to the main campus in Storrs, CT.  We all wanted Tyler's college experience to be one of living on campus; commuting from home took all the fun out of it.  I have to mention that had Tyler applied to schools during his senior year withOUT consideration of where his girlfriend wanted to go, he probably could have avoided the whole Avery Point thing.  But try to explain to a 17-year-old that the likelihood of a high school sweetheart truly being "the one" and lasting through the changes of young adulthood are rare.  I only wish that Tyler and his girlfriend had broken up 6 months prior instead of right after the Senior Prom.  Oh well, it gives me a teaching moment for his younger sister of what not to do. 

We had a marathon run from Connecticut to South Carolina, leaving on a Wednesday and returning on Friday.  16 hours of total drive time, most of which was pretty smooth since we took the west side up I-81 and avoided the nemessis of the East Coast, I-95. 

Tyler couldn't get on-campus housing and is renting a 3-bedroom apartment about 2 blocks from campus.  He has his own room and bathroom, a far cry from my college days of going down the dorm hall to use the bathroom with 20 other girls.  He didn't want any help from his parents to set his room up, but did accept help from Kelsey.

The latest Toy Story movie came out this summer in which Andy, the boy who owns the characters of Woody, Buzz Lightyear and company, goes off to college.  True to my nature, I cried during the last half of the movie.  I relate to the scene where Andy's mother comes into his empty room after her son has packed up all his belongings and realizes that this is it, her first-born child is actually leaving her. 

Kelsey had the hardest time saying good-bye to her brother.  The closeness between the two who are four years apart in age is one of my proudest as a mother.  The normal animosity, jealousy, and meaness that is natural between most siblings was never an issue between Tyler and Kelsey.  They are not just bonded by DNA, but by a close friendship. 

Tyler in his USC apartment
The nostalgia, his empty room, the void left by his absence, the tremendous loss his sister feels....all are off-set by our happiness for him.  As I tried to console Kelsey a couple of days ago, I told her we were successful in raising a person who wants to grow up and leave home.  Now we get to decide what to do with his bedroom.