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