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'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