Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Too Many Good-byes

In the past two months, my family has had to say good-bye to four pets. For some people, four would be ALL of their pets, but since we have chickens and a Maine Coon cattery plus a few others added to make our lives more challenging, there are still a large number of furred and feathered family members. Thank goodness for them or the void may be even larger.
I don’t know yet if I can write too much yet about losing Cassie, the Maine Coon I often proclaimed was my favorite, the one I would keep long after she retired from breeding. Cassie's death was caused by a family member who didn’t see her jump into the dryer. It was a horrific accident which will haunt us forever and one I can’t dwell on. I have written before about how special Cassie was to me, how she’d jump from the floor into your arms, or onto your back when you least expected it. Cassie loved everyone and her love was reciprocated by all.

Cassie died on June 15th. Fortunately we went on a family vacation a week later as I desperately needed the change in scenery. The grief over Cassie’s death was overwhelming at times. However, vacation was good therapy and I felt I was finally able to move on when we came home.

Then Kelsey’s Russian tortoise, Eli, got out of the outdoor cat run where he lives during the summer. We looked all over, somewhat reassured that the stone walls which border either side of our property would keep him out of the woods. Being a tortoise has its advantages also, I told Kelsey. His greatest enemy would be the road and our driveway is a quarter of a mile long. For good measure, we informed our two neighbors who also live back in the woods about Eli, describing him as the size of a box turtle, but more blond in color and with faded paint on his shell from when Kelsey painted him over a year ago.

Meanwhile, Charlie the hamster’s enclosure was left open and he escaped. As soon as it was discovered, the cats were removed from Kelsey’s room and a towel was used to plug under her door. Charlie had gotten out while we were on vacation, but he’d been found safe in the closet. After an exhaustive search of Kelsey’s bedroom, I advised her to sit and listen for Charlie, certain we’d find the little guy, and I headed for bed. There I found Charlie in my bathroom, but not before the mother cat inhabiting my room found him. Charlie was not so lucky this time.

Our luck seemed to change when our neighbor was mowing the grass on the side of the shared driveway and noticed a tortoise with paint on his shell. Eli was back!

Meanwhile, our beautiful bantam Cochin hen, Millie, was sick. At first I thought her labored walking was due to her very short legs and her picking up balls of dirt and poop which hung to the ground between her legs. I trimmed those off and bathed her. We kept a closer watch and noticed that she had stopped hobbling over to the area under the deck and just remained in the coop. Then Millie could no longer get up to roost at night, nor could she get down in the morning by herself.

I got the name of a vet in Mystic who specializes in birds and exotic pets, Dr. Cindy Brown at Northeast Veterinary Hospital. Dr. Brown said Millie had a neurological problem which kept her from balancing. The cause could be Vitamin D (Purina recently recalled their chicken layer pellets due to a Vitamin D deficiency). It could also be caused by tumors or many other ailments. We decided to treat for a Vitamin issue to see if it helped. Millie received two vitamin injections and was put on antibiotics, vitamins and a homemade diet.

Within a week, it was apparent that Millie was getting worse. She would no longer drink, even when I dipped her beak in the water. She had to lean against the side of the small cage I’d put her in to protect her from the other hens just to stay upright. She was constantly flapping her wings in an effort to balance. I decided that Millie needed to be relieved from her pain and had her euthanized on a Tuesday.

The following Sunday, we had yet another loss. Jay and I were getting up from watching television and our 13-year-old cat Remy collapsed as she neared the top of the basement stairs, meowing frantically in pain. Remy had lost a lot of weight over the past couple of years and after normal blood test results our vet could only conclude that she probably had cancer. Once a rotund 18-pounder, Remy had slimmed down to a reasonable 11 pounds. Not ones for veterinary heroics when the end result is the same, we had decided we would just watch Remy. I had weighed her just a few days before and her weight had remained stable for the past couple of months.

Remy joined the family back when we lived in Florence, South Carolina, before I became a Maine Coon breeder. I had recently lost my cat from my college years, Yoda, to cancer and felt desperate for a kitten to distract me from my grief. The animal shelters were practically empty in January, but my neighbor mentioned that a school teacher she knew had been raising a litter of kittens which had been abandoned under a bush in her yard. I chose the kitten with the pink nose and Remy came to live us, purring through two young children, my divorce, the move to my mother’s then to Connecticut, sleeping on Kelsey’s face, tolerating the Maine Coon kittens which played with her striped snake of a tail, the dogs who played too rough, greeting strangers, not caring when we made fun of her tubbiness and called her “Remy-lard” and knocking over the dogs’ water jug on their waterer when it got too empty.

When I saw that Remy’s hind legs failed her, I knew she’d thrown a blood clot. I’m so careful to screen the hearts of my breeding cats to prevent cardiomyopathy in my kittens, to try to protect any of my kitten buyers from experiencing what I saw before me. Remy was a domestic short-hair who’d never had a heart murmur yet here were textbook symptoms of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). Her hind legs were cold, she was in tremendous pain. Jay held Remy steady on the kitchen counter as the cats and dogs gathered around her in concern. It was a Sunday afternoon, when all medical emergencies seem to occur. I called the number for Stonington Vet, knowing that their answering service would have the doctor on call get in touch with me. I have avoided the emergency vet all these years and didn’t want that to change now. Fortunately, Dr. Karen Brown, my go-to vet, was on call. I almost burst into tears when I heard her voice, thank God it’s you! I asked if she could come to the house, but she didn’t have the meds for euthanasia at her house if it came to that (too dangerous with her children in the house). She agreed to meet me at her office.

I was in full panic mode. I yelled for Tyler and Kelsey and told them to say good-bye to Remy as I was sure this was her time. Kelsey became hysterical. The vet had said she was okay, she argued. This is different, this is her heart.

Jay drove to the vet clinic while I held Remy in the carrier on my lap. Remy was able to use her legs to squat and pee on the towel, so I began to second-guess my diagnosis. Once there, Karen tested my fear. She pulled out a pair of nail clippers. Jay asked me if I didn’t just clip Remy’s claws last night. Karen told me not to be mad at her then she clipped one of Remy’s hind claws really short. “You’re checking to see if she can feel anything?” Remy hadn’t flinched. No. Then I realized, although I could clearly see the quick of her nail, it wasn’t bleeding at all. With a cut that short, her claw should have been bleeding profusely. There really was no circulation in her back legs, blood clot confirmed. Shit! I was right.

Within about 45 minutes of Remy’s collapse on the stairs, it was over as she lay peacefully on my lap. In retrospect, we had noticed that someone, probably Remy, had vomited a lot of bile that morning. Remy probably felt worse than we knew and her heart gave out. I comfort myself by remembering that at least we were there for Remy, we didn’t have to go through the long wait of cancer, watching her grow skinny, guessing her quality of life before making that phone call.

Probably 85% of my kitten buyers contact me because they’ve recently lost a cat. The void is painful and a new life helps to fill that void. I strongly encourage them to select a kitten which does NOT look like their previous pet. There’s a helpful article on grieving pet loss here. Losing the two favorite cats so close together has been really tough though the emotional breakdowns are gradually easing up. Even losing a hamster and a chicken hurts. I’m sure having other animals around has helped my family and me. I have been hugging them more and threatening them to stay safe, healthy and alive.

The dogs’ water jug was empty this morning. Remy wasn’t here to knock it over and let us know it was getting low.

Friday, August 10, 2012

A Rooster and a Gentleman

Back in January, I blogged about our new beautiful, but imposing Cochin rooster we named Aslan. At the time, I was very hesitant to introduce a rooster back into the flock because the last one we had became aggressive toward humans. However, between my family’s pleading and the rooster’s breeder who insisted that Cochins are gentle giants, I relented.

Aslan was a good decision. He reminds one of a dinosaur when he runs, mostly because you can actually hear his footsteps, like timpani pounding on the ground. His crowing is minimal, especially when compared to the neighbor’s rooster half a mile away who seems to crow non-stop. The most astonishing observation of Aslan is how caring he is.

I first observed Aslan’s nurturing instinct when I left two eggs I’d collected on the ground while I did something else. He clucked and circled the eggs repeatedly, acting concerned that his future offspring were left unattended in the open.

Recently our bantam hen, Millie, became sick. She had a neurological problem that became increasingly worse and started remaining in the coop on the floor. As time went on, Millie not only had trouble walking, but could no longer fly or keep her balance. We had to put her up in the nesting box at night and take her down in the morning. When I finally took Millie to the vet (Dr. Cindy Brown in Mystic specializes in birds and loves chickens), she was put on a homemade diet, supplements and antibiotics to see if the cause was a vitamin D deficiency. The other possible causes were cancer or Marek’s disease, but I was unwilling to spring for x-rays and blood work. Millie had to be isolated in a small cage to keep the other chickens from stealing her food. Aslan immediately became concerned, first by looking for Millie in her normal spot on the floor, then by clucking around her in the cage which was placed near the coop. In the end, I had to have pretty, sweet Millie euthanized as her condition worsened.

We often give our chickens leftovers to supplement their diet of layer pellets. The hens come running as the goodies are tossed on the ground. Aslan runs to eat too, but unlike the hens who will steal from each other, he’ll stand back and let the girls go first. He has a bigger body to nourish, but he doesn’t need the calories the hens do to produce eggs.

Our blueberry and raspberry bushes traditionally provide summer treats for the chickens too. As we pick the blueberries, the chickens will stand around and on top of our feet, waiting for the next berry to fall their way. The hens rush in like bridesmaids trying to catch the bouquet, grabbing and running with their prize with the others in hot pursuit. Aslan seems to just supervise and provide. He will actually pick up a fallen berry and, instead of gobbling it down himself, carry the morsel to a hen and drop it in front of her. Who knew a rooster could be such a gentleman?

Blueberry  Opportunities