Monday, November 4, 2013

Thank You and Good-bye

Today I said good-bye to Sassy.  She was my first Maine Coon, my first purebred cat, my introduction into the world of the cat fancy.  As my vet relieved her from the mammary cancer which had taken over her body, I thanked Sassy for all she has given me in the past 12 years. 
We got Sassy about the same time we obtained our Golden Retriever, Chardonnay.  The two remained friends all these years although Chardonnay has picked up a few more feline friends through the years.  I’d always assumed Chardonnay would go first, but other than an arthritic knee that slows her down, the dog is doing okay.

As a kitten, Sassy was simply beautiful with rabbit-soft fur and a painted-on classic tabby pattern.  She developed into a large female, a fact the judges noticed, earning her the title of a CFA Grand Champion in three shows.  She later earned the title of Distinguished Merit by producing five kittens who were also shown to Grand Champion.  Through Sassy, I met my fellow Maine Coon fanciers and became hooked, for better or worse, as a breeder and exhibitor of a one of the most popular kinds of cats.  

For the first five years of sharing our home with Sassy, she was a breeding female.  It was during this time period that Sassy taught me so much.  I learned to read Sassy’s expressive face, the intelligence in her eyes penetrating beyond, almost like she was trying to communicate with me telepathically.  I knew when Sassy was experiencing PMS and when she was in the early stages of labor just by the intensity of color in her pink nose.  I learned that an intact cat is a whole different animal, a victim of their hormones.  Having now known many Maine Coon mothers, I realize that Sassy remains the smartest and most diligent when it comes to caring for newborn kittens.  Cats are naturally good mothers, and unlike their canine counterparts, very conscientious about not lying down on a baby.  When Sassy had her first litter, two red girls, she was exhausted afterward.  But rather than lying down and resting, she slept sitting up, afraid of hurting the little beings who clung to her belly. 

Newborn kittens wander around the nesting area blindly crying when separated from their littermates or their mother.  Most cat moms will call to their babies to try to get them to come to them where they lie nursing the rest of the litter.  The kitten has no idea, being blind and deaf, where mom is and can spend a lot of time crying and crawling in circles.  Sassy is the only queen I’ve seen who actually reached out to her wandering kitten with her paw and pulled it into her.  Once when she couldn’t reach the straggler, she got up and carried the kitten back to the rest of the brood.  It seems like common sense to a watching human, but cats just don’t seem to know what to do. 

When the Japanese photographer Tetsu Yamasaki and his wife Hiroko, came to our home this summer to do a photo shoot, Sassy was the first to greet them.  Hiroko fell in love with “the old one” and had her pose for pictures also.  It was only fitting that Sassy’s picture made it on page 18 of Tetsu’s Cat’s Catalog for 2014, just above a picture of her 5-week-old great, great grandchildren.  Her granddaughter was on the cover of the same catalog in 2005. 
Sassy has struggled for the past several years with Irritable Bowel.  She was diagnosed with asthma and cancer in May.  After talking to others who’d gone through the same cancer diagnosis with their cats and given Sassy’s other ailments, we decided against surgery as treatment for the mammary tumors.  Sassy took Prednisone for her asthma and I’ve just kept watch for signs of discomfort.  Her decline became increasingly apparent the past couple of weeks.  For any of my kitten buyers who have one of Sassy’s descendants as a pet, you have the reassurance that breast cancer is much less likely in females spayed before the age of one year and therefore your cats fall into a low risk group. 

Sassy’s legacy carries on in Tippet, the one breeding descendant I still have.  Tippet doesn’t have the same face as her great-grandmother, but she does carry the gorgeous pattern, spunk and opinionated intelligence.   
So for Tippet, I thank Sassy.  For opening the door of the cat fancy world for me, I thank Sassy.  For being our dog’s first buddy and proving that cats really do rule and dogs drool, I thank Sassy.  For allowing a 6-year-old Kelsey to hoist her up to the top bunk every night and remain with her head sharing the pillow until the child fell asleep, I thank Sassy.  For the 17 kittens she gave us, I thank Sassy.  For all the kittens she grandmothered after she retired from breeding, I thank Sassy.  For her love of occupying empty boxes, no matter how small, I thank Sassy.  For inspiring awe when prospective kitten buyers came over and saw how friendly, affectionate, and awesome a female Maine Coon could be, I thank Sassy.  After 12 years I wouldn’t trade for anything, I have to love and respect her enough to let her go.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Grand Standin

A year or so ago, Jay and I watched an HBO movie about a woman with autism who became a major influence in the area of animal behavior, Temple Grandin.  We found her true story fascinating, not only because we’re animal lovers, but also because of her autism.  Autism runs in my family, so we are always trying to gain further understanding of the disorder. 

Fast forward to last week when a prospective Maine Coon kitten buyer mentioned that her friend Temple Grandin could provide a reference to me on her behalf.  Temple Grandin?  THE Temple Grandin?  Turns out the kitten buyer works for the publisher who published one of Ms. Grandin’s books, Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals.  They’ve become good friends over the years. 
So last night I was preparing supper while Jay was at the kitchen counter catching up on his email when the phone rang.  I looked at the caller ID, “Grandin Temple” it read.  Holy crap!  Hmmm…should I answer?
Just kidding.  Of course I answered the phone.  I don’t think I said anything intelligent, but I did gush a few times about what an honor it was to speak to her.  What do you say to a genius who has made such an impact on the rights of people with autism and animals?   Yes, I already approved her friend Laurie for a kitten, I told her.  I’m sure she’ll send you pictures after she gets the kitten, which hasn’t been born yet.  We talked a bit about the flooding in Colorado, her resident state, and how the surrounding area was devastated. 
After we said good-bye, I stood there smiling.  Temple Grandin…what a cool name.  And now I have her home phone number.  Who do I tell who may actually know who Temple Grandin is?  How many times can I use the word “who” in one sentence? 
I texted my friend Jo-Ann, probably my best-read friend and Manager of Information and Outreach Services at Upper Hudson LibrarySystem in Albany, New York. 

Me:  Do you know Temple Grandin?
Jo-Ann:  Yes, the autistic woman with a PhD.  Studied animals and could identify with their feelings.  She did research on animals going to slaughter and how to design a pen to make it easier for the animals.  Spoke recently at the Am Lib Assn Conference but I didn’t go.  Wanted to hear her.
Jo-Ann (again):  I suppose a simple “yes” would have sufficed.

Me:  She just called me.
Jo-Ann:  What!!???

Me:  I’m too good to talk to you anymore.

All kidding aside, it was a thrill to put a real voice to Dr. Grandin.  I will close with two of my favorite Grandin quotes:
“I think using animals for food is an ethical thing to do, but we've got to do it right. We've got to give those animals a decent life and we've got to give them a painless death. We owe the animal respect.”
Temple Grandin
“If I could snap my fingers and be nonautistic, I would not. Autism is part of what I am.”
Temple Grandin


Thursday, August 29, 2013

It Stinks Being an Empty Nester

This past weekend was an emotional one as we moved Kelsey into her dorm at Lyndon State College in Vermont.  A lot of anxiety on Kelsey’s part, employing our abilities to be carriers of heavy objects up three flights of stairs, coaches and cheerleaders, but we got through it.  Now to face the reality of our new role as Empty Nesters.   After twenty-two years of centering my life around those of my children, what to do?

Monday morning.  Jay is scheduled for an umbilical hernia repair at Pequot Medical Center at 6:30 am.  He conveniently waited until after Kelsey’s move-in date.  A minor procedure, one I reminded him that I’ve had done on the occasional kitten at the same time it goes in to be spayed or neutered.  The kittens bounce right back, so a week of sick leave seems like overkill.  Nonetheless, I met the doctors beforehand and was asked if I would be waiting or wanted to be called.  Hmmm.  Would I have enough time to do some necessary grocery shopping, including driving home to put the food away?  The store, the medical center, and our house were all within a ten minute drive.  Absolutely, the nurse told me.
As I rounded the aisles at Stop n’ Shop, it was a bittersweet feeling.  For the first time in two years, I was able to freely select food that had gluten in it.   Both of my children have Celiac Disease so their gluten free diet has changed my approach to shopping and dining.  I splurged and picked up some deli rolls.  I also got a package of tilapia, not because it’s a gluten-containing fish, but because Kelsey is a picky eater.  We now have more options for our dinner table without kids to consider. 
I quickly finished shopping and got home, letting the dogs out for a quick potty break while I put groceries away.  It had been an hour and a half since I’d left my husband in his johnnie and paper shower cap so I figured I had just enough time to get back.  The nurse called then and said Jay was just getting out, take my time.  I said I’d be there in ten minutes. 
I called the dogs, but they seemed to have disappeared.  I figured our Golden Oldie Chardonnay was trolling for treasures (chicken poop) and went outside to find them.  I didn’t see the dogs, but I smelled a distinct aroma…of skunk.  I heard our energetic young mutt Cory barking down the driveway by the stone wall and I knew.  We were skunked.
It’s never convenient for your dogs to challenge a skunk, but when you’re trying to get back to the medical center, you don’t have time to deal with two stinky dogs.  This is the first I’ve ever had to deal with a skunked dog and I did what most people would do…I freaked.  All I knew was that I needed to leave, but what to do with the dogs?  Cory was rubbing her face on the door mat, her muzzle covered in a path of slobber from the irritating spray.  There was no doubt she’d been sprayed head on.  I wiped her eyes with a wet paper towel and put her in her crate.  At least that should keep the little instigator from contaminating anything else, I thought.  Chardonnay didn’t seem to have taken a direct hit.  I don’t have a crate for her anyway so I had to take my chances. 
Remembering the nurse telling me to take my time, I figured I’d use an extra 15 minutes to visit Pet Supplies Plus for some magic skunk odor remover rather than drag Jay with me in a drugged-up state.  I got there right as the doors were opening, desperation in my eyes, skunk smell on my clothes.  They were out of de-skunker.  Now I not only felt rushed, but I was irritated with the world.   Everyone was in my way, the lights were all red, and I stank.  My car stank.  Obviously, one can be victimized by a skunk just by walking through the invisible mist they leave floating in the air.  I received a text from Kelsey, letting me know that she needed me to mail her bobby-pins (the good kind), tank tops, her hair dryer and an assortment of other needs.  I took a moment to tell her to get a ride with her roommate and go shopping for herself.
I was so distracted by my skunk thoughts, that I missed the turn for the medical center and didn’t realize it until a couple of miles later.  My exasperation screamed as I turned the car around.  I’ve only been to Pequot a million times (usually for Kelsey), so how could I miss it?  Once there, I was escorted back to my groggy husband who was holding an ice pack to his belly.  He looked up as I walked in.  “I smell skunk.” 
“Funny thing happened while you were in surgery.”
The nurse helped Jay into our van and poked her head in.  “Oh yeah, I can smell it.”
As I pulled into our driveway, Tyler called, panicking because he thought his student loan was still messed up.  Not a good time.  It’ll be okay.  Whatever happened to not having to deal with children?
After I got Jay upstairs and settled into bed, I set back out in search of de-skunking solution.  Petco was also out; not a good sign when the manager said he’s been trying to get more in for two weeks.  PetSmart, my third attempt, had two bottles of Natures Miracle De-skunker left.  I bought both.
I tied the dogs out and covered them in the solution, roughly scrubbing Cory and lecturing her that maybe the shivering cold well water from the hose would teach her to leave pretty black and white rodents alone.  After the baths, my back was killing me and my jeans were soaked, but I was relieved to find that at least the de-skunker solution worked.   The dogs didn’t even smell doggy.
Next, I had to tackle the smell in the house, but it was hard to tell what part of that came from my own clothes and what was from a dog touching various surfaces.  I left my clothes outside as the washing machine was already occupied by the dog bed and the door mat, mopping the floor in my skivvies wherever the dogs’ path had crossed.  I even used the Nature’s Miracle on the back door and my purse.   After I finally showered, I was able to breathe more freely.
From the bed, Jay expressed feeble remorse that he wasn’t able to help me bathe the dogs and de-stink the house.  I was so taking his Percocet with a shot of vodka after this. 

Coraline the Skunk Hunter

Friday, August 9, 2013

Photo Op

In the cat fancy, there are also cat photographers.  Yes, professional photographers who make a living by specializing in cat photography.  The big names have their signature emblazoned on the award winning cats of the year and published in cat magazines, books, our websites and at award shows (again, for cats).  Most of the photos are taken at cat shows, where a photographer is provided with a separate room or area where he or she can line up feline models of all ages and breeds throughout the weekend.   The good ones bring an array of toys and techniques to entice and relax the cat enough to show off its best side.

Tetsu Yamazaki and his wife, Hiroko, first visited our home about nine years ago.  I had signed up for a home visit while at a cat show where they were working.  The home photo sessions are free, with the cat owners signing away the rights to whatever pictures Tetsu may sell to publications.  Although he works in the cat show venue, Tetsu figured out decades ago that cats were more relaxed having their photos taken in the comfort of their own home. 

I had sold Tetsu on the idea of coming to my house with the litter of five-week-old kittens I had, the first litter out of the cat from my first breeding, Ginger.  The theme of that litter was food; Popcorn, Macaroni, Pumpkin, Peppercorn and Cinnamon were the kittens' call names.  At that time, Hiroko was trying out a new digital camera she had on some of the other creatures of the house; mainly our dog, Chardonnay, and my son Tyler's bearded dragons. Tetsu was using 35 mm film back then and went through countless rolls.  I had recently watched the movie Lost in Translation and was reminded of it often that day.  Being Japanese natives, our visitors spoke limited English.  Still, their English was way better than my Japanese (and my Spanish, French, German, etc.).

Kitten photo session.  The boys were getting sleepy, but Peppercorn (left) just kept going.
After the kittens were worn out and the photo session was over, the Yamazaki's were leaving and Tetsu spotted my husband tying fishing flies, an obsession he has.  "Ah, you fly fish?" Tetsu asked.  Well, that started a whole different kind of conversation.  Tetsu had a hand-held translater so he could tell Jay the Japanese word for trout, striper and other fish-related lingo.  They left with a promise from Jay to take him fly-fishing the next time he was in the area.

Several months later after this first Tetsu photo session, I received a magazine cover in the mail.  The cover text was in Japanese with Cat Catalog written in English at the top.  The kitten pictured on the cover looked familiar.  Peppercorn!  My kitten was a cover girl!  The rest of the litter appeared in the magazine and I've since seen their pictures in Cat Fancy Magazine for their special Maine Coon issue (in which yours truly was also interviewed for an article).  I floated for a good long time, feeling pretty important that my kittens were published internationally. 

My Cover Girl
I recently received an email from Tetsu, advising me that he would be visiting cat breeders' homes in the Northeast and would I like for him to photograph my cats?  Of course, and be prepared to fish I told him.  Naturally, the day Tetsu and Hiroko came was the hottest day of the year, 95 degrees with steaming humidity.  They were relieved to find our house is air-conditioned.  Since Tetsu and Hiroko's last visit, the dog has become grey and arthritic with age and the bearded dragons have found a new home.  Ginger and the kittens have gone on but I have hung onto the kittens' grandmother, Sassy.

I have a litter of five kittens who are distant cousins to my kittens from before.  Sassy is their great-great grandmother.  Hiroko was impressed with the "old cat" so Sassy got her own photo session this time.  Olivia, my feral-looking brown tabby and her four-month-old kittens (two I'm keeping, two are still waiting on their owner to move into her new house so she can claim them) also had their respective chances to look cute for Tetsu's lens. 

Tetsu(foreground) and Hiroko photograph Tippet's litter
After a couple of hours of this, I invited them outside to look at our chickens.  More pictures, especially of Aslan, our magnificent Cochin rooster.  Hiroko recognized the word Cochin as it originally hails from China.  She was enthralled with the two silky hens, also a Chinese breed.  I picked up Buffy, the Buff Orpington hen, because she's an attention seeker and handed her to Hiroko.  Her face beamed; her first time holding a chicken she said.  What a wonderful opportunity I'm giving Hiroko, I thought.  Then I remembered that I don't think I ever held a chicken until I got my own backyard flock. 

We packed up the van and headed out to the Westbrook Fishing Club, where Jay's go-to pond lies.  It was late afternoon, still hotter than hell.  I felt pessimistic that the only fish we'd catch would already be fried.  Tetsu set up his fly rod and Hiroko's fishing pole, literally a 15-foot wooden pole, no reel, just a line and a fly that Jay gave him to try. 

Hiroko caught in excess of 15 fish on her wooden pole, one after another.  Jay and Tetsu did okay too, but I could tell Hiroko was very proud of besting the boys.  Watching our husbands pose with their catch for a picture, Hiroko remarked, "They look like little boys."  And they do.  I posted a few pictures on Facebook, in awe that we were hanging out with such a world renowned photographer (I know it's not Annie Leibovitz, but I live in a small, secluded world with paws and litter boxes).  The fish caught were just small sunfish as the bigger guys have to hunker down in colder deep water during the heat of the summer for survival. 

Tetsu and Jay

The most rewarding part was watching Hiroko.  She squealed with excitement everytime she caught one, chasing it around on the bridge with her hands so she could release it back to the water.  She had said that she and Tetsu traveled to the States many times over the past 30 years, but this was the first time they'd been fishing here.  After our guests and the fish were tired, Hiroko smiled and proclaimed it had been a good day. 
Hiroko poses with her first catch of many

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Farewell Nick

Last fall I started working for my neighbor, Roberta, by helping out with her two Appaloosa horses, Nick and Tacoda. Roberta has an idyllic home for a horse, with acres of open green pasture, a ring and paddock areas and a three-stall barn nestled in the woods. Even though the horses aren’t ridden, they are babied.

Roberta’s concerns have centered around Nick, a vintage horse of 33 years. Horses live an average of 24 years so Nick’s advanced age is the equivalent of a 93-year-old man. Nick has multiple health issues, but even with his bum leg, could manage a canter and buck off 12-year-old Takoda’s efforts to herd him if necessary.

Lately, however, it had become apparent that Nick’s body was giving out on him. He became sick again and Roberta decided it was time to let him go rather than wait for an emergency. A backhoe operator was hired to dig a grave in the pasture where Nick would rest and the vet was called in. With an animal as large as a horse, euthanasia requires logistical planning. As morbid as it sounds, it is much easier to walk a horse to his grave to put him down than to have to drag his body later.

I decided my job on Nick’s final night was to keep his barn buddy, Takoda, busy. I groomed and walked him, trying to keep his attention diverted from Nick being led away. Once the deed was done, Takoda seemed okay as long as he was eating, whinnying from time to time to call Nick. Roberta spoke to the vet about how to deal with Takoda’s need for companionship. Horses are herd animals and consequently, need to have some sort of herd companion. The vet said in extreme cases where two horses had bonded very closely, she’d had to sedate the healthy horse so the sick one could be lead away to be put down. She said Takoda would need someone, a goat, even a chicken if Roberta didn’t want to add another horse. Fortunately Takoda’s love for Nick wasn’t a life-long friendship. Ironically, Takoda had been brought in four years ago as a companion for Nick when his other buddy, Mirage, had to be euthanized. Roberta knew she’d have to put out feelers in the horse community for a new friend for Takoda.

Takoda and Nick

The next morning when Roberta turned Takoda out of his stall, he whinnied frantically and raced to Nick’s gravesite where he remained for quite a while. When I came for my normal visit in the afternoon, Takoda was in another part of the pasture , but he called to me. It was if he was saying, “You’re here as usual, so where is Nick as usual?” The next couple of days, we witnessed Takoda’s grief and anxiety. He continued to call out for Nick, visiting his grave or just looking depressed. It was heartbreaking to watch.

Nick passed away on a Wednesday night. By Friday, Roberta had found a horse in need. Her name was Shamrock “Shammy”, so named because she was born around St. Patrick’s day. Shammy was in a situation where the owner’s family had been trying to convince her to give up her neglected horses. Homes had been found for the other horses, but Shammy needed major TLC. Shammy also happens to be Takoda’s half sister as they share the same sire. I tried to convey the happy news with Takoda on Friday night; that his sister was coming and everything would be better, but he didn’t understand. Poor Takoda, a horse I normally describe as being like a big, goofy Dalmation, hung his head and looked away.

Shammy arrived Saturday morning and an entourage of horse women led her up the hill to her new home. Even though they couldn’t see each other yet, the two horses started calling in anticipation. The woods echoed with loud whinnies.

Shammy and Takoda were put in adjoining paddocks so they can touch without him trying to play too roughly until his sister builds up her strength. Shammy is a predominantly white paint mare with one blue eye, very underweight, her hooves badly needed trimming, her legs covered in swamp mud; she had reportedly been living in a small space covered in rock piles and wetlands. Within the first week of her arrival, Shammy had seen the ferrier, had her teeth done and received her physical from the vet. She eats constantly, as if she’s not sure when she’ll be fed again.

We miss old Nick, but having Shammy there has breathed new life into the barn. The mare probably feels like she’s the one who has gone to heaven. Her brother from another mother, Takoda, is just happy to have someone to horse around with again.

Takoda meets Shammy

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Did You Say Hot?

I had an unfortunate incident a couple of weeks ago, one that kept getting worse before it finally got better…jalapeño burn.  It’s the old “I’ve never had a problem before with handling jalapeño peppers” so I had concluded that this type of hot pepper isn’t dangerous to touch.  Even tasting them raw, they seemed pretty bland.  However, HOWEVER, beware of the evil seeds that lurk within!  As I cut out the ribs and seeds of the pepper, I used my fingers to separate the seeds for disposal. 
A burn started a while later, intensified by my stupid action of touching my face.  I washed off in cold water, held a cold, wet paper towel to my upper lip and nose…it only got worse.  I finally realized that this was serious enough that I needed to warn my husband that his worst anxiety was coming true…dinner was going to be late.  Holding my face, I went upstairs to where Jay was working and explained it to him.  Apparently he didn’t completely understand, “So when is dinner going to be ready?” 
Now we have two jalapeño burn victims.  No, I didn’t really follow through on my immediate impulse to cover Jay with jalapeño seeds.  Instead I just gave him “the look” and said I was handicapped.  Not being one to miss a meal, my husband finished making the chili while I Googled “How to treat jalapeño burn”. 
The first response I read was to apply a high fat dairy product to the burns to break down the capsaicin or chili oil which was now worming its way into my very core.  Sour cream provided more relief than the aloe burn cream had.  Of course, now I looked ridiculous with sour cream on my face and finger tips.  Kelsey and her boyfriend Kyle found great delight in my appearance, but were forbidden from posting a picture of me on Facebook.  The burning sensation found temporary relief with the sour cream, rubbing alcohol and caladryl, but then the pain would return. 
Remedies found online seemed to favor anything acidic to cut the chili oil.  Urine is obviously the more famous solution, but I didn’t feel that was necessary.  Other antidotes people swore by were lemons, limes, tomatoes, catsup, Mylanta and Afterbite Stick.  I thought of the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding and the father’s solution of Windex for every ailment.  He wouldn’t have been far off in this case since ammonia is a remedy also. 
The main thing to remember is that the remedies have to be reapplied several times and don’t touch your skin.  The continuous warning I came across in my research was don’t try to remove contact lenses and men shouldn’t use the bathroom until the burning sensation is long gone.  I discovered that even though my fingertips were covered in dried sour cream and feeling better, if I forgot and touched my face, the burn just kept on giving.
My family’s sympathy during dinner as I held a bag of ice against my sour cream covered burns was offset by their amusement with my white half of a moustache.  My face recovered first, but my fingers took longer; I guess because they actually touched the seeds.  I took Ibuprofen and went to bed holding a baggie of ice between my hands.
Of course, the moral of the story is to wear protective gear whenever handling hot peppers, even the wimpier jalapeños.  Point taken.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Stitchin' Chicken in the Kitchen

I was at our neighbor’s barn as I am every weekday afternoon, taking care of the two Appaloosas, Nick and Takoda, when Kelsey called on my cell phone to ask when I was coming home.


“Because a hawk came after the chickens and one of them was fighting it. The dogs chased it off. I don’t think it got anyone.”

As I quickly walked back down the hill, I thought which of the chickens I valued the most. Certainly Buffy, our friendly Buff Orpington, is a family favorite. Nestlé lays dark chocolate-brown eggs; I’d driven to a poultry show specifically to get a Copper Maran pullet so I’d hate to lose her. I went through the 16 chickens in my mind and concluded that the ones I would miss the least would be the two Silver Spangled Hamburg hens. The Hamburgs are small and flighty, not very attractive physically, skittish. I’ve never been too attached to them. Our Hamburg’s names are Righty and Tighty, so named because Righty’s tail sticks up like a sail, but angles to the right. Tighty got her name by default. We do have a Lucy, the Rhode Island Red, but no Lefty. And yes, all 16 of our chickens have names.

As fate would have it, Kelsey and I found black and white spotted feathers where she’d seen the hawk on the ground. I recognized them as those of a Hamburg hen. Kelsey happened to be seated near the window when the attack occurred, but didn’t realize the hawk was actually a hawk because it was so small, smaller than many of our chickens in fact. Fortunately, our dogs, Chardonnay and Coraline, raised the alarm, causing Kelsey to look up and see the hawk struggling with a hen while the rest of the flock ran for cover.

She let the dogs outside and the hawk flew to a nearby tree and perched there, watching and probably a bit miffed. The chickens all scurried under the deck and Aslan, our rooster, placed himself between his flock and the entrance. Too bad Aslan wasn’t with those particular hens when the hawk came down, but I imagine the hawk planned it that way; attack the smaller hens who were by themselves, away from the rooster. Roosters are wonderful flock protectors and Aslan was purchased over a year ago specifically because he is the size of a large hawk. He also happens to be a beautiful bird and a real gentleman toward his girls and his humans.

I threw scratch on the ground and called the chickens out from hiding so we could count them. We were missing a Hamburg hen. Kelsey spotted her under the bush by the deck, alive but obviously not herself. It was Righty. Nervous when I got closer to her, Righty walked gingerly under the deck, and planted herself next to the house, far out of reach. She didn’t respond when I tossed food her way. Not good. I figured we’d stress her out totally if we tried to flush her out and catch her. Catching her would be nearly impossible given her skittish nature to begin with.

So we watched and waited until the sun started to go down and the chickens came home to roost in their coop. Righty was able to jump up on a perch where she was easy to catch. Once I had her, Jay and I examined Righty’s body. Initially, she seemed fine; some feathers missing, wings okay.

“She’ll be fine. She’s just traumatized,” Jay proclaimed.

“Check her belly” I said as I tipped Righty over. “Uh oh. He got her good.”

I brought Righty in the house where we had better light. There was a wound about one-inch in diameter which ripped her lower abdomen clear open. We could see body parts in there. I’m not sure what I was looking at, but Jay said the yellow stuff I saw was fat. No blood though. Even though I wasn’t sure that her organs weren’t punctured, I knew we needed to do something. It was 7:30 pm and the vet I’d taken a chicken to before would be closed. Kelsey came in, looked at the gaping hole in the bird and freaked out as only a teenage girl can do. Still holding Righty upside-down in a tight grip, I calmed Kelsey down and instructed her as our assistant.

Next thing you know, peroxide has been poured over the wound, feathers have been clipped back, and Kelsey is keeping Righty and herself calm by keeping both of their heads in the dark. After a false start with a dull needle and fishing line, Jay stitched her up with teal blue thread (easier to see to remove later) and a new needle from my sewing kit. Antibiotic ointment was applied, a chicken’s dosage of amoxicillin was syringed into her beak and Righty was put safely back outside on the perch in the coop.

After the surgery was over, Kelsey headed upstairs to her room, “Well, that’s enough adventure for now.”

Two days later, Righty seems sore, but is eating, drinking and getting around well. There is reason to hope that she’ll be fine.

Righty, Hawk Attack Survivor

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Weighing In

When I first got into breeding Maine Coon cats almost 12 years ago, I researched feline husbandry to the point of obsession. Each book or article had a list of possible problems you may encounter during your cat’s labor and with the resulting kittens. One point I took to heart was the importance of weighing the kittens on a daily basis.

By weighing newborn kittens at birth and then at least once daily (same time every day), I am able to not only track its growth, but intervene early should the scale reveal a weight loss or lack of gain. Intervention by supplementing with a bottle or tube-feeding (some kittens won’t take a bottle so you have to force-feed them), can give the struggling kitten the extra energy it needs to nurse efficiently.

I learned with my own children that formula from a bottle is easier for a baby to suck than from the mother, it provides more calories and stays with them longer. Plus, in the case of animals who have multiple births, competition at the dairy bar can be a problem for weaker babies. From the time they’re born, kittens will defend their selected nipple by clawing frantically at any littermate who may get in the way.

Boom Boom's first litter
As the first couple of weeks of a kitten’s life are the most tenuous, I weigh every day for two weeks, then weekly thereafter. If a kitten is not gaining well, I often weigh twice daily. It’s important to track weight gain over time as a kitten may grow a lot one day, then barely anything the next. I look more for overall increases as opposed to what which one is the biggest. Often times, the size advantage changes once the kittens start on solid food so their initial weight isn’t a predictor.

I have a collection of six kitten journals, chronicling each litter since I started breeding. The great advantage of having kitten weight history is the ability to easily compare one litter to another. I also write down which day of gestation the queen is on and how she does with delivery, any stillbirths, etc. so I know what to expect the next time she has kittens. As each kitten enters the world, I record the time it was born, its color, gender and birth weight.

In the case where I have more than one kitten of the same gender and color, I clip the hair of the second born on its neck to differentiate. If there is a third kitten who looks like number one and two, then that one will have the hair clipped on its back, right in front of the tail. Some breeders use different colors of fingernail polish to identify the kittens by their toenails. I prefer hair clipping to toenail painting as I like to identify the kitten just by looking down on it instead of turning it over and searching for a painted claw.

The day after the kittens are born, I begin the ritual of weighing and examining each one. This is when the name assignments come in. Each litter has a theme, like Disney characters, rock stars, poets, Connecticut towns, etc.

Journal page for the Oscar Nominee Litter

Two weeks ago, Olivia had a litter of five kittens, four girls and one boy, all were blue except for one brown tabby girl. Two days later, Lulu had a litter of five kittens, also four girls and one boy; the girls are combinations of brown tabby or solid black with red and the boy is solid black. Fortunately, all the kittens look different, so I can tell everyone apart easily.

The mothers share the nursery, combining efforts to feed their kittens as one big happy family of ten. I wanted two themes that were related so I chose musicians. Since Olivia has a lot of blue kittens, I thought of a country singer theme for her litter. I’ve already done the Blues Singers theme so I won’t reuse that. Lulu’s kittens were named after Hip-hop artists. I’m not a fan of either genre of music, so it was a related theme; music I’m not that in to. Being originally from the South, I’ve rebelled against following stereotypical Southern pleasures, like pickled pig’s feet, Nascar, bass fishing, poor grammar and country music. I don’t hate Country, but I’m more of a Pop and Classic Rock kind of girl. I don’t regard Rap as music as I think singers should actually sing…but I digress.

I Googled country and hip-hop artists, came up with a list of names I’d heard of and tried to stay with current artists. Not as sure of myself with the hip-hopsters, I sought my teenage daughter Kelsey’s input. She quickly narrowed it down to the cool people. For my country litter, I had the names of Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood, Alison Krauss, Martina McBride and Rascal Flatts. There were several other male singers I could have chosen, but I just liked the name Rascal. The Hip-hop Litter names are Eminem, Mary J. Blige, Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliott and Lauryn Hill.

Now to assign the name to the kitten. Sometimes I would just go down the list, but I often select a couple whose look make it easier for me to remember them. Miranda Lambert’s name ends with the letter “T” so I gave that name to the blue tabby. “T” for tabby. I thought I’d keep the solid blue and white girl for myself so I named her Carrie because I like Carrie Underwood, having watched her win American Idol. Martina McBride seems like a more common name than Alison Krauss, so I named the more commonly-colored brown tabby girl Martina. The other solid blue girl became Alison Krauss by default.

For the Hip-hop Litter, Eminem is the one boy of course. I have two torbie’s with white and two torties. With the patches of red varying on each kitten, it’s fairly easy to differentiate even though they will be registered as the same color. The torbie and white with more red I called Missy, just because I often use “Little Missy” as a term of endearment for my daughter and granddaughter. The other is Lauryn. The tortie with the split of color on her chin is Lil’ Kim, because I can say, “Lil’ Kim with the chin” to remind myself. Mary J. just so happens to have red markings in the shape of a backwards “J” on her face.

The daily weigh-ins are not only my time to check on each kitten, but also to teach myself their names. By the time they are two weeks old, I’ve memorized my notes on who is clipped or has which markings. As they continue to develop, the “twins” often change enough so I can tell them apart by just looking at the shape of their faces, or under their tails if they are sister and brother. For me, newborn record-keeping is the only way to go.

Rascal Flatts weighing in

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Now That You're Gone - Conclusion to Nine Little Butts

Three months ago, Sunday, our smoke tortie Maine Coon, gave birth to nine kittens. They were given call names with the theme of Santa’s Reindeer (Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, etc.). I blogged about the challenges of nine little butts to clean up after and later, about the medical emergency that plagued the mother cat.

Sunday with her newborn Reindeer Litter

Last weekend, one family after another came to claim their new baby and take him or her home. Many of them expressed concern over how well I would be able to cope with saying good-bye to the cute little balls of fluff. “How can you let them all go?” Well, I assured them, Cupid and Blitzen won’t be leaving until next week because their future family is on vacation. Cupid and Blitzen are partners in crime and will be living in the same home. That seemed to make people feel better, as if it’s easier for me if I’m weaned away from all the cuteness gradually.

It’s still way easier to deal with just two kittens than the whole herd. Dinner time was a chaotic cacophony of cries to be fed, now, put it down, frenzy, psychotic, circle-turning, underfoot, frantic running back and forth…just crazy kitten behavior. Once the food was in front of them, the meowing changed to a group purr. Three cans divided onto two large paper plates, twice daily, plus an extra couple of cans for lunch. Pet Supplies Plus personnel must think I’m feeding a feral colony I go in there so often to get cat food.

So I’m spending less on cat food and scooping litter boxes is far less time consuming. The thundering of paws has faded. I no longer have to count kittens and try to figure out who is missing from the kitten room at bedtime.

The best is the happy endings. The kittens’ mother, Sunday, has gained more weight and rediscovered her energy, tearing around like a kitten herself. All the kitten buyers have reported positive transitions with their newest family members.

The kittens have been renamed and some of the owners are staying connected with the littermates of their kitten through Facebook. It’s always interesting to see what names the new owners will come up with. Dasher is now Dylan Dasher. Dancer and Prancer went together and now go by Dixie Mae and Hank Junior. Vixen’s new moniker is Winterberry. Comet’s registered name is Dracoonfly Halley’s Comet. Donner is called Loki. Rudolph became Dante’s Inferno. Cupid and Blitzen will remain Cupid and Blitzen.

The Reindeer Litter
Jay and I agree that this has been a good litter. Our definition of good is based upon the personalities of the kittens and how many accidents they had in the house. We had some expensive bumps in the road, but ended up with nine healthy kittens along with their mother. Even though the chaos and adventure have died down, I feel the same relief I do when the grandchildren go home for the day. However, my respite is short-lived. Last week Olivia and Lulu had kittens two days apart. Between the two moms, we have ten newborn kittens. Here we go again!

Lulu and Olivia with their combined family of ten

Friday, February 1, 2013

Nine Little Butts and One Sick Mom

It’s been almost three weeks since my last blog, when I wrote about the demands of raising a litter of nine kittens. Since then, the kittens have gotten easier, but their mother gave us a run for our money (literally).

The Reindeer Litter of Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen and Rudolph are now comfortably self-sufficient at the food bar and the potty. The kittens require two cans of food on two separate paper plates, three to four times daily. The two separate plates are necessary so everyone has room at the table. They have received their first vaccinations and have started the process of venturing out of their room to get acquainted with the other animal inhabitants of the household. It’ll take a week or so, then I expect to chase them off the counter like little cockroaches.

I mentioned their mother, Sunday, has had problems recently. She had stopped eating, something immediately noticeable with Sunday because she has a ravenous appetite. She was hunched up and didn’t want to move. I had her into my regular vet who wasn’t sure what to make of all the fluid in her stomach that showed up on the X-ray. She guessed it could be a ruptured intestine, a pyometra (uterine infection) or FIP (Feline Infectious Peritonitis). My vet referred me to Ocean State Veterinary Specialists in Rhode Island as they had the equipment and staff to diagnose and treat my cat.

I waited in the exam room at OSVS while Sunday was getting her ultrasound done. I was there a while, long enough to play with the motion sensor in the corner of the room to make the little red light blink and analyze how neatly the electrical cord from the X-ray light was tied. I also thought about all the “what if’s” of Sunday’s situation. If she had FIP, she’d have to be euthanized as FIP is a horrific and fatal disease. If her intestine had ruptured, her chances of surviving a surgical repair were slim. I was hoping for pyometra as at least that could be fixed by spaying her.

Then I started thinking about her colors, and although I have one of Sunday’s daughters from a previous litter, the daughter is a red tabby. Sunday is a black smoke tortie, which means she carries black, red and silver. If I lost Sunday, I lost my one silver gene. Should I approach the couple who have reserved Blitzen, the one smoke tortie from the current litter, about letting me keep her?

However, Sunday’s diagnosis was none of the above. She had an intussuseption, where the intestine basically telescopes onto itself, causing a blockage. The cure is to surgically remove the defective part of the intestine and reconnect it. I’d heard of it and knew the condition was something that could be repaired. Whereas Ocean State is wonderful with all their specialists and 24-hour care, the cost escalates exponentially. I was given a low and high end estimate after the initial diagnosis was confirmed. Although I was relieved with the diagnosis, I had a hard time swallowing the idea of spending upwards of $3000. I eventually rationalized it as this was a fixable condition if she was treated. After consulting with my primary vet, I agreed with her that Sunday needed surgery that evening because her condition had become very fragile and her temperature had fallen to 98 degrees (101 is normal for a cat). It was too dangerous for me to bring her back home and have my own vet do the surgery the next day. I signed a bunch of forms, gave them a deposit and kissed Sunday good-bye where she was already in a cage attached to an IV.

The surgeon called me at 9 pm after Sunday’s surgery to tell me everything went as expected and he’d removed a section of her intestine. The other veterinarian called me at 10 pm to tell me that the surgeon had not told me one important thing; Sunday had vomited up the fluid in her stomach during surgery and there was a possibility that she could develop aspiration pneumonia if any of the fluid had gotten into her lungs. I needed to watch her closely for the next week. Okay, fine, when can I bring her home?

The morning after her surgery, Sunday was eating like a pig and I joyfully drove the 45 minutes each way to bring her home. My euphoria was short-lived however when I noticed the same evening I brought her home, she also seemed to be breathing too rapidly. Yep, she had pneumonia, her left lung was severely compromised. Sunday ended up back at Ocean State where I felt obligated to continue my investment, but cut back on some of the a la carte expenses estimated for her second visit. No additional ultrasounds, x-rays and don’t dare expect me to put an Elizabethan collar on her (I said I already had one at home). The Cone of Shame is something I’ve never used on an animal as it just seems too cruel. I figured if Sunday felt well enough to pull on her 22 staples, maybe it was time for them to come out. Sunday stayed on oxygen in the hospital for the next two nights. She was allowed to come home after she could breathe normally for at least six hours without the benefit of extra oxygen.

Sunday has been spending the nights in our bed, snuggled up between Jay and me. Never one for dry food, she has been demanding three to four cans of cat food to herself daily. Her condition is steadily improving since she’s been home. She looks ridiculous with her shaved limbs where the IV was attached and the sight of the staples holding her stomach together still make one gasp.

I’m thankful that my emotional week seems to be ending happily, excluding the shock to my wallet. I am reminded that in the 12 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve never had to rush a cat in for an emergency C-section or spay. Most breeders can’t say that. Sunday goes into my primary vet on Monday to have her staples removed (she hasn’t touched them). In a way, it’s too bad that her fur will eventually cover over her scar because it’ll be a pretty impressive reminder of all she’s been through.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Nine Little Butts

“All right. I’m going in,” I announce to my husband.  Jay laughs, “Good luck!”

“Going in” refers to the now brave act of entering the room where my litter of nine kittens lay in wait, ready to attack. As soon as a human comes near, the meowing starts. If you stand still, they will start climbing your legs, like uncoordinated squirrels up a tree. Now is when I wish I had a laptop, so I wouldn’t have to enter the kitten cave just to get on the computer.

Kitten milk bottle, paper towels, bleach spray, trash bag, broom…all are my tools for keeping up with the Reindeer litter (Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen and Rudolph). When the kittens’ mother, Sunday, was pregnant, I expected at least 6 kittens as that was the size of her previous and first litter. Subsequent litters tend to be larger and she certainly looked larger. On December 7th, sure enough, we got nine live ones, no stillborns. It’s a litter that’s easy to divide into thirds by color and gender; two-thirds male and two-thirds shades of red. One-third red tabbies (one girl, two boys), one-third red-silver tabbies (also one girl, two boys), and one-third darker ones; brown tabby boy, solid black boy and smoke tortie girl.

When one of my Facebook followers suggested the reindeer theme, I hesitated as I didn’t expect all nine kittens to make it. I couldn’t very well have Santa’s reindeer without the whole team. I’ve never had a litter that large where all survived. I once before had a litter as large as nine, but only five kittens survived. With larger litters, sometimes the mother just doesn't have enough of her natural immunity to pass on equally.  Until this one, the largest surviving litter I’ve had is seven. I’ve had a few of seven, but four or five kittens are more common for Maine Coons.

Sunday is a small cat, but produces a ton of milk fortunately.  Her kittens gained as much, if not more than, kittens from smaller litters would.  I supplemented kitten formula once or twice daily to those kittens who would take a bottle.  About half of them refused the bottle, but I figured it gave Sunday a bit of a break in the demand.  And to answer the question that many have asked, there are typically eight stools at the feline milk bar, so someone always has to wait until a littermate falls off the stool, so to speak. 

There were a few bumps on the road, the scariest was when Sunday started vomiting and required veterinary intervention. Vomiting in a cat is not something I normally get alarmed about, but Sunday looked ill, and stories over the years of breeders losing queens due to infection, ruptures or calcium deficiency haunt me. Feeding such a large litter took its toll on Sunday’s immune system. Fortunately, Sunday responded to her treatment and was her ravenous self by the next day.  A couple of kittens stopped gaining and I had to tube feed them for a few days until they caught up since both refused to take the bottle. 

It’s the ravenous appetite which is quite trying right now that the kittens are five weeks old. Actually, “quite trying” is an understated description. The meowing, the leg-climbing, the poop on the floor…they’re a pain times nine. I keep telling myself this is temporary; they will grow out of this stage in about a week.

They have dry kitten food available at all time, plus I feed about five cans every day, and that’s just for the mother. Poor Sunday is doing her best, but as her team grows, mother’s milk isn’t enough. Some of them have learned to eat solid food, others just don’t get it yet. It may not help that I’ve been supplementing the kittens with two bottles daily since they were born so they equate me with food. The smell of my hand is very attractive to the little monsters now as they attempt to latch onto my fingers in search of food.

As I’m bottle-feeding one kitten, the others will climb into my lap, deafening me with their cries, and try to bite the bottle or the hand holding it. Their cute little needle-sharp teeth are in now, and pierce the skin quite easily.

I’m trying to teach the fuzzy piranhas by putting a small amount in their mewing mouths. Some like the meat taste, but prefer it only on my finger. Others just spit it out and keep yelling at me to feed them while still others climb up on my back, checking for food under my hair. Luckily each day another kitten has an “aha” moment when he/she discovers that solid food means self-feeding equals full tummy. At this rate, they may all be regular little pigs at the trough by next week.

Donner, the black boy, was originally a ravenous bottle drinker. He was one of the first to graduate to solid food, thank goodness. Last week, Donner stood in his plate of food and I added the remainder of the kitten formula to the food to entice him. He sniffed it, then squatted and peed.  A few of them stand in the food to eat, then climb in my lap afterwards, leaving canned food pawprints on my jeans.

Not only is this time period trying because the kittens are hungry and all of them don’t know how to eat on their own yet, but it’s also the messy time. Each day is a bit better, but experience has taught me that the larger litters tend to take longer to litter box train. Every morning entails wiping, scooping, disinfecting, and sweeping up after nine little butts who don’t understand staying IN the one of the boxes until they are completely finished. A few seem to believe that just because the litter box is in view, that counts.  This activity is repeated throughout the day.

One thing about having kittens who climb legs and stick to you like Velcro squirrels is that I am compelled to keep their claws clipped regularly. I can’t dull their needle teeth, but I can lessen the severity of the needle claws. As I was clipping claws the other day, I did the math. Each kitten has 18 claws (10 in front, 8 in back). Multiply 18 times nine (hang on here, I need the calculator) and you’re talking 162 individual little claws attached to a one-pound squirming ball of furr.

Of course, as I sit here itemizing my complaints, Dasher sits on my lap, purring loudly the minute I look at him, gently tasting my fingertips and looking angelic with his pearl-colored red-silver face and blue eyes. Cupid “draw back your bow” climbs up to join Dasher. Comet and Vixen play at my feet, Rudolph sleeps on the back of my calf. The others are napping. Nine healthy kittens, beautiful when they’re at peace, vampires when they’re hungry.

To be continued…