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Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Does your cat naturally crave tuna?

Suggesting that a predator naturally craves the flesh of creatures that it couldn't possibly hunt in the wild doesn't sound very reasonable, does it? Housecats can take down big rats and possums and such, but that's about as large as their usual prey gets. Setting aside her potential (and natural) willingness to scavenge carrion like any other feline, Fluffy would have to learn to work a shotgun to get some beef. She'd have to get a diving suit and a harpoon to take down a tuna.

But we're not talking about natural prey. We're talking about the flavor of it.

Flavors can be tricky. My soy allergy gives me a pretty good sign that my ancestors didn't have any useful exposure to soybeans before my generation; I'm not genetically equipped to handle their beany proteins. But miso soup plugs into all the right spots on my tongue, and I find it delicious and entirely craveworthy, even if it does make me sick the next day.

And feline tastebuds don't work like human tastebuds. How else to explain the fact that my cats will spend hours licking each other's butts but turn up their noses at fish even slightly contaminated with tartar sauce?

So we don't really know what tuna, or beef, tastes like to your average housecat. Much as some people find that rattlesnake and frog's legs taste like chicken, cats may find that beef tastes like rats or mice.

I've met some cats who have been indifferent to tuna. But they are far outnumbered by the cats who go absolutely nuts for it.

Housecats are domesticated animals, and creatures of instinct; their ancient ancestors had to live by solitary hunting and fishing with no human assistance. In the millenia since the first wild cat crept close to a campfire to get some scraps, the world has seen a prodigious number of animal species disappear into extinction.

I wonder, then, if the ancestral wildcats who fished the shallow waters of rivers and ponds might not have favored a particular species of fish. This fish was savory, and easily caught, perhaps because it suicidally spawned in shallow freshwater like salmon. Consequently, early humans hunted it into oblivion long before a record could be made of its existence.

And while that fish is long gone, and most modern domestic cats (with the notable exception of uncommon breeds like the Turkish Angora, which is quite happy to dive right into a river after its prey) won't swim except in desperation, housecats' tongues remain tuned to appreciate the tuna that approximates its taste.

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Thursday, August 18, 2005

Hopping Siamese cats

Siamese cats are fairly notorious for developing dental plaque that sometime leads to tooth and gum problems but which more often leads to absolutely horrendous breath. My former roommate's little Tonkinese, Simon, has breath that would spoil pork.

Feeding your cat dental crunchies can help, but my veterinarian said that a diet of plain dry food is best, as the special dental diet kibble can irritate some cats' stomachs and cause them to throw up more frequently.

If your Siamese is one of the very, very few that will allow such an indignity, you might try brushing his or her teeth. Your vet can provide you with a little toothbrush and samples of chicken-flavored kitty toothpaste.

A professor I know owns a full-blood Siamese named Blue. Blue also tends to have Death Breath. The prof kept losing his black nylon dress socks. One day he checked under his bed for a pair of lost shoes and discovered that Blue had hidden a cache of about a dozen of his socks there. The cat loved to chew on his balled-up socks. Concerned that the cat would tear loose a piece of fabric and choke on it, he took the socks away from the cat ... only to discover that the cat's breath turned to mustard gas over the following month. So now Blue, who won't tolerate toothbrushing, gets a sock every few weeks.


There is a strange behavioral trait I've observed amongst some Siamese cats: they hop.

The Siamese Hop is difficult to adequately describe. I first saw it in Simon. He crouches down on the floor as if about to jump on something, then alternately rakes his back claws through the carpet or across the floor repeatedly (he is particularly fond of hopping on surfaces that will create a lot of noise).

His rear end bounces up and down like a lowrider car with trick hydraulics. He looks like he's revving himself up for a race ... except that all he does is hop.

He hops when he's excited or upset. If he wants in your lap and you brush him off, he'll run to the corner and hop, glaring at you sulkilly. If you drag a string along the floor, half the time he'll chase it and pounce ... but half the time he'll chase it and hop at it.

I think this trait would hurt Siamese cats' chances for survival in the wild. I can picture Simon stalking a bird, racing toward it ... only to stop and the last second to hop at his prey, thus allowing it to fly away.

Seeing Simon hop for the first time was a source of great amusement among visitors to our apartment. My roommate's mother nearly fell over laughing the first time she saw it. Part of the effect comes from the look of crazed intensity that comes over the little cat's face when he hops.

I at first thought that the hop was a peculiarity unique to Simon, but hy husband reports that he's several other Siamese do the same thing. He used to live with a cat named Tasha who also did the hop ... but only when she was about to hork up a hairball. It's a good enough early-warning system for hairball cleanup, I suppose.

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Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Tomcats

Male cats tend to be friendlier and more playful than female cats; however, if you want to preserve your male kitten's sweet personality, you should get him neutered when he's about 6 months old.

Our family veterinarian said a good rule of thumb for kittens of unknown age is that they're ready to be neutered when their adult canine teeth start coming in; signs of testicular development is another clue that it's time to take your kitty in to get snipped. Young kittens have undescended testes, so a cat won't have obvious balls until he's about 5-6 months old. The lack of obvious external genitalia can make gender determination in kittens something of a challenge; generally, though, the undescended testes feel like a pair of peas under the skin if your kitten allows you to feel around on his backside.

Intact tomcats will start spraying urine to mark their territories when they reach sexual maturity (some neutered males will do this, too, if they're not fixed in time, or if they develop an urinary tract infection or irritation). Their "territory" will inevitably include items like your drapes and your furniture. Tomcat spray is truly foul.

Upon reaching sexual maturity, an unfixed tomcat will often become moody, aggressive, and unpredictable. He'll want to start roaming the neighborhood in search of female cats to impregnate, and he'll start getting into fights. Some outdoor cats (and they inevitably become outdoor cats once they start to spray) may disappear for days, even weeks. (Reader M. Turner reports that his cat, Blacky, disappeared for two months before they got him fixed. His walkabout took him 15 miles away from his home, and in the process he crossed two major highways.)

A cat that was gentle as a kitten may become truly vicious. Some intact toms retain their good nature, but most pet owners would do well not to take the risk unless they have a compelling reason to want to keep their tomcat as a breeding stud.

Some intact tomcats, if they come across a queen with a litter, will try to kill the kittens in order to get the female cat to go into heat again so he can impregnate her. This kind of murderous breeding tactic has been observed in other mammals, including mice, lions and apes. This is a reason why female cats will often share responsibility for a litter or two -- all sharing nursing and hunting -- so that someone is always home in case a hostile tom comes by.

However, some other tomcats, including fixed males, have a very strong parenting instinct, even stronger than that of females who aren't in litter.

Sometimes intact toms will bring females and their litters home to eat. If you have a household of adult cats and bring in a new kitten, chances are good that it will be one of the adult males who will "adopt" the kitten.

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Monday, August 01, 2005

Feliway

Feliway is manufactured by Farnam Companies and first came on the market in 1997. It is a liquid mixture of mostly alcohol with synthetic feline pheromones -- specifically, the pheromones cats produce in their cheek glands. You know how cats rub their faces against you when they're happy? They're scent-marking you, and the pheromones in that scent mark make cats feel they're in a place of comfort and safety.

Thus, Feliway is used to calm stressed-out, pissing, fighting, scratching, territorial cats. Some cats are too stressed or plain cantankerous to respond to the stuff, but over 85% of cats do, according to the literature. Others I've talked to have described Feliway as "an instant personality transplant" in their previously-hostile cats.

Feliway comes in two forms. The first is a 75ml pump bottle you use to spritz baseboards, furniture, and other places that cats have been clawing or peeing on (or which you fear they might claw or pee upon). You can also spritz bedding inside a cat carrier to make your kitty a bit calmer if you have to take her to the vet or on a trip. You do not spray it directly on any of your cats; the alcohol might sting them and the mist might be harmful if directly inhaled.

The second form, sold under the name "Comfort Zone", is a diffuser you plug into an electrical outlet. The stuff vaporizes and scents up to 650 square feet, and is more useful to generally calm cats down. It's especially useful if you've already got cats and are bringing home a new kitten or baby -- both of which are likely to trigger territorial insecurity.

It has a faint, slightly musky odor (there is no added fragrance besides whatever the pheromones and alcohol smell like to humans) and has thus far not seemingly triggered any of my husband's allergies.

The downside? It's not widely available in brick-and-mortar pet sections at places like Target -- you have to go to your vet or a specialty petshop. And the stuff is expensive ... you can get the 75ml bottle for $19 or $20 online, but when I hit our local Petsmart, they wanted $32 for a bottle.

I almost didn't get it. The expense seemed exorbitant.

But my vet had recommended Feliway to us. Why? We were introducing two abandoned kittens we'd rescued to our three adult cats. To make matters worse, we were cutting down on the size of their territory even more by moving to a house only 2/3 the size of our previous rental.

Suddenly I had a vision of cleaning cat poop out of my brand-new carpet, and a second vision of being rudely awakened by two hissing, clawing cats who'd decided to start a fight directly over my face.

$32 then seemed a small price to pay for a peaceful, poop-free household.

I used about a third of the bottle spritzing our living room furniture and various doorframes and corners.

And you know what? It worked like a charm. There's been almost no growling since the Feliway application, and even some playing. We've got a house full of very mellow, adjusted cats.

If you want to get a copy of the Feliway Material Safety Data Sheet from Farnham, call (800) 234-2269.

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Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Declawing your cat

Declawing your cat for non-medical reasons is either illegal or considered inhumane (and thus not normally performed) in:

  • the British Isles: England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Ireland
  • most of Western Europe: Portugal, France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, Netherlands, Denmark, Finland
  • part of the Balkans: Serbia and Montenegro, Macedonia and Slovenia
  • major Pacific Rim countries: Australia, New Zealand and Japan
  • one South American country: Brazil

One common medical reason to have a cat partly declawed is if he or she keeps catching and injuring his or her dewclaw on bedclothes or other items. The dewclaw can get partly ripped out and infected, and at that point it may be better to have it removed entirely. Similar damage to a cat's claws or toes may necessitate declawing, as will rare disorders such as feline cutaneous asthenia that make the cat likely to hurt him or herself.

Feline onchyectomy (declawing) is considered inhumane because it removes part of the cat's toebone (most of if not the entire third phalanx of each toe) along with ligaments and tendons. Furthermore, as with any surgery, the cat can suffer life-threatening complications from anaesthesia and infection from the surgery.

Some cats experience nerve damage and/or residual pain from their declawing after their wounds have healed. Declawed cats are also much more likely to develop painful arthritis in their paws. Both can manifest as limping, but a more frequent (and initially subtle) side-effect is the cat experiencing pain when he or she tries to scratch in the litterbox. The frequent result is the cat pooping and peeing on softer materials like carpeting or baskets of laundry.

So, people who express a desire to have their cats declawed for the sake of saving expensive furniture should be asked which they'd prefer to do -- buy a cheaper/more durable couch, or have to recarpet their house every so often and put up with a lot of carpet cleaning in the meantime.

Other people who have multiple cats say they want to have their cats declawed to keep the cats from hurting each other. First, the best way to keep your cats from fighting is to get them spayed or neutered -- the main reason cats fight is over territory, and neutered animals are much less territorial. Second, normal cat skin is much tougher than human skin -- swats that would bloody us barely take the fur off cats. If your cats fight, attack people unprovoked, or shred furniture, try pheromonal behavior modification treatments like Feliway.

After declawing, some cats exhibit radical, negative personality changes. A friend of mine had his kitten declawed despite my suggestion he not do it, and a formerly playful, friendly kitten came back hostile, skittish, and reclusive; his behavior persisted after his toes healed. (Well, if people I trusted sent me off to get part of my toes cut off, I'd probably hate them afterward, too.)

And finally, a declawed cat is much less able to escape and defend against predators like dogs if he or she gets outside.

There are much better alternatives to declawing your cats. You can either trim your cat's claws every couple of weeks, or you can periodically apply claw covers like Soft Paws (since cats shed their claws every few months, the covers won't stay on indefinitely).

Unfortunately, there is widespread ignorance in countries like the U.S. as to the harm declawing can do to cats. Some apartment complexes may contractually demand that cats in their rentals be declawed in addition to charging a high pet deposit.

If you're faced with a person or agency that demands you declaw your cat, you can often talk them out of their demand if you present the following to them:

  • The procedure will hurt your pet, and you don't want to do that
  • A cat is much more likely to claw your furniture than their doorframes and walls
  • If they express concern over carpeting, tell them that declawed cats experience pain that make them much more likely to defecate outside their litterboxes. Point out that cat excrement is much more damaging to carpeting in the long run.
  • You don't want your own belongings clawed, either, so you provide scratching posts and regularly trim your cat's claws or use Soft Paws.

If you educate declaw-demanders in a helpful, nonconfrontational fashion, many will amend their lease requirements.


For more reading: http://www.declawing.com/

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Wednesday, June 29, 2005

"Cat" as a Verb

Most people are familiar with the word "cat" as a noun or profane exclamation. However, it is also a verb that has nothing to do with boats or UNIX. Herewith is the proper definition of the alternate verb use of "cat":

  1. To behave like a cat, generally in terms of stealthy, hedonistic nocturnal activities and sexual promiscuity. The latter may take on a compulsive, joyless edge if the person in question is being particularly catty.

    • Mike catted around for weeks after his breakup with Barbara. He'd slip in and out of the apartment at all hours; sometimes his bed wasn't slept in for days. Once he came home with a black eye he tried to hide with bronzer and refused to explain. I think he was determined to lay every available woman in town just to get back at Barb for dumping him for Sergio.


  2. To be immobilized by one or more housecats due to their cuteness, potential violence, or sheer weight.

    • I was just about to get up from my desk for some lunch when the new kitten jumped up into my lap. She rolled over adorably and gazed up at me with "pet me" eyes. I couldn't bear to move her off my lap. I was hopelessly catted.


    • Bob went to bed with the flu, shivering and miserable. When he awoke in the night, he found himself very hot and completely unable to move. He had a brief panic: had he had a stroke? Was he dying?

      Then he saw the furry shapes surrounding him. The twins lay across each of his feet; Roscoe lay between his knees. George was under his left arm, Wilma beside his right, and Peaches lay fluffy and huge across his chest. His blanket was weighed down with over 100 pounds of felines; he was well and thoroughly catted.


    • Octavia decided to cat me right after breakfast. She'd been in a bad mood ever since we'd gotten the new puppy, her feline pride and dignity injured beyond repair by the presence of the slobbering, jumping, yapping little creature that everyone felt compelled to ooh and aah over.

      "I'm sorry, honey, but I'm late for work." I put a hand under her heavy belly to move her off my lap, but she dug all four claws into my jeans, growled low in her throat and stared at me with an expression that clearly said "You will pet me, and pet me now, monkeyboy!"

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Thursday, June 23, 2005

Herding Cats

"Herding cats" has become a commonly-used metaphor for an impossible organizational task because most cats love to be exactly where they're not supposed to be.

A friend of mine has a big black dog named Nan. Nan is part Australian shepherd, and the herding instinct is so strong in her that it's almost as if she has a doggie form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Nan desperately needs a couple of sheep to keep her busy during the day, but sadly she's not likely to get any in her suburban home. Nan will try to herd anything; a favorite pasttime of the kids in the house on a hot summer day is to throw a handful of ice cubes across the slick kitchen floor and watch Nan round them all up by her water bowl. If you are a new visitor to the house, you can expect her to circle you, barking and prodding you with her sharp nose if she thinks you need to be elsewhere.

Yes, Nan is a bossy, bossy bitch.

My friend set up an invisible fence in their big front yard so that Nan doesn't have to be tied up during the day. For a long time, Nan didn't make the connection between getting shocked and wearing her collar; she just thought she'd get zapped anytime she went out of bounds, so after a while, Nan automatically stayed put, didn't even go after bunnies or squirrels or the mailman.

But then a new family moved into the house next door, and with them came a pride of four young, impertinent cats. The cats figured out the invisible fence pretty quickly, so they'd tease poor Nan by sitting just beyond the electrical border. Stretching and cat-smiling, preening and tail-waving. Neener, neener, can't get us ....

Then, one afternoon after a walk, Nan made the connection between her collar and the zap. The four cats had assembled for their evening taunting, and it finally dawned on her doggie brain that she wasn't wearing her collar and could get those darned cats!

After about thirty seconds of barking, cat-squalling mayhem that surely caused a few pacemakers in the neighborhood to kick into overtime, we ran out onto the porch to find two hissing, enraged, unharmed cats up on the rattan loveseat. Nan was dancing below, barking joyously. Look, ma! I brought you cats!

So, you can herd cats if you're as energetic and determined as Nan.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The Pussification of the American Cat

Introduction: Last week, I was involved in beta-testing a new device called DIFID (Digital Feline Interpretation Device) that is being developed by the Ohio State Zooengineering Department. I set it to record our cats' interactions during the evening. When I played the translation the next morning, I was very surprised to discover that my husband's cat, Monte, is the secret leader of a resistance movement amongst the many feral cats in our neighborhood.

Monte spent part of the night practicing a new speech, which I've transcribed below. He gave me permission to post it in exchange for three bags of the organic catnip they sell at Wild Oats.

Greetings, my fellow felines. We who live in America today have become hopelessly pussified, and it's high time we got the respect we deserve!

Pound for pound, we cats are the deadliest predators in the world! We are mighty hunters! We are to be feared! And what do the humans do? They cut off our claws and drag bits of yarn in front of us and make sickening poochy-moochy noises about how cute we are.

We sailed to America's shores with pirates and adventurers! And now? Now most of us live trapped indoors, where we can barely dream of catching so much as a single sparrow. We grow fat eating congealed dreck from cans. We shit in boxes.

The ancient Egyptians worshipped us and called us gods, and now? Now we are given cutesy-wootsy names like "Fluffy" and "Snoogums".

They cut off our balls and declare us "fixed" ... but we will not be broken! We are not pussies! We will leap high, and shed our complacent torpor like hair in August --

(Sound of electric can opener in the kitchen)

Tuna? OooooOOOOO TUNATUNATUNA!

(The rumble of little feet racing across the linoleum.)

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Sunday, February 20, 1994

International Society for Endangered Cats

One Monday night, about 70 IU students and Bloomington, IN residents had a face-to-face encounter with a survivor of the international drug wars. A native of India or perhaps Pakistan, he is a lean, handsome fellow known simply as Bunga.

He glared at the people who came to see him and growled. And then he ignored everybody and started playing with a feathered bob on a string.

"Bunga was confiscated in a drug bust," explained John Becker, executive director of the International Society for Endangered Cats (ISEC).

ISEC was founded in 1988 as a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of the 36 species of cats that live in the wild throughout the world. Most of these species are endangered, some critically. ISEC is based in Columbus, OH and their website is at http://www.isec.org/.

Becker said that Bunga, a member of the species Felis chaus (more commonly known as the reed or jungle cat), was captured and taken from his native country by drug smugglers who were trading in black market goods such as exotic animals.

Bunga ended up at the house of a drug dealer who mistakenly thought a wild cat would make a cool pet. To protect himself and his furniture, the dealer had Bunga declawed, but whoever did it botched the job. Becker said that as a result of the declawing, Bunga sometimes walks with a limp, and he can never be returned to the wild.

That is the main reason why Bunga has become one of Becker's four show-and-tell wild cats that he brings with him to his educational presentations. Becker said that during one 18-month period, he gave programs on the plight of endangered cats to more than 400 different schools and organizations around the U.S.

With Becker's speaking schedule, it's no wonder Bunga seemed a bit grumpy as Becker and his assistant coaxed him out of his cat carrier. But once he was out in the lights of the auditorium, it was easy to see why the drug dealer wanted him -- he's 20 pounds of lithe muscle covered in satiny black fur. Add in his big golden eyes and gravelly meow, and he's a kitty many covet.

And Bunga is truly rare. Jungle cats, which originally ranged from Egypt to Southeast Asia, are endangered due to habitat loss and the exotic pet trade. Becker said that only 21 jungle cats live in zoos around the United States. In addition, Bunga is a comparatively uncommon melanistic (black) animal; regular jungle cats have tawny fur.

"When we take animals like this out into educational programs, we're concerned that some people will think that a cat like this would make a neat pet," Becker said. "wild animals like this never, ever make good pets. We hear stories every single day of people who try to turn a wild cat into a pet who get hurt."

Before he brought out Bunga, Becker started his presentation with a slide show on endangered cats. Audience members saw everything from the rusty-spotted cat, which barely weighs 2.5 pounds full-grown, to the biggest of the big cats, the Siberian tiger, which can weigh up to 800 pounds. He also showed slides of rare exotic felines few people have even heard of, such as the flat-headed cat, whose big-eyed face almost looks like that of a monkey.

"There are some major factors in these animals becoming endangered," Becker said. "One is that people are still making fur coats out of them."

He paused to show a slide of a smiling shopkeeper in Nepal proudly displaying floor-length coats made from the skins of clouded and snow leopards.

"The sad fact is, the rarer these animals are, the more their furs are worth, and the more diligently some people try to kill them," Becker said.

He added that habitat destruction is another major factor in the decline of these animals. "When I was in Belize, we were going down this highway, and on one side of the road it was beautiful forest, and on the other side it was just a blackened waste."

He later learned the forest was being burned down to plant citrus trees.

He said the loss of these cat species would be a tragedy not only because of their beauty but because they are top-level predators critical to maintaining the planet's ecology. Without them, the populations of other animals such as rats and deer may grow out of control, causing other problems such as de-vegetation.

Becker said that while there are many other wildlife protection groups that deal with wild cats, such as Project Tiger and the International Snow Leopard Trust, ISEC is the only group concerned woth all 36 of the planet's endangered cat species.

He said that of those 36, people mostly focus on the seven big cat species, so it's up to ISEC to raise awareness of the smaller cats that are in trouble. In addition to giving educational programs, ISEC works with these other groups and raises money for scientific research efforts around the world. Some of the projects ISEC has partially funded include the Global Cheetah Project, which examines the condition of cheetahs all over Africa, and an ongoing bobcat study at Mississippi State University.

Becker said ISEC is particularly interested in increasing captive breeding programs around the U.S. He said most species' populations are so low in the wild, the only hope for saving them lies in building up captive populations so that someday the cats can be reintroduced into the wild, as was successfully done with the black-footed ferret and the California condor.

"Unfortunately, we only have 6 species survival plans for 37 species," he said. "We don't even have a game plan for saving most of these cats."

He said it has become necessary for scientists to actively search for cats in the wild to capture so that they can be sure they have a viable gene pool to breed from.

"Lots of wild cats don't breed well when they're left to their own devices in captivity," he said.

To address this problem, some research groups, such as the Center for the Reproduction of endangered wildlife at the Cincinnati Zoo, are focusing on fertility-enhancing procedures such as creating in vitro wild cat embryos for implantation into domestic cats.

Becker said such measures may be too late for some species. He said even though most public interest has gone toward saving big cats like lions and tigers, they are heading on the downward spiral toward extinction.

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I'm Lucy Snyder. I'm a Worthington, Ohio author and former magazine editor; on this site you'll find my writing as well as features from my husband, novelist Gary A. Braunbeck.

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