Archives

Home For Phoebes

Phoebes are friendly song birds who like to nest close to humans.  Perhaps they discovered that they can take advantage of the fear we instill in other birds to protect their nests and young.  They risk choosing the wrong humans when they build so close, but it must work for them because they continue to do it.  This particular pair of phoebes has built a nest for several years on the yard light beside one of our doors.

While it was sweet to have baby phoebes so close, having the birds there became a problem.  The constant fluttering as they came and went from the nest to feed the young attracted the attention of our six house cats.  The cats would climb the screen door trying to catch the birds.  When I found the screen partially dislodged and within seconds of allowing the cats out, I knew we had to keep the door closed.  Then the cats proceeded to climb the curtain over the window in the door.  I had to take the curtain down.  Very aggravating, especially since I’d like to leave the door open on nice days to cool the house and catch the breeze.

Last fall I decided the nest had to move.  During the winter I searched until I found this solid aluminum shower shelf.  It was under $7 with shipping.   In March I secured it to the house under the eaves far enough from the door so the cats would no longer see the birds.  Then I blocked off the area over the lights to prevent the birds from building there.  Phoebes build a large, heavy nest using clay mud.  They line it with soft moss, grass, hair and feathers.  This complicated nest takes a lot of effort so the birds return every year to the same nest, repairing it when necessary.

I didn’t want to destroy all their work.  I moved the nest to the new shelf.  It would be interesting to see if the birds accepted the new location of their nest, built a new nest or went off somewhere else to live.  In early April the birds came back.  It seemed to ruffle their feathers to find the nest moved.  After a bit I noticed them hanging around the new location.  Then late last week I found  mother phoebe on the nest.

It’s wonderful to have the birds nearby and still be able to keep the door open.  Phoebes like to have two broods per year so they hang around for most of the summer.  I will enjoy watching the baby birds grow up without worrying about the cats tearing the door apart.

Advertisements

Sad News About Otto

Our big, beautiful, seven-year-old German Shepherd Otto is dying.  We learned this in November when he went to the vet due to excessive drinking and urinating.  All the tests we ran showed very little was wrong, except his ability to concentrate urine.  Otto’s kidneys are failing.  To look at him then and even now, you would think nothing was wrong.  He seems healthy and active.  He eats well and looks in great condition.  But something is very wrong.

In early December his first morning urine specific gravity was 1.030.  The normal range is 1.050-1.060.  The vet said at that time his kidney function was at about 25%.  Since then we put him on a low protein, low sodium diet.  There is very little else to be done for failing kidneys.  He loves his new diet that includes lots of vegetables and senior moist food mixed with dry senior kibble.  It took some searching to find a diet that didn’t aggravate Otto’s chicken allergy.  After a few weeks he stopped drinking and urinating excessively.  We actually thought the urine test was a fluke and he might be getting better.

I got a veterinary refractometer so I could test his urine specific gravity at home.  Five days ago I checked his first morning urine and the specific gravity reading is down to 1.010.  The only indication of anything being wrong is that he occasionally vomits a little.  Otherwise he seems perfectly healthy.  Kidney failure for Otto is an insidious process.

The vet has no real explanation for the failure.  Otto could have gotten into poison, destroying the nephron cells in his kidneys.  These cells do not grow back once they are killed.  We have no idea where the dog could have gotten poison.  He doesn’t stray far from us.  The other dog, Max, goes everywhere with him.  Max does not have any problem.  There is a condition found in German Shepherds called chronic kidney failure.  It is a genetic issue.  We don’t know if this runs in Otto’s family.  The breeder certainly didn’t mention it when we bought him.  I suspect this may be what is causing Otto’s demise.

I plan to start administering subcutaneous fluids to help keep Otto hydrated in an effort to extend his life.  Once his kidneys reach a critical stage, Otto’s health will rapidly decline and we will be forced to lay him away so he doesn’t suffer.  It would be good if he could make it to spring so we can bury him in our pet cemetery.  It will be a very sad time on the farm.

Feb 2 Update:  Since writing this blog two days ago, I’ve had more discussion with the vet.  He was interested to learn that Otto’s urine dilution had increased while his drinking and urination had decreased to nearly normal.  Although Otto does not show any other real symptoms, the vet wants to check the dog for Addison’s disease.  So in two days Otto will get an ACTH stimulation test.  Fingers crossed that he has Addisons, the first time I’ve wished a disease on a dog.  Because it is treatable with steroids and he could have a long, regular life, instead of succumbing to kidney failure.

Feb 6 Update:  The ACTH Stim test was performed yesterday and the results came back completely normal.  For $300+ we learned Otto does not have Addisons disease.  Still no idea what is wrong.  Today we are performing a urine concentration test.  No water for Otto for most of the day and every few hours I collect urine and test the concentration with my refractometer.  So far his urine continues very dilute.

Why’s My Cat Fat?

Most owners know that their cats are obligate carnivores.  This means feline bodies do not produce all the essential amino acids for survival.  Cats must consume meat to obtain taurine or they will die.  Taurine deficiency can result in various conditions including blindness, tooth decay, enlarged heart and lowered immune response.

For most of their evolutionary past, cats were busy little rodent killers.  They earned a place beside man’s hearth by keeping the mice and rats under control.  Consuming rodents and other small animals provides cats with the taurine they need.  While the modern house kitty may catch and even eat the occasional mouse, most cats subsist on commercial diets.  These are supposed to be balanced foods that meet the nutritional needs of felines.

Unfortunately, far too many house cats are overweight.  I worked for eleven years as a veterinary technician and saw an inordinate number of over-weight kitties.  In the photo above of my own cats, the cat at the bottom, Toby, is quite hefty.  He started out at an optimal weight and body condition and stayed there the first seven years of his life.  His weight gain started when he developed bladder infections and began receiving moist food every evening.  Because I have a multi-cat household, I always have dry food available free-choice and Toby really pigged out.  He is a large-framed cat anyway.  With the extra weight, he topped the scales at nearly 19 pounds.

Over the years I’ve owned many cats.  Most were within fairly normal weight ranges with a few exceptions.  Some just ballooned to overweight as they reached senior age, about 7 years old.  Perhaps the gain was due to lower activity levels.  Or maybe something else is going on?

A review of the guaranteed analysis of the nutritional content of commercial cat food reveals that most dry food provides about 0.1% to 0.2% taurine.  This includes many high end brand names and even prescription diets.  Moist cat food has a taurine content of about 0.05-0.2% with more expensive brands generally having more of the amino acid.  Semi-moist cat foods are in the same boat.  Sometimes the taurine levels in cat food are not even provided on the package.  The consumer must make an effort to find the information.

Taurine is highly water soluble.  It is not possible to over-feed taurine since excess is excreted.  Most cat food is supplemented with taurine due to a significant loss of the amino acid during the cooking process.  Studies indicate the average cat requires 75-100 mg of taurine per day.  Experiences with my own cats leads me to suspect the requirement is actually higher.

For most of Toby’s adult life, he ate only Purina Complete Cat Chow, a dry food.  This was available free choice.  Then at age seven he also started getting 1/2 can of moist Friskies pate per day.  The taurine content of Cat Chow is 0.15% and Friskies canned is 0.05%.  Within a few months the cat’s weight gain was obvious.  It just got worse and worse.  At 16 he was that very heavy cat in the photo.  He also had serious problems with chronic yeast ear infections.

One of my dogs had very itchy skin with chronic yeast in the ears.  After he was switched to a non-chicken diet, his itching and grungy ears all went away.  He had a chicken allergy.  I wondered if my cat had the same problem.  Chicken is a cheap and easily obtained protein that crops up in a majority of commercial pet foods.  During my search for a dry cat food without chicken, I stumbled across Farmina Natural and Delicious.  Beginning in mid-January of 2018 (about one year ago) I changed all my cats to dry Farmina and also cut out as much chicken as possible from the moist food I offer every night.  I also feed about 20% Science Diet Dental Care (a dry food with a large kibble size to encourage chewing) to help keep the cats’ teeth clear of tartar.  This food contains chicken.  We’ve tried to go without Dental Care, but the tartar tends to build up.

Within a few months of the food change, Toby’s ear infections cleared up.  No more scratching at his ears, no more heavy build-up of dark, thick waxy discharge.  He was a happy cat.  The small amount of chicken in the Dental Care didn’t seem to affect him.

Then I began to notice another change.  He was losing some weight.  Another of my cats, Chloe, a female of 5 to 6 years, also had lost some weight.  She had been getting too chunky around the middle.  Now she looked great!  One of my younger cats, Kai, a three-year-old, had been gaining weight and losing the tucked-in waistline of his younger days.  On the new diet he had slimmed down.  All my cats’ coats were looking more sleek and shiny with less shedding and they seemed to have more energy.  What was going on here?

I studied the Farmina label and discovered it contained 0.4% taurine, almost four times the level found in most cat food brands.  The cats were consuming less food, lowering their caloric intake.  My hypothesis is that cats over-consume and gain weight in an effort to ingest sufficient quantities of taurine.  With lowered food intake, all my overweight cats reduced their weight.  Today Toby is about 15 lbs and actually has a waist!

In June of this year we acquired two tiny kittens.  They have grown up eating only free-choice Farmina, moist Friskies pate and Dental Care.  They have the most exquisite, silky, shiny coats and amazing muscle tone.  Their little arm muscles fairly bulge!  These kittens have great body condition, as do all the other cats in the house.  At age 18, even though Toby has arthritic hips, he is active and often playful.  I believe he is feeling much better than before his new diet.  I wonder if other owners of over-weight cats tried increasing taurine levels that they would discover the same results?  It’s worth a try!

Disclaimer:  I do not recommend any particular brand of cat food, do not make endorsements, and have not received benefits or consideration from any cat food manufacturer.

 

 

The Scent of a Human

Foster kittens six weeks old

Many animals are sensitive to airborne chemicals in the environment.  It is a matter of safety to be able to quickly and accurately detect particles that are the product of fire, for instance, or to sense the presence of a predator or the reek of decay.  Smell is used to distinguish edibles and identify friends.  Humans, along with most mammals, have a strong sense of smell.

Some humans abuse that sense through smoking or are unfortunate enough to lose sensitivity due to allergies chronically clogging the nasal passages.  I recently read of a study that determined humans have very sensitive olfactory abilities, nearing those of dogs, that should not be dismissed.  Our reactions to aromatic compounds often occur at a visceral level, escaping our conscious notice.

For our closest domestic companions, dogs and cats, scent is an important means of communication.  We know this because both species have anal glands.  Sniffing under the tail is a social behavior for cats and dogs.  Observe a pet cat or dog as it encounters another member of the household menagerie.  A quick sniff of the nether regions leads to a visible body relaxation for both animals if the newcomer is a known friend.  There is almost a language of the bottom, as it were.

This sensitivity to aromatic organic compounds in cats was markedly demonstrated to me just yesterday.  I am currently fostering two kittens who are living in our home with their very feral mother, Moon.  The kittens are not feral, they adore humans.  Both have a natural affinity for me since I was the first human to become a permanent fixture in their short young lives.  One kitten is a black and white ball of adventure.  I suspect it’s a boy, although it is so dark under the tail I’m still not totally sure.  The other baby cat is a more sedate, pensive little yellow tiger female.  She has always been very snuggly with me.  She was the first to cuddle against my neck with a rattling purr.

This kitten is especially drawn to my lap.  She will run to me when she is frightened or unsure and press for comfort against my inner thighs if I’m seated crossed-legged on the floor.  That is her favorite place on my body.  If I’m standing, she will settle on my foot.  She sleeps contentedly in my lap.  I find this sweet and heartbreakingly endearing since she will soon enough have to leave my foster home for a permanent place and people of her own.  Imagine my despair when yesterday she suddenly wanted nothing to do with me!

It became quickly apparent that little girl kitten did not wish to be near me that morning.  I could think of no reason for the altered behavior.  She would not come close to me on the floor.  If I tried to hold her, she struggled and squirmed mightily to escape my clutches.  The kitten refused my every advance.  Her little “brother,” meanwhile, behaved as usual:  boisterous, reckless and full of antics.  Little sister just sat morosely off to the side with her tail curled around her feet, staring at me.  If I reached tentatively toward her, she fled in horror.  This behavior lasted all day.  By evening I was convinced the sweet lover kitten now hated me.

The look of a morose, disgruntled kitten

Late that night, as I was bathing, I was struck with sudden inspiration when I noticed the scent of my new perfume.  It was the first day I had worn Lancome Hypnose.  Since the kittens arrived, four weeks ago, I’ve only used one scent, a lily-of-the-valley sort of fragrance, JMC, Jessica McClintock.  Could it be the kitten’s response was triggered by the change in fragrance?  This morning I applied JMC again.  The main pulse point I use is the area of the inner thigh that corresponds to the underarm.

Favorite area on human

The change in the kitten’s response was amazing!  From her first whiff of me, everything was alright again.  She cozied up and even rubbed her tiny nose on mine.  When we sat on the floor, she claimed my lap immediately.  Her relief at the return to normal was obvious.  The good human was back.  Not the evil, strange smelling imitation that assaulted her the day before with demands for affection.

Ahhh, the right smell, the good human is back!

This lesson on the sensitivity of the six-week-old kitten nose is not lost on me.  In the future I will swap perfumes slowly, blending the fragrances for a couple days, so the little feline can still recognize me.  I will also vary the scents I use to teach the kittens that the same human may have a different smell and still be safe.  We do not have anal glands (thank goodness!!) but we each do have a particular aroma that is memorized by our furry housemates.  I suspect that our scent, more than any other feature, is what our cat and dog pets rely upon to distinguish their humans.

Foster Cats Update

Yesterday I cut holes in the nest box so the baby foster kittens can start their lives as free feline spirits.  They are about one month old and I’m fairly sure they are both girls.  Within the past few days they developed depth perception so I don’t have to be so worried about their walking off the 7″ step in the bathroom.  I have blocked the step with some boards to help reduce the fall distance and aid in climbing back up.  Mom hides behind the toilet when I’m present, so the babies need to be able to reach her.  Soon they will be navigating the step with ease.

Mother cat Moon remains a feral bundle of nerves.  The frequency of her hissing, spitting charges at me have diminished, and she tolerates being scratched and patted with a long dowel.  She even likes to play when I flip the string on the end of the dowel for her.  Any quick movements elicit growls and hiding.

I have read that kittens take socializing cues from their mother and that it is often necessary to separate the babies from the mother at 6 weeks if you want them to be friendly.  By this age kittens are developing social relationships and over-protective feral mothers can prevent babies from trusting humans.  I have been frequently handling these kittens since the day they arrived 2 weeks ago.  After the initial spitting fit, the babies found they enjoy being held, scratched and patted.When I enter the room and speak, the kittens immediately recognize my voice.  Their ears perk up and they look for me.  Now that they are out of the box, they both come running when I call them.  Mama doesn’t like that, but she doesn’t try to come out from behind the toilet to prevent contact with me.  The babies crawl all over my legs and arms.  They seem to delight in humans.  Last night one crept inside my shirt.  They lick and snuggle, roll over and purr when their bellies are tickled and rub their tiny noses on mine.  So far mama cat has not hindered the kitten socializing.  I’m hoping this continues so the babies can receive their full 8 weeks of milk.

The animal shelter said that once the kittens are weaned, mom can go in to be spayed and socialized.  I can keep the little ones for a few weeks longer without the mom to work on accustoming them to living in a home.  They will meet more humans including children, the other cats and the dogs.  They will learn to find the litterpan in a large area and use cat flaps.  It will be difficult to let these babies go.  That is the hardest part of being a parent.  Like any good parent, I hope to instill the tools young ones need to survive and thrive on their own in the world. 

Rodent Adventure

I was mending some clothes and the cat was driving me crazing digging under the couch cushions.  Then I heard a squeak.  That could only mean one thing:  Kai had brought in a rodent and decided to play catch and release in the livingroom.  I lifted the couch cushion expecting to find a hapless mouse and discovered a chipmunk instead!

The critter took one look at the cat and me and shot out of the couch, across the room with Kai in hot pursuit, and under the buffet.  Now Kai and his brother Cary were both interested in capturing the escaped trophy.  I pulled out the bottom drawer of the buffet.  The chipmunk was hiding beneath a cupboard section that apparently had a space big enough to allow the rodent to evade the groping paws of two cats.  There was another squeak and a flurry of scrabbling as the rodent eluded capture again.

At this point I opened the cat flap wide, opened the door to the woodshed and braced the front door open a couple inches, hoping that if the little creature got loose again, it might make a break for daylight.

After a few minutes the cats began sniffing around the large, heavy desk for our computer.  There is about 4″ clearance from the wall.  I got a flashlight and spotted the poor chipmunk, cowering in the very dusty corner.  I put on welding gloves and got my largest fish tank net.  With help from the cats to keep the rodent cornered, I worked it into the net and pulled it out from behind the desk.

Just when I thought the ordeal of the rodent was over, it wriggled free and dashed for the light of the open woodshed door.  By the time I got out to the shed, the chipmunk had climbed the screen and was trying to figure out how to go outside.  I spoke quietly to it and inched to the door handle.  When I swung the door open, the chipmunk flung itself from a six foot height to bounce off the side of the house and slide down into the grass.  That was the last I saw of it.

I’m really hoping the cat didn’t puncture it too badly with his teeth when he caught it.  Cats have mouths full of bacteria that are lethal to rodents when injected into bite wounds.  If the little chipmunk were not so silly as to walk into the cats’ outdoor cage, it would never have been caught in the first place.  Phew, that was enough excitement for one day!

From the Deep Freeze

There has not been much to report these last few weeks.  The most popular topic of conversation is the bitter cold of mid-winter in Maine.  We have just suffered through at least three weeks with daily highs barely clearing 0F.  The coldest nights reached -20F here at the farm.  The chickens, horses and rabbits do fine in this sort of weather with proper shelter from the wind and wet.  Hens drop off laying when it’s very cold, so we only got one or two frozen eggs per day from 19 layers.

The chill is hard on wild animals, especially the song birds.  The feeders are emptied quickly.  The resident cardinal pair made sallies to eat the red holly berries from my outdoor holiday arrangement by the front door.  Cary and Kai, our year-old cats, sat for hours in the window waiting for the cardinals to show up.  All the feeding birds provide plenty of entertainment for the cats.

We’ve enjoyed several winter storms including a blizzard with 18 inches of snow four days ago.  There is now about 3.5 feet of snow on the ground.  Running the farm tractor to clear the driveway has kept me occupied.  I was also busy a week ago with a frozen washing machine drain that caused an entire load worth of soapy laundry water to dump across the bathroom floor.  The hot water supply line to the washer froze as well.  I was worried the leak was from a rupture to the pipe in the wall and was so grateful it was only waste water I had to mop up that I didn’t even mind the mess!

The great news is that the January thaw is here.  Today we hit 19F!  Tomorrow is forecast to be above freezing.  And the two days following that, the weather people say, will be in the 40s with rain.  Maybe it will warm up enough to allow the heavy snow load to slide off the roofs so we can stop the back breaking labor of roof raking.  Once the January thaw arrives, the back of winter is broken.  We will still get some chilly days and maybe even a few more Nor’easters, but the endless days of sub-zero weather are behind us.