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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.

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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.

Joyful Yule!

Joyful Yule to all!  This shortest day of the year finds the farm tucked into an 8″ blanket of snow.  The temperatures struggle to the 20sF during the day and dip toward zero at night.  This morning the sun favors us with a watery, weak glow, halfway to its zenith at 8:30 am.  The light has a yellowish cast due to the angle.

We modern humans understand how the tilt of the Earth determines the seasons, unlike our poor ancestors who huddled in fear through the dark and cold.  What if the sun just kept fading and didn’t return?  No wonder sacrificial rites were performed during the depths of night and celebration ensued when the daylight lengthened.  Today we know spring will return and our fear is more of how warm the world is becoming.

The last couple weeks haven’t felt too warm!  Chickens snuggle on the roosts, sharing body heat, and don’t lay eggs when it is so chilly.  The horses are wrapped in thick winter coats.  They stand in patient reverie awaiting the next feeding as icicles form on their long whiskers.  Angora rabbits are made for cold weather.  Six inches of angora fiber is just the thing to keep a bunny toasty.  The dogs delight in snow.  They would spend hours romping in it if we let them.  The cats pine for their outdoor cage, which must come down in the winter or be destroyed by snow.  They content themselves sitting in the windows and chattering at the multitude of wild birds flocking to the feeders.

The feral pheasant may still be around.  Last week he came into the barn twice to eat scratch grain I left out for him.  Then we got a brutal storm with snow, wind and cruel freezing rain overnight.  The pheasant has not been seen since.  The scratch grain was still disappearing so I figured the bird was coming in to eat.  Then I surprised four bold mourning doves who flew right into the barn to take the offerings.  I moved the scratch into the lower barn where I know the pheasant will look, but the doves won’t dare to venture.  Yesterday the pile of grain was depleted and I thought there were some larger bird footprints in the dust.  So, perhaps the pheasant still holds his own.  I’m rooting for him.

Now there is little for us to do but turn our heads from the wind as we trudge through winter chores, sit by the woodstove and let the heat work into the bones, finally read that book we’ve wanted to get to, catch up on inside work, nap.  And wait for spring.

New Pup Max

We found a puppy!  Picked him up yesterday, an early birthday present for me!  Max is a 4.5 month old male German Shepherd from very good bloodlines.  His grandfather was imported from Germany.  His parents had their hips and elbows certified and were genetically tested for the major inherited breed conditions.  Such a sweet, calm and smart boy.  He already loves his new people, and new best buddy Otto.

Max and Otto

Max was not house or leash trained, but is picking both up very quickly.  He knows his name after one day!  He loves his new farm home and acts like he was born here.  The cats aren’t quite sure what to make of him, but I think they will come around.  They lost a lot of trust in strange dogs after the recent episode with Becky.  When the pup barks at them, the cats scatter.  They come back sooner each time and Max is trying very hard to learn not to bark or whine at cats.  Yesterday was the first time he ever saw a cat.

Although he was never crate trained, he did perfectly last night in his crate.  No whining, and he slept all night with no accidents.  He was ready to go out in the morning!  Luckily, Tim wakes up early and took him to do his duty before 5 am.  Nine-thirty pm to five am is a long time for such a young pup to hold it, but he had no accidents.  So Max is learning and experiencing all sorts of new things.  He is a bit afraid of chickens, the flapping and squawking disorients him.  The horses must look like giants.  He maintains a respectful distance.

Max should grow into his ears one day, his dad weighs over 100 lbs.  He will be black and tan with lots of silver, a very nice color.  Right now the pup is in the middle of teething.  His gums are sore and his eyes run occasionally from the trauma of erupting teeth.  Although I did not want to get another German Shepherd after we lost Holly, I realized after looking at many breeds of dogs that this breed is my favorite.  The massive amount of shedding is a pain to deal with.  I’m devising strategies to better handle the hair including more frequent brushing and also periodic application of the high power air dog blower.

It is really fun to have a puppy again.  Almost like having another kid!

We Tried

Here is Becky, a nine-year-old foxhound-type who came to our farm as a foster-to-adopt candidate.  Amazingly, for an old dog, she has tons of energy, a great body condition and seemed to be fitting in.  After the loss of Holly, our older German Shepherd, we felt ready for a new companion and a friend for Otto.  Maybe an older, harder to home, shelter dog could find a place with us.  We decided to try.

Our style of keeping dogs involves off leash and under voice command outside, movement restricted to the dog area inside.  Becky quickly adapted from having the run of a house to staying in the dog area inside.  For an old dog with minimal leash training, she was making strides in responding to voice commands on the leash in preparation for off-lead.  She and Otto quickly became pals.

The first day she was here, she charged at a cat who came to investigate the new arrival.  At our house, the cats and dogs must get along.  Our tiger cat Toby, who is sixteen, Chloe the tuxedo kitty and the two brother cats, Kai and Cary who came to us as newborns from the shelter, all enjoy being with dogs.  After a few days, the cats had forgiven Becky’s early poor manners and returned to try and make friends.  Things seemed ok.  Becky would lie down and tolerate a cat within a foot of her with no aggression.  Everyone thought things would be wonderful.

Then, two nights ago, as I worked on the computer and the dogs rested in their area, all the cats came to visit me.  As is their furry wont, kitties sat beside me on the desk, curled behind me to look over my shoulder and settled nearby to observe.  All was quiet and content.  Toby had climbed on a bench and curled up for a nap.  After about ten minutes, for no reason I could discern, Becky suddenly jumped up and rushed at Toby, sending him, and the other cats, scattering for the hills.

Maybe it was a game for her; jump the cats and see them run, perhaps she just got sick of a feline relaxing bold as brass six feet away from her, who knows why she did it?  She ruined her chances of living at the farm.  We cannot trust her with the cats so she must go.  Since then the cats have stayed clear of Becky.  I’m hoping that continues until Tuesday when I return her to the shelter’s foster home an hour away.  Too bad, she is a nice dog otherwise.

I’m thinking now that the easiest way for us to get the sort of dog that can coexist with our menagerie of cats, horses, rabbits and free-range chickens is to start with a puppy and train it ourselves.  The strategy has always worked in the past, guess we should stick with it.