Friday, May 28, 2010

Friday Picture Post!

Shadow in the kitchen (staring at me -- he does that sometimes when he is in "play mode" and wants me to get a toy out for him!).

Shadow and Brodie, snugglebrothers! I love how Shadow is all smooshy-faced into Brodie's chest:

Cora all curled up in the little round cat bed (I swear, sometimes I wish I could morph into a cat just for the sake of the naps!):

Stylish kitties are stylish - Nikki, Shadow, and Brodie lounge artfully on the bed:

Shadow tries out the harness, in the back yard:

Breakfast time! Brodie and Shadow are on the cat platform, Cora is on top of the fridge, and Nikki is just outside the patio door (everyone is very excited about getting their wet food!):

Brodie, the archetypical kittyloaf!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Nikki's Overnight Adventure: More Thoughts On Outdoor Access for Cats

So, I had a bit of a scare last Friday night. Everything (and everyone, human and feline alike) is fine and accounted for now, save for the fact that my nerves are still slightly rattled. You see, Nikki (the only feline-in-residence who currently has any sort of unescorted outdoor access) did not come home on Friday night.

She went outside at around 3 PM and I saw her around the back yard every so often for the next few hours. But then dinnertime came and went, as did 7:30 PM (when I generally try to make sure she's indoors for the night, as most cats who get hit by cars do so after dark).

By 8 PM I still had seen no sign of her, not even when I went outside and opened a can of food (I recently discovered that while she disdains the expensive hippie wet food I've offered, she's quite the fiend for Fancy Feast).

I walked up and down the street and checked all her usual spots (under neighbors' bushes, etc.), but did not see or hear her anywhere (if she's outside and nearby, she usually answers if I call her name and meow).

Needless to say, I was worried. Very very worried. Apparently I have inherited the Corwin familial tendency to assume the absolute worst whenever someone I care about is out of my sight (and past due their usual arrival time back home). All these positively awful scenarios kept popping into my head, and I kept going round and round wondering if maybe I should have tried to turn her into an indoor-only cat, but then reminding myself that it's not like I forced her to go outside, and frankly she is probably better at gauging outdoor dangers than I am.

So...essentially I spent the better part of last Friday evening pacing around the living room, staring pointedly out the windows, periodically going out and calling Nikki's name, listening as hard as I could for any sort of answer, and generally Freaking Out.

(As an aside, Shadow was sort of following me around the house all evening, looking up at me and mewing and then curling up and purring on my lap when I sat down. He is turning out to be quite the Empathy Cat!)

At a certain point, though, I managed to convince myself that worrying would not bring Nikki back home safely, so I put some food out (near both the front and back doors), wedged the gate to the back yard open using the trash can (so she could get into the back yard more easily), and went to bed.

I woke up at 4 AM to use the bathroom and checked once again then to see if Nikki had perhaps returned, but still no luck. The food bowl I'd put on the front porch was empty, but that didn't tell me much, considering there are at least 5 other outdoor-access cats living on my street (not to mention a cadre of squirrels, and most probably opossums and racoons as well), so it could have been anyone. I went back to bed still worried (enough to dream, TWICE, about the situation) but exhausted enough to crash for another few hours.

Then, at 7 AM, I heard Shadow shrieking at the bedroom door (one of these days I simply must record some of the noises he makes, they're pretty incredible) so I figured it was as good a time as any to get up. I went into the kitchen and started preparing the kitties their morning breakfast (they get a portion of canned food in the AM and some dry food later in the day). I got out four dishes, figuring I would put a bit out on the front porch again for Nikki (just in case).

But, as it turned out, I never even got a chance to finish filling the cat dishes before Nikki ran up (yowling all the way!) across the back patio toward the kitchen door. I opened the door and she hopped inside without a moment's hesitation. She inhaled her food like she'd never seen food before, then proceeded to jump onto the stove (it wasn't on, don't worry) and try to lick the grease off the pan Matt had cooked hamburgers in the previous night! (Which means she had to be starving because I have never before seen her go for anything like that).

I gave her a handful of dry food after watching her a bit to make sure she wasn't going to hork up the canned stuff from eating it too fast, so she ate that, and then trundled off to my bed and slept. And slept and slept and slept, not even getting up or giving us an Annoyed Look when Matt and I made the bed (pulled the quilt up, etc.).

Nikki, all crashed out after her adventure!

She looks fine (no scratches, limping, etc.) and clearly her appetite is intact so I don't think anything awful happened to her. However, I did get the impression that she had probably been trapped somewhere (such as in a neighbor's garage -- she loves exploring garages for some reason) because of how hungry she was and the way she RAN into the kitchen like she had just escaped something. Her eyes were very wide and she was chattering at me in a "you would not BELIEVE the night I had!!!" manner.

In any case, I am just terribly relieved Nikki is okay. It's been a few days now and she is back to her usual energetic, demanding, vigilant security-guard-cat self. I've still been letting her outside every so often during the day but I've been making sure she's in for the night by 5 or 6 PM. And so far, ever since her adventure, she's been a lot more inclined to stick around the yard.

I know some people would probably think I'm being awfully irresponsible for letting Nikki out at all, especially after her overnight trip to who-knows-where. But as I explained in my post on "indoor-outdoor agnosticism", I personally do not hold firm beliefs either way about whether cats-in-general should or shouldn't be allowed outdoors unsupervised.

Rather, I think the decision is always going to be a very individual one based on each individual cat and his or her particular circumstances. And in Nikki's case, I can just see this huge difference in her overall demeanor and stress level when she's allowed out at least part-time versus when she's kept in 24-7.

Moreover, she seems very good about avoiding situations once she's determined they are Not Good in some way. If she was indeed trapped in a garage or something along those lines, my guess is she'll be much more careful to avoid that sort of thing in the future. So in a sense I am actually a little less worried when she goes out now, because of the fact that she came back after having been out all night; I know at least that she knows where "home" is.

So while the type of "compromise" she and I maintain in that regard seems to be ever-evolving, I guess what it comes down to is that I don't want to mistake my own tendency to worry when I can't see her for the actuality of serious danger. That, to me, seems like the sort of mistake that tends to lead to improper use of power (and humans have a lot of power over cats).

And in general I don't believe in using one incident of something scary happening as "proof" that someone needs to have their liberty to do something they love completely taken away.1

1 - PLEASE don't take this as meaning that I believe "all cats need to be allowed outside, otherwise you-the-human are abusing your power". I don't believe any such thing (if I did, why would three out of four felines living with me currently be indoor-only-unless-leashed?), and I think I've said so multiple times already. But I just want to make absolutely sure I am not misunderstood on this.

The actual point I am trying to make here is more along the lines of "I need to be careful not to confuse alleviating my own worries with actually making the best possible decision in a given cat's particular circumstances".

Which is a point that I think applies to relationships (particularly where power differentials are present, regardless of species membership) in general.

That is, when one person is in a position to control the amount or type of risk someone else is exposed to, it is not valid ethical reasoning for the more powerful party to simply decide "oh, I will just keep the other person under lock and key all the time, that way I won't need to worry about them".

Because in that case it's not actually about keeping the other person* safe. It's about the powerful person using their power to eliminate their own discomfort. Which is not the same thing as, say, using one's power to accurately assess risk and balance their decisions with the needs and wants of the less powerful person. I think it's important not to muddle the former with the latter, as that sort of muddling tends to lead to the total disregard of the less powerful person's needs, wants, autonomy, etc.

In other words, I feel that I have pretty rigorously assessed the cost-benefit scenarios associated with letting Nikki out sometimes or keeping her in all the time. And based on the relative quietness of the neighborhood here, lack of coyotes or other predators likely to attack domestic cats, presence of other outdoor cats who seem to be in good health (one of whom I know is 11 years old), etc., I figure there is a much higher probability of Nikki going on to live a good, long life than there is of her meeting an early, horrible death even if she has part-time outdoor access.

Oh, and bird enthusiasts need not worry about Nikki depleting the local sparrow supply -- whatever her other talents, she's a total failure as a hunter. She has no stealth and no sense of timing whatsoever. I mean, seriously, it's pretty hard to catch birds when you're running toward them yelling in Siamese fire-truck tones the whole way!

* In my personal lexicon, "person" is not restricted to meaning "human". And this should not be taken as "anthropomorphism", but as one of the ways I try to express respect for cats and various other non-human species.

Monday, May 24, 2010

What I've Learned About Litter Boxes

Ah, the litter box -- essential to every home where cats spend time indoors, seemingly simple, yet often fraught with complexity in terms of what it takes to create an ideal setup.

I never expected to spend as much time as I have since the current resident felines moved in figuring this out, but seeing as we've had zero problems in that department so far around here, I consider every moment spend pondering the intricacies of litter substrates, containers, and locations, to be well worth it.

I have to admit that when I was growing up, I lacked the appreciation I currently have for the importance of creating restroom facilities for cats that truly appeal to and meet feline criteria. Poor Tim (our family's Siamese guy, who we had from when I was in 5th grade through my senior year of high school) often had to put up with some truly terrible box conditions simply because we humans were not vigilant enough about keeping it clean.

Granted, at the time we did not have the wonderful invention that is clumping litter, but still. Since the box was in the downstairs basement bathroom it was very easy to just forget about it for days, and not give it much of a thought until Tim chose to communicate his displeasure with his toilet conditions by, say, crapping right in the center of my beanbag chair (for which I don't blame him one bit!).

In any case, I have learned (from my youthful irresponsibility and from a variety of cat-related books and online resources) a number of things that I believe have permitted a much better environment for the felines who now share my home. Among these valuable pieces of information are:

(1) Have more than one box.

This is absolutely essential in a multi-cat home (and possibly essential even if you only have one cat, if said cat is very young, very old, ill, or if your home has multiple stories).

One of the most eye-opening things I've learned of late has been just how very important territory is to cats, and the litter box is often one of the most contested and worried-about bits of real estate in the feline's home environment. Hence, one litter box for 2 or more cats is pretty much a recipe for territorial disputes, quite possibly of the smelly variety. Moreover, if such disputes are taking place, it's a sure bet the kitties involved are going to be stressed and hence unhappy much of the time, which obviously isn't good.

Luckily, there's a simple solution -- multiple litter boxes (and this is important) placed in different rooms, or different areas of the house. This effectively "splits up" the pottying territory, making it impossible for more dominant cats to "guard" the only available bathroom.

Furthermore, having multiple boxes actually makes for easier cleaning, as odd as that may sound -- but it makes sense when you consider that each box is likely to have a much lower concentration of waste.

As for exactly how many boxes, that is going to depend on a number of things. Most guidelines I've read as of late suggest "one box per cat, plus one extra". And my guess is that this is a wonderful guideline to follow, likely to pretty much guarantee zero territorial battles over bathrooming space.

However, I must admit that I have not personally managed to fulfill this guideline in my household -- we only have three boxes currently. I would love to have another box, but I can't for the life of me figure out where to put it. If the (one and only) bathroom were larger I'd put one in there, but the size it is now, there's literally nowhere to put a litter box where it wouldn't interfere with opening and closing the bathroom door.

The living room, meanwhile, is a "play zone" and the kitchen is a "food zone", so I don't want to put litter boxes in either of those rooms, because cats generally don't like to crap where they eat or play anyway. So for now we are sort of stuck with the three-box arrangement. I also realize that my litter box locations are not the best (two of them are in closets, albeit ones that are never closed) in terms of providing the cats with maximum visibility whilst going about their business, but I couldn't exactly put them where everyone would be tripping over them. So I did not have a whole lot of options in that regard.

[And my house isn't tiny, it's just laid out such that the majority of the area is a big, open space (living room plus kitchen) and the rest is divided up into very small rooms connected by a short hallway.]

So far all the cats seem fine with this three-box arrangement -- nobody has complained (and by "complained" I of course mean "crapped in my shoe to communicate their displeasure with the facilities"), at least. Plus, since Nikki has yard access, she can do her business outdoors (at least on some days); thankfully she prefers un-used (by humans) corners of the yard as opposed to the vegetable garden for that purpose. But I just keep thinking there must be some creative solution I haven't thought of, whereby I could stick another box somewhere just for that extra peace of mind it would provide.

Also, I have to say that figuring out where the boxes will go has definitely solidified my sense of my house's "cat-carrying capacity". I would definitely not want to be figuring out where I'd put six or seven litter boxes, which tells me that four cats is probably my ideal maximum for this living space, so that is what I am sticking to.

(2) Get your litter boxes at the hardware store, not the pet store.

These days when I go into the pet store, I almost have to laugh at the kitty bathroom facilities they offer. They're so small! And the sides are so low! Or they've got elaborate covers over them, inside which I cannot see how an average-sized cat could even turn around, let alone poop comfortably. And they're ridiculously expensive, for what they are.

I've had much, much better luck with (a) large plastic storage containers (20 gallon or larger, with FLAT bottoms, not the kind with weird grooves in them) -- the high sides do a worthwhile job of reducing "litter scatter", and (b) cement mixing pans.

Currently I have two storage-container boxes and one cement-mixing-bin box. They were all cheap, cheap, cheap (under $10 apiece, if I recall correctly) and all the cats here use them enthusiastically.

Below are pictures of my various "litter box stations", with a bit of commentary on each:

Box #1

Box #1 is located in the spare bedroom/"library" (it's a very small room with bookcases taking up one entire wall, a futon under the window, and a small table in front of the futon). This one is made from an Ikea Snalis storage box, which we've had since Cora and Brodie were tiny (back in October 2009). It has held up very well so far and this box gets a lot of "traffic", even though it's a bit smaller surface-area-wise than the other two boxes. So I am guessing the kitties like the location.

The one hurdle about this box's placement I haven't yet had to deal with (but have thought about) is: what if we actually have overnight guests at some point? Matt and I are kind of hermit-y and don't have many people over, but it presumably could happen. And my guess is that most people would not want to sleep in a room right next to an evening feature of "Kitty Takes A Dump At Midnight".

But I know cats don't like having their boxes moved all of a sudden and I certainly don't want to stress them, especially given that the mere fact of having guests at all would probably wig them a little.

So I am guessing that what I might do is plan way ahead for any overnight guests, and move the litter box out into the hallway (as gradually as possible). But in the meantime, I will certainly leave the box in that room because it's probably the least used-by-humans room in the house, making it perfect most of the time to house a kitty bathroom.

Box #2:

Box #2 is a clear Rubbermaid storage bin. Slightly larger than Box #1, and with the "step-in cutout" on the long side of the box rather than the short end, this one is located in the hall closet next to the bathroom. This closet has 2 sliding doors but we never close the one on the litter box side, whereas the other side is pretty much always closed because that's where the water heater is. So it's really more like the litter box is in a little "alcove" thing in the hallway, which is a good place for it logistics-wise because that way I'm not liable to accidentally step in it.

It actually took the kitties a rather long time to notice this box was even there, though that could be simply because it's the newest of the three boxes and by the time I added it to the set, everyone had become accustomed to using the boxes in the 2 other locations. But they do use it now (at least, the three younger cats do -- I've never seen Nikki even acknowledge Box #2), and for some reason it seems to get a lot of night-time traffic.

Eventually I would like to perhaps take that one closet door off completely and perhaps paint the shelves above the box (making a tidy little cat-nook; I already use it to store extra litter and other cat supplies in plastic containers). But for now it does the job as-is.

Box #3:

Box #3 is a large black cement mixing pan I got for about $6 at the little hardware store down the street. If the sides were just a bit higher (they're about 6") I would probably consider it to be the Most Perfect Litter Box Ever. It has a ton of surface area (which was the main reason I got it -- my boy cats especially are big guys, and still growing, and I wanted to have something they'd be able to turn around in, etc., once they reached full size). It has a smooth bottom with NO grooves, which is rounded at both ends, so scooping is very easy, and litter clumps are far less likely to break up.

(There is a commercially available litter box with a similar design, but you will pay more for it than you would pay for a cement mixing bin. Its sides are a bit higher than those of the cement bin, though, so for some people that alone might be worth the additional cost.)

I have this box placed on one side of the closet in the computer/office room. Matt and I completely removed the doors from this closet (they were huge mirrored affairs that Matt disliked from the get-go anyway) so it is not a very "closety" space anymore. All four kitties seem very pleased with Box #3, especially Nikki, who likes to be able to see all around her while using the facilities.

Mind you, none of my cats seem to be the types to stick their butts over the edge of the box and "miss" or produce horizontal "over-spray". If your kitties have these sorts of tendencies, the sides on the cement mixing bin might be too low for you to consider. As it is, I am glad that I had a "corner" location to place this box in (I attached plastic shelf liner to the adjacent walls, just in case...) because there is definitely more scatter from this box than from the storage containers. But I don't really want a higher sided box in that location because it's right near the doorway to the room and higher sides would probably eliminate the visibility advantage. And really the scatter is not THAT bad, as long as I keep on top of it with the mini-Dyson-vac!

(3) Avoid covered boxes.

Now, there are exceptions to this one...some shy or self-conscious cats prefer to do their business in a cave, so to speak. But the majority of cats are far less inclined to appreciate a cover on their litter box, and more inclined to appreciate the extra head-room, visibility, and fresh-airiness that a lidless box provides.

I have known many cats who use covered boxes without complaint, but seeing as I wanted to pre-emptively prevent litter box problems when it came to my kitties, I decided to go with lidless boxes from the get-go. Which is one reason plastic storage containers are so nice...they provide all the litter-scatter protection of a covered box without the cover!

Plus, not having a cover makes the box way easier to don't have to disconnect or remove anything, whether you're scooping or dumping and scrubbing the whole box. There are no little plastic clasps to break or get stuck, no litter-cement stuck in odd little nooks and crannies...just smooth surface all over. Lovely, as such things go! And of course there's the advantage of you being able to SEE the poop when it's there, rather than having it build up out of sight, creating much grossness for the cat and also for you later when you finally go deal with the mess.

(Oh and regarding electronic "self cleaning" litter boxes? I've never tried one, and don't plan to. All I can think of when I see those things is how they're full of small and moving parts that would ALL have to be periodically cleaned, which I know would be a huge hassle for me. I much prefer the low-tech simplicity of "all one piece" boxes. Your, and your cats', mileage may vary, though.)

About the only covered box I would ever consider would be one with holes, or mesh, on all sides, to allow for air flow and visibility. But there is no way I am going to want to "trap odors inside"...that right there is a major recipe for litter box avoidance. Not to mention the fact that, in a multi-cat situation, covered boxes provide the perfect opportunity for ambushes, which can lead to shy cats avoiding the box altogether and deciding that your laundry basket (or worse) makes a safer toilet.

I just didn't want to set up the conditions to foster ANY litter box avoidance, and for me, the fact that occasionally I have to walk by a box and see (and smell) a turd sitting there is MUCH preferable to stressed, box-avoiding kitties and probably extra messes to clean up in places much less scoop-friendly than the litter box.

(4) Scoop more than once a day.

This is especially important in multi-cat situations (singlet kitties may not require it, but it depends on the individual cat). I scoop all boxes twice a day minimum, sometimes more. It's part of my morning routine and evening routine now, and I would feel very weird if I didn't do it. Letting waste build up not only makes box avoidance more likely, but gets awfully smelly very fast, and can even end up costing you (as you will surely go through more litter that way).

Seriously. You do not want your kitty to have to step through piles of his/her own waste in order to use the toilet. If you need help managing litter boxes, get help. (I realize this is easier said than done, though, if you need help that badly, so I do not mean to denigrate anyone's situation). I guess what I'm saying is, keeping the box inviting (which means clean) should be a priority, not an after-thought or optional consideration when it comes to creating a good home for cats.

(5) Avoid scented / perfumed litter, "pet area" air fresheners, etc..

This one was very easy for me as I myself can't stand the smells of most scented products, litter included. Plus it is just patently apparent to me that covering up an odor is not going to fool a cat! Dirty litter is still dirty, no matter how much it might smell like the choke-inducing soap in your Great Aunt Effie's bathroom cabinet. Same goes for potpourri-spray around the litter box, or scented candles or whatnot. No cat with a crap-filled box is going to smell the aroma of Cinnamon-Citrus Breeze and think "oh how wonderful!" More likely, the cat will use the box grudgingly, if at all, and become that much more liable to go seek out a less asphyxiating bathroom location.

(And again, YMMV on this one -- I am not trying to be a judgmental zealot here, but it just seems to me like common sense that you wouldn't use a heavily-perfumed product in a toilet facility for someone with an extremely keen sense of smell. Just as with covered boxes, though, I have known cats who don't seem to mind scented litter. But as I personally can't stand the stuff myself, and as I'm big into that whole prevent-problems-before-they-start thing, I just figured I was better off finding an unscented litter and sticking with it.)

As for what litter substrate I use? Currently I am using Swheat Scoop Multi-Cat. Mostly I started out with this litter because it was the only one I could find that was unscented, indicated it was "safe for kittens", and also clumped. (Clumping clay litter is not recommended for kittens, as supposedly it can cause intestinal blockage when licked off their paws).

I'm more or less happy with it, though it would be nice if it clumped a little more firmly. It is not dust-free but it's a heck of a lot less dusty than any clay litter I've come across. And I like that the bags are much lighter to carry than an equivalent volume of clay. I don't see any reason to switch brands, and I wouldn't want to do so suddenly anyway, because that's another thing that can lead to box avoidance ("hey, this isn't the stuff I usually crap in!").

(Note: I have also tried the non-multi-cat variety and confirmed that there is a performance difference -- regular Swheat Scoop definitely does not smell as fresh for as long as the multi-cat stuff. After a few days, even with regular scooping, it starts to smell like a gas-station restroom. So I would recommend trying the multi-cat Swheat Scoop if you're heading down the wheat road anyway, even if you only have a singular cat.)

Some people have recommended World's Best Cat Litter to me. I am sure it is a fine product but I can't use it because of Brodie's corn intolerance. He is so sensitive to the stuff that even two or three corn-based treats will give him the runs, so I certainly wouldn't want him walking around in corn-based anything or cleaning himself with that stuff all over him. If your cat doesn't have this corn issue then you would probably be fine with WBCL (and it might be something to try if your cat instead has a problem with wheat, as some cats do).

(6) Flushable Litter Generally Isn't.

This is more of a human-relevant concern than a cat-relevant concern, but seeing as our sewer cleanout recently backed up into the front yard, I figured I would point it out so others could hopefully avoid a similar fate. It is probably fine to flush individual poops down the toilet (I do this sometimes still, and have no problems), but you definitely do NOT want to be putting giant pee-clumps down that drain.

My guess is that even if you let it sit for the recommended 20 minutes, that is still a heck of a lot of sheer matter for the crapper to "digest". Even a nominally "flushable" litter, when flushed in the quantities you'd expect from four cats, can lead to a plumbing nightmare, and most people I know would prefer to avoid nightmares of that variety.

So unless you know you have super-mega-industrial piping in your home, you probably just want to toss the used litter clumps into the trash. If you are worried about biodegradability, you can actually get biodegradable bags for this purpose (they sell them to pick up doggie waste with). And you don't need to spend lots on a special receptacle for bags of litter, either -- a regular diaper pail or trash can with a tight-fitting lid (not one of those swing-type things) will do the job just fine.

And as for environmental concerns, there appears to me to be no "perfect" litter or way to deal with cat waste. Some people don't recommend flushing any cat waste because toxoplasma parasite can harm sea otters. Others claim flushing is better because that way you don't have anything sitting in a landfill. I would suggest just doing your own research and balancing whatever you find with your cats' and your individual needs.

Now, note that none of the above were my original ideas...aside from the "this is what I'm doing in my home" bits, I am just repeating advice I've heard/read in far too many places to reference here, trying to spread the information around so that more people are likely to encounter it.

Monday, May 17, 2010

In Which I Sort The Kitties Into Alpha, Beta, and Gamma Personalities In Addition To Hogwarts Houses

Disclaimer: this post is completely un-scientific and not even remotely meant to suggest ANY of my cats (or any cats, period) can be easily summed up by placement in a simplistic categorization system. This sort of thing, to me, is just for fun -- along the lines of, say, trying to sort your siblings into Hogwarts houses, or in a likewise manner, attempting to determine what the D&D alignments of various characters in Buffy the Vampire Slayer would be. (Yes, I've actually done this.)

Ahem. Anyway. Where was I?

Ah yes. Cats!

I recently read an article describing three types of cat personalities, nominally Alpha, Beta, and Gamma. Which, in this parlance, do not imply hierarcical designations (such as would be the case in wolf or dog packs), have nothing to do with fraternities, and do not in any way refer to the dysfunctional socio-eugenics structuring as described in Huxley's Brave New World.

Rather, the article describes the three cat types thusly:

Alpha cats are the mad scientists of the cat world.

They want to manipulate their environment to suit them. Their lack of thumbs is the only factor keeping them from World Domination. That, and those naps.

Alphas are marvelous cats, but they are not for everyone. As kittens, they are the reason china cabinets have doors and kitchen cabinets have baby locks. If something can be opened, unfastened, switched, rearranged, or button pressed, it was an Alpha who did it. Their boundless curiosity and free running intelligence is fastened on their reason for being; experimentation. If a thing does interesting stuff when dumped in the water dish, it will be dumped in the water dish.(...)

Beta cats see us [humans] as the way to get their environment the way they want it. So they are great talkers, or if not, big on the "Lassie Move" where they catch your attention and try to get you to follow them to the object of interest...

...Betas love companionship, whether it be respectful dogs or properly coached children. They are the most likely cat to meet strangers [note: not true in Shadow's case, but I can see it becoming true as he gets older and more confident], especially if the guests are sensible enough to admire them. If your business needs a "greeter cat," look for a Beta. This outgoing quality makes them especially easy to care for, because if the food dish is getting low or the litter box isn't being kept up, you will know about it right away. Always be swift to correct problems, and Betas will shower you with love and attention in return.

Gamma cats are sweet and mellow. They are somewhat shy, but once their trust is won, they love affection and have winning little ways.

They always have time for you. The challenge of the Gamma is not immediately apparent. You must make time for them.

Gammas are teddy bears, so deferential and unassuming that they will not assert themselves except in an emergency. It's up to you, as a responsible Gamma owner, to keep tabs on them, making sure the water bowl is fresh, and the food keeps coming.

(Note: I've only quoted partially from each section in the linked article -- hopefully this puts things here in accordance with copyright etiquette).

So, while there are aspects of these descriptions that certainly do not apply to my kitties, roughly, when reading the article I found myself figuring Nikki and Shadow to be Betas, Coraline to be an Alpha, and Brodie to be a Gamma. (And when I later described the article to Matt, he agreed with my sorting results).

It is interesting to think about the felines-in-residence in this way in part because these Alpha-Beta-Gamma designations, frivolous and unscientific as they may be, do sort of bring out patterns I might not have noticed otherwise. I actually nearly laughed out loud this morning when I was preparing breakfast for the feline lot, whilst noting that:

- Cora had jumped up onto the counter and was trying to get the food straight out of the can, before I'd even had the chance to distribute it onto individual dishes,

- Brodie was sitting over on the kitchen cat-platform thing, looking proper-as-you-please and waiting quietly,

- Shadow was weaving around my legs, looking up at me periodically, and meowing, and

- Nikki was likewise yelling at me from the patio (as she could see what was going on re. the can of food I had open in the kitchen)

Hee. So yeah. Again, totally silly, frivolous, unscientific, but interesting and funny nonetheless. E.g., Shadow and Nikki are very different people; they have unique demeanors, interests, priorities, and so on.

In Hogwarts terms, for instance, Nikki would almost certainly be a (non-evil!) Slytherin.

She has a certain air of ruthlessness about her (though is definitely not "mean"). She gives off a tremendous impression of having a whole lot of terribly important work to do (and I do actually believe she does, in cat terms, which are not terms to be taken lightly!). Hence she has no patience whatsoever for time-wasting frivolousness, unnecessary noise, etc. If she were human my guess would be she'd be the type people would accuse of having "no sense of humor", when really, it's just that her wit is so dry (and often dark) that people miss it even when she's being totally obvious about it.

Whereas Shadow, on the other hand, is Captain Hufflepuff all the way.

Loyal to those he trusts, presumes all other cats want to (or should want to) be his friend. Unflappable in the face of swats, hisses, and so on. Stands his ground no matter what. Energetic, easily entertained and prone to being altogether silly. If he were human he seems like he'd be sort of this very gung-ho, earnest boy-scout sort of guy (think Russell from the film 'Up').

Nevertheless, both these very different kitties definitely share the whole "Come quick! Timmy's fallen in the well! quality that is apparently a "Beta" thing.

They're both very vocal, and lately it's been the two of them howling at my bedroom door (which is a "no kitty zone" at night, per Matt's desire not to have his sensitive bits pounced on by 30-plus pounds of crepuscular athletics-team) at 5 in the morning. They both share the habit of following me from room to room when they want something (and sitting outside the door yelling at me when I'm in the bathroom).

They are also both highly adept at figuring out how to communicate with the ape contingent -- as in, if their first attempt doesn't visibly get my attention, they will amp up the volume, and if that doesn't work, they will move on to physical reminders (Nikki will jump up onto my shoulder, Shadow will attempt to climb up my pants leg!). And so on.

Overall, while again you'd never mistake one for the other character-wise (Shadow is about as silly as Nikki is serious, for one thing), I definitely see significant aspects of both of them in the "beta" description.

As for Coraline, she is so Alpha (and a Ravenclaw, all the way).

Ever since she was a tiny kitten, she's given off this incredible sense of what I would call "gears turning constantly in her head". She plans things. If she were a cartoon character, she'd be the one always saying, "According to my calculations...".

She's always been patient and careful (yet bold at the same time), and highly attuned to how she might employ objects in her environment to her advantage (or in the service of her entertainment). She's not so much into persuading humans to do her bidding so much as getting things done herself (though she can certainly be very persuasive when it suits her!).

In other words, Cora (as a baby) was the one escaping from the kitten-pen, hiding in the bookshelves, climbing part-way up the chimney (I kid you not), working her way through every cardboard-and-tape assembly I employed to keep the kittens out from under the bed (when they were teeny and feral I had to give them medication for their coccidia parasite infections, and it was this ridiculous ordeal to catch them if they got under the bed -- but eventually I just gave up and dealt with the ridiculous ordeal because, short of sealing up the space with concrete, I could not figure out an adequate barrier design), and tearing individual paper towels off the roll to make herself neat little sleeping-mats under the bed.

She has since "graduated" to such feats as jumping at door handles (she knows exactly what they are for and how they work -- it seems to be only a lack of opposable thumbs that thwarts her in using them), scaling every vertical structure in the house (and getting to places I never expected to see a cat, such as the top of the stove's fume hood!), caching favorite toys under the rug, pulling my sweaters off their hangers and into the laundry basket (which she has claimed as a DIY cat-bed) and so on. So yeah. I would honestly only be half surprised to come home and find her using my computer to order "supplies" (fish, explosives, jet-packs, etc.) via the Internet.

And then there's Brodie.

While he looks nothing like any of the "Gamma-associated" breeds (Persian, Birman, etc.) listed in the aforementioned article -- if anything, as a feral-born mutt, he resembles a short-haired variant of Maine Coon crossed with an Oriental Shorthair -- his overall bearing is very much along the lines of what I'd definitely term "sweet" (though I don't mean that in a patronizing or infantilizing sense at all).

He also has this quality of seeming to sort of...fade into the background, for lack of a better phrase. It's not like I ever forget he's there, it's just that he generally isn't making a point of announcing his presence constantly. He reminds me a little bit of my brother Paul (I actually have four younger siblings; Paul is closest in age to me), who has a similarly "unobtrusive" character about him. If Brodie were a child attending school, he would be one of the quiet kids in the back of the class who just sort of did his work and was described as "no trouble" -- despite being perfectly capable of the occasional bit of mischief! He also has the (apparently) "Gamma" trait of being initially shy, but extremely affectionate once he knows and trusts you.

Oh, and the bit in the article about how you (meaning you, human) need to be the one to make time for [GammaKitty] is definitely true in Brodie's case. He is quite content to nap off in a corner somewhere for hours (the unobtrusiveness thing again), but if I go find him, pet him a bit, and then walk off somewhere else and sit down, he will more than likely come find me in a matter of minutes, mew at me, jump up, and settle into my lap and purr for as long as I'm willing to sit there.

(Hogwarts-wise he'd be a Gryffindor of the Neville Longbottom variety, in the sense that a lot of people might wonder what he's doing there at first, but then when it really comes down to taking a stand, he astounds people.), yeah, I definitely live with a very interesting mix of feline characters here. I know I am very lucky that they all get along reasonably well, as it's always such a crap-shoot (thankfully not a literal one in our case -- everyone here is great about litterbox use) bringing a group of small carnivores together under one roof. And I also feel privileged to have this opportunity to watch a very particular group of individuals each seeing, feeling, and generally experiencing life and reality in his or her own way, thus helping do justice to an amazing universe containing far too much for any one person to possibly perceive, let alone comprehend.

Monday, May 10, 2010

On Indoor-Outdoor Agnosticism

At this point in my life I would consider myself "agnostic" (or rather, firmly in the "it depends" camp) as far as the question of whether cats "should" go outdoors at all or be kept strictly indoors. But this has not always been the case.

Cat researcher Sarah Hartwell's take on "The Indoor Outdoor Debate" was quite an eye-opener for me. In particular, I found the following very surprising:

In Britain an estimated 88%-92% of cats have access to outdoors. The percentage of indoor-only cats corresponds to the percentage of pedigree cats in the pet population. Some are restricted to securely fenced gardens or are supervised by the owner, but most have free access to the outside world, often via their own cat flap. Cat shelters quiz owners about their lifestyle and many require that the cat has access to a garden. Shelters do not, however, refuse to home cats as indoor-only pets if this is right for the individual cat concerned and for the owner. In America the situation is almost the reverse of that in Britain with most shelters refusing to home cats unless the cat is to be kept strictly indoors (except for specialist rescues dealing with feral cats; these seek locations where the risks are acceptable for the non-tame cats concerned).

Apparently, until very recently, I've been looking at the question of in-versus-out for cats from a very, well, American frame of mind. My default perspective for years has been that "ideally" cats ought to be kept indoors, with exceptions being made only for feral cats, working cats (e.g., barn or factory mousers), or cats whose humans come from generations prior to my own when letting felines roam was just "the thing to do" (and who haven't caught up with the times, so to speak). And in keeping with this perspective, before I adopted my current pride of four, I assumed they would all be indoor-only.

My reasoning was mostly based on safety, as articles here, here, and here indicate many of the deadly dangers to outdoor cats, all of which are preventable if cats are kept indoors.*

However, recently I have reconsidered my position, and currently don't see the question of "should cats go outdoors or not?" as even really being one that makes sense outside the context of each individual feline's situation.

Of course there are some cats that should live solely indoors due to (for instance) health issues, e.g., those who are FIV-positive, or who belong to breeds whose physical characteristics render them vulnerable to the elements (e.g., hairless Sphynx cats being at risk of severe sunburn), or who have not yet been spayed or neutered.

And of course there are situations where it is simply physically infeasible or egregiously dangerous to let cats outdoors, such as when one lives at the top of a high-rise apartment complex, or at the edge of coyote-infested woods.**

In my (and the resident felines') case, neither of the above situations applies to us. All four cats here are spayed/neutered, vaccinated, FIV and FeLV negative, treated monthly with topical flea-preventative medication, and fully clawed (I am firmly against declawing cats, by the way, regardless of whether they're going to go outdoors or not). We live in a fairly average (for the area) suburban house, on a not-too-busy street (where perhaps one or two automobiles per hour go by throughout most of the day).

Given these factors, my present take on the situation is that yes, dangers exist outdoors that the cats would not be exposed to indoors -- but there are no "absolutes" that I can see demanding that I either keep them in all the time or let them out as a matter of obligation.

In other words, I do not believe that either keeping cats indoors or letting them outside is categorically "irresponsible" or "cruel". Rather, I think one really must take care to consider the particular cats, the particular environment, and so on, when determining what "access privileges" the resident kitties will have in a given home situation.

So, all that said, currently only one of my cats (Nikki) has any sort of unsupervised access to the outdoors.

Nikki's Compromise

If you will recall, I adopted Nikki from my parents in January 2010, when they moved out of state. And I might be a bit sketchy on the details, but as far as I know, my parents had kept Nikki indoors until she was about five years old. At some point they harness-trained her (which she took to very well), and after that she was outdoors some of the time.

Then, a dog joined their household for the first time, and it turned out that Nikki was, shall we say, not a dog person. An Epic Battle for Territory ensued (of the sort involving such lovely phenomena as middening), and Nikki ended up becoming a nearly full-time outdoor cat for about a year (prior to moving in with me, Matt, and the Formerly Feral Trio).

In any case, I kept Nikki indoors full-time for the first month or so of her being here, then started her out on leashed (and fully supervised) walks around the yard. She settled in very well (certainly better than one might have expected, given a highly territorial eight-year-old Siamese!). We had no "marking incidents" whatsoever; apparently Nikki prefers dealing with three rowdy kittens to one rowdy Dachshund, and I am sure having multiple litter boxes (an absolute essential in a multi-cat household) helped in this regard.

However, Nikki very clearly knew that the outdoors was there, and she told me repeatedly, and in no uncertain terms (lots of yowling at scratching at the door) that she wanted to be there. I also just generally get the distinct sense from her that she cannot abide being patronized (neither can I!), and when she was asking emphatically to go out she seemed to be saying something like "Come ON now! I'm an ADULT!" Which she is. And I am doing my best to respect her as an adult (and no, this is not "anthropomorphism" -- anyone who has spent any time around adult cats vs. kittens will likely see differences in "bearing" if they bother paying attention. Grownup cats know they're grownups, and they expect you to acknowledge this.).

So, after about another month, I let her out off the leash. She did not run away. She did not bolt into the street. What she did was almost immediately jump into my arms (out on the back patio) and purr.

"You're welcome,", I said. And I knew I'd made the right decision, or at least the right decision by Nikki.

Ever since then, she's had the liberty to come in and out as she pleases -- so long as (a) at least one human is home to act in the capacity of doorperson, and (b) it isn't dark outside.

Mostly she stays in her own back yard, with occasional forays into the next door neighbor's yard (on one side -- the people on the other side have a large dog, meaning Nikki is well inclined to steer clear!). She crossed the street a few times when she first started going out, but seems to have stopped doing that lately, following a series of negotiations with Allie (whose humans live directly across from us), another highly territorial ladycat.

"You stay on your side, and I'll stay on my side!"

And when I've been out with Nikki, I've noticed her general reaction to cars in motion is to move away from them, which indicates her overall sense of danger to be a fair sight better than my own (unlike her, I've actually been hit by a car!).

Hence, I am not exceedingly worried about Nikki going out these days, and she seems to be much happier with the situation now that she has garden access. Overall she probably spends maybe two or three hours outside a day, sometimes more on weekends (she likes to watch me and Matt do yard-work!), and less when it's raining or otherwise nasty out. It's a situation that largely works well for everyone here, human and feline alike.

Leash Training The Younglings

As for the youngster-kitties, so far only Coraline (surprise!) has shown any real interest in going outside. Brodie and Shadow will not even try to leave the house if the door is wide open right in front of them (though I don't push my luck in that regard, as I am sure if something startled them they might run in the direction of an open door).

Cora, on the other hand, has been very very interested in the door (and what lies beyond) for several months now. A while back (and I've alluded briefly to this before) I made what turned out to be a fiasco of an attempt at taking her out without first letting her get accustomed to the feel of the harness and leash -- essentially she got frightened and tried to bolt and squirm out of the harness, and I only barely got her back inside before she could accomplish this.

So I waited a few weeks for the shock of that experience (probably more to me than to her!) to dissipate, and then started her off wearing the harness in the house for a few minutes, then up to an hour (or thereabouts) daily. At first she did what I call the "weasel walk" (a low-to-the-ground crouch) and seemed a bit on the twitchy side, but within about a week she was running around, climbing the shelves, and scrapping with her brothers just as usual with the harness on.

At that point -- when I could see she wasn't scared or bothered by the feeling of the harness, and could move about confidently with it on -- I tried taking her outdoors again, and things went much better! The first time, she just sat on the mat outside the back sliding door for a few minutes, then turned around and indicated she wanted to go back inside, so of course I opened the door and let her in. Since then, she's gone on leashed jaunts all around the back yard, part of the front yard, and down the sidewalk a bit.

And she has really seemed to enjoy it -- seriously, she is generally (what looks to me like) a happy, active, confident cat, but outside it's like everything gets amplified several notches. I really have to get a video of this soon -- she does this ultra-confident little tail-swagger when she's outside walking around, and just gets this alert, almost cocky look on her face. And she sniffs at everything, watches everything, listens to everything, in this way that is just so...obviously, immersively feline. It is such a delight to see, and hence our recent walks have been tremendously fun for both Cora and me. She very clearly knows the difference between "inside" and "outside" and I am glad that she is taking so well to the harness, etc.

Eventually I do plan to try and get the boys used to the harness (and walking on the leash outside) as well, even though right now they seem to actively prefer the indoors.

Shadow has already worn the harness (indoors, of course) a few times and he definitely had a "WTF" reaction to it at first, but is getting better each time. He is very playful (meaning, if you wave a toy around he will come running from anywhere in the house to pounce on it) so I've been putting the harness on him and then getting out the interactive toys he likes, so he will be more inclined to move about and in doing so discover that while the harness might feel weird, it doesn't actually impede his movement.

Brodie, on the other hand, has yet to undergo any real harness-acclimation. This is mostly because, while he's very lovey (to the point of lying on his back on my lap whilst purring and drooling like a leaky faucet), he isn't so much for being approached. He has to be the one to approach you (or rather, me). Which is utterly and perfectly fine, and I am glad he has the self-respect to know his own mind in that regard. But it definitely makes it difficult to, you know, catch him and stick a harness on him. Maybe if I get the harness in advance, sit down, and then wait for him to come sit on me, I can get it onto him to start the acclimation. I shall have to brain-storm on that, though.

Revising My Reasoning

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, and it has occurred to me that even if I vowed to keep all the younger cats inside, the chance always remains that they could get out. And if that happens, I figure it's better for them to be familiar with their immediate outdoor surroundings, and with the feel and look of the world-outside-the-house in general, than have it come at them as this big, terrifying mass of information overload. That way they are more liable to, say, wait patiently by the door or even try to get back in the door than bolt off in fright and disappear into the bushes (or worse, run into the street in a moment of panic).

And...while, again, I do NOT think it is "cruel" to keep a cat indoors for his/her entire life if the circumstances demand it (there are ways to create highly enriching, fun-for-cats indoor environments, after all, and there are some cats for whom the outdoors would simply be a terrible idea, i.e., those with compromised immune systems), I like the idea of being able to (while looking out for their safety) show my kitties that there's more to the world than the inside of one house.

That way, if (Bast forbid) we ever had to evacuate during some sort of natural disaster, etc., the cats would not be quite so panicked at the prospect of leaving the house, and would take the likely ensuing chaos in better stride. feels sort of weird to say this, but in some ways I now feel that providing some outdoor access to the felines-in-residence here is actually better for them, safety-wise, than keeping them inside all the time. Which I know deviates somewhat from the American Conventional Wisdom of Keep All Cats Indoors All The Time For Their Own Good, but makes sense to me given what I've learned recently, and what I've observed about my particular cats.

Moreover, at some point I would really like to modify the back yard fence (which is a full-surround wooden affair, between 5 and 8 feet high, depending on the side you're looking at) with cat fence material. That way the cats could go out, have the additional territory (and sights, sounds, and smells) of the back yard to enjoy, but would not be able to access the street. Really I think that would be the best of all possible situations, but it will need to wait until I do some more planning and determine things like material cost and design, etc., customized to suit our yard.

I don't know yet if I will end up giving any of the younger cats off-leash or unsupervised garden access (like Nikki has). With Nikki at least I had the knowledge of her prior history as a mainly-outdoor cat, as well as her lack of a tendency to play in traffic -- with the younger cats, I simply have no idea what they'd do given access to a street, and I really don't fancy finding out via "trial and error". I suspect that they would most likely be fine, given the relative cat-friendliness of the neighborhood, but I can't say the same for my nerves! So for the time being, I am likely to stick to supervised outings for the younglings. And with any luck someday I will manage to configure a safer garden area for them to go out and enjoy the fresh air and sunshine in.

* It is worth noting that of course there are dangers indoors as well! Curious kittens may chew electrical cords, ingest string or other foreign objects, etc. Cleaning fluids and such must be carefully stowed away. When I first adopted the younger cats you can believe I had to do a lot of kitten-proofing in the house!

** Though in either of those cases, it may still be possible to take a cat outdoors, on a leash or in a "sightseeing" carrier such as a Pet Pocket.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Caturday Again!

Some of this week's highlights from the wonderful felines:

Sister kittens (Rosie's babies at almost 4 weeks!) snuggling in their nest box.

Boy-baby kitten (no they don't have names yet, waiting to see what their personalities are like) exploring!

Cora (l) and Nikki (r) in the back yard. Nikki is none too pleased about this new development (Cora going out on leash-walks). I can't say I really blame her, though, as up until now the yard has been the one place she's been able to get away from those rowdy young up-start roommates of hers. :P

Shadow deep in comfortable napping-land on the window seat. When I moved into this house there were two things I knew for sure: this house needs cats, and it needs a window seat for the cats to sit on. And now both of those things have been realized! :D (Humans can sit on the window seat too, of course, but I am sure it will get more feline use overall!)

Double-decker makeshift cat "bunk beds" in the living room: Nikki is napping on a fuzzy "cat mattress" I made, and Brodie is below the end table in a little round bed my parents got for the kitties last Xmas.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Caturday Photos for May 1, 2010

(OK well technically it is after midnight as I post this, making it May 2, 2010 here in Northern California, but I started uploading pictures before midnight so I will leave the title as is.)

Some photos from this weekend:

Cora here again on top of the DVD cabinet. She looks a bit like a paratrooper to me, in the harness she's wearing. I am attempting to harness-train all the younger cats (Nikki is already a pro at outdoor stuff) so that if they ever get out, they will know what the house looks like from the outside and not be terrified and confused.

Anyway, I was encouraged by the fact that Cora jumped all the way up here with the harness on because it means she's getting used to the way it feels. The first time I put it on her (a few months ago) I acted with what might be termed a "paucity of wisdom", because I brought her right outside. Where she got spooked by a bee or something, tried to bolt, and then panicked when she felt the harness pulling on her. I scarcely managed to get her back indoors and got a big scratch in the process (completely my fault). So then she did not go out again until just a few days ago, after I saw her starting to walk normally in the house with the harness on (rather than in the very low crouch-stance that a lot of cats go into when they wear a harness for the first time. This past time she did much better outside -- she sniffed around, ate some grass, and then ran back toward the door (still on the leash) when she wanted to go back in a few minutes later.

Brodie standing on the kitchen feeding-platform/scratching post thing I built. He just looks so...statuesque here, or something. The kittens have grown up so much! Brodie is the largest, currently at 14 pounds (and they are all 9 months old). I wonder if he has some Maine Coon genetics because he seems to be scaled like one (though his shape is more Siamesey -- ah, the fascinating world of feral-born mutt kitties!). His paws are still big so I bet he will be at least a 20 lb adult.

And he is turning out to be such a sweet guy. He loves to come visit me at my computer and will jump into my lap and curl up and purr, for as long as I am willing to sit there! He is definitely an "I'll come to you" cat (dislikes being approached or picked up), which I think is good because it means whenever he deems to sit on you, you know it's because HE wants to. I want all the kitties here to have a healthy self respect and it definitely seems they do!

Shadow, lounging on the bed. He definitely has Intense Face here, and looks rather serious, but his personality is not extremely serious. He and Brodie both have a sort of "sweet but prankster-ish" thing about them. Also, I think it is kind of funny that initially Shadow was named (by Matt) because of how he sort of slunk around very low to the ground whenever we saw him outside (before we trapped and adopted him), but now he is living up to his name in a different way in that he's been following us around the house from room to room! I need to get some more videos of him uploaded.

...and here is one of Rosie's kittens, a little marble tabby we are pretty sure is a boy (though somewhat hard to tell at barely 3 weeks of age). I visited today and the three surviving babies seem to be doing fine (aside from some eye-infection stickiness; they're currently being treated with antibiotic ointment) -- they all eat lots and are crawling and squirming all over their box, and sometimes all over humans who sit near them!

Their mom (Rosie) periodically takes "breaks", and goes out a bit to walk about but always comes back shortly. I am sorry I did not get better pictures of all three babies -- this is the only one that came out remotely well, because kittens are active and they were moving around so much I could not get anything that was not blurry aside from this picture.

But I did get a video (below), where you can see all the babies (briefly -- the sister kittens are the little black one and the lighter spotted one) in the second bit:

It is so funny and cute, they are walking very well now but are still wobbly. And I love how their tails stick out all straight especially when they are exerting themselves!

Anyway that is it for this photo-post. And I did not forget about Nikki, it is just the pictures I tried to take of her did not come out well enough to upload (she kept ducking behind plants, etc.!). And today she had a vet appointment (booster shots, etc.) and was very tired afterward.

OK I had better go to bed now, but as always there will be more cat-related material continuing to appear here periodically!