Thursday, May 31, 2012

Bella and kittens, day 5

Picture post! Took these earlier this evening. Bella was looking at me in a very stabby fashion when I first walked into Matt's parents' guest bathroom. The lighting in this one makes it look like she is about to interrogate me or something.

Also, if you look closely in the lower left, there is KITTEN BUTTHOLE. I think that one might be a boy but it's too soon to tell for sure.

Bella relaxed a lot once she realized I was not going to touch her babies (or her). We're trying not to handle them at all at least until their eyes are open anyway so as not to stress anyone out. She looks SO exhausted, though, and she isn't even remotely interested in leaving the bathroom, probably because the babies are sucking her dry! 

Matt's mom says she is eating all her food and drinking all her water at night, though, and it is beginning to show in how fast the babies are growing. I was shocked to see how much bigger they were after only a few days. They're more like the size of fat hamsters now (rather than mice) and they have excellent little kitten potbellies. So while they're not "out of the woods" yet they are definitely looking stronger. Their eyes aren't even open yet but they are nonetheless crawling all over the crate and all over their mom!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Bella and her kittens: good news and bad...

I'll get the bad news over with first: Matt's mom called today with the very sad news that two of Bella's kittens have died. Which is horrible but not entirely unexpected. I was astounded that she managed to even fit four babies inside her to begin with, and while of course hoping they would all live once they were born, I was not optimistic that they would all make it past the critical 2-week period. I never really know what to say about this sort of thing other than reporting the facts and acknowledging how sad those facts are, but believe me, despite their short lives I will not ever forget those tiny cats. I am glad they at least got to smell the dirt and the leaves under the blackberry bramble and to know the warmth of nestling with their siblings.

Okay before I start crying my eyes out here...I'll get to the good news. Which is that Matt's mom has managed to coax Bella into the house! She is there in the same fostering crate that Jack used when he was a baby -- with her two remaining offspring. Who by all accounts are doing well and "nursing constantly". I will get to go see them tomorrow evening and provided nothing changes between now and then, there will hopefully be more pictures of adorableness to behold. I am really, really rooting for this little family, and quite relieved that despite RRRRRR-ing at all approaching humans, Bella is reportedly eating a lot and starting to relax. We will let her nurse the babies and otherwise care for them without being bothered for at least a few weeks, and then bring her in for spaying. Then will come the task of finding adoptive homes for the babies -- the person who originally expressed interest has backed out, but I am determined that we will find the right person or people to take on these little ones.

Figuring out why (when it isn't immediately obvious)

One thing that makes living with cats especially interesting is the way they generally have a reason for everything they do, but not necessarily one that their humans can immediately perceive (if we're even capable of perceiving it).

That said, a lot of what cats do makes sense to me. I can identify with them a fair bit, especially when it comes to things like needing to carefully explore a new area before I can be comfortable there. I also have relatively hyperacute hearing (for a human) and therefore don't tend to find it remotely strange or offputting when a cat runs to hide under the bed in response to a sudden loud noise, etc.

Still, none of this means that it is always or instantly obvious to me why a cat does a particular thing. I am not a Cat Whisperer and I don't tend to trust anyone who claims to be. More often than not, when I have managed to figure something out that seems random or inexplicable at first, it's because I've happened upon a bit of evidence that shifts my brain into considering the situation from a more feline-focused perspective.

 Case in point: the other night Shadow seemed to be attacking Cora in a manner that went beyond their usual vigorous play-wrestling. Cora, meanwhile, was slinking around the living room with her tail down and her eyes wide, both of which suggested to me that she was very anxious. And they were both running back and forth across the house to stare out different windows.

I was, needless to say, a bit alarmed and ended up separating them into different rooms at one point in the hopes that this would calm them both down. This is not something I have to do often, as none of the cats here are in the habit of going after their housemates in a manner that seems liable to cause injury, but something about this situation seemed "funny", and not in a humorous way.

Thankfully the siblings did actually eventually settle down, but not until after I'd already had to get out of bed once the same evening to disrupt another bout of epic SCREAMCHASEGRABSNARLing. They were better, if a bit jumpy, the next morning, so I chalked it up to "one of those random cat things" and went about my morning business.

In the course of this, however, I happened to go out the kitchen door to dump some coffee grounds into the compost pile. I looked down at the outside of the door and suddenly everything made sense. There is no mistaking the smell (or appearance, if you know what to look for) of cat spray, and lo and behold, it turned out that some neighborhood interloper had apparently paid a recent visit. More to the point, the bottom exterior of the kitchen door was covered with a fine, stinky, sticky mist of feline urine.

Spraying the HOUSE of another cat, particularly a territorially significant part of the house -- like a door -- is an extremely aggressive act. It's no wonder Shadow was so upset! He must have been able to see the other cat outside despite it being too dark for me to make anything out when I looked, and he sure as heck would have smelled the spray long before I did. In other words, beating up his sister wasn't personal; it was redirected aggression since he couldn't get at the offending neighbor-cat encroaching on his space.

Needless to say, the door got a thorough dousing with enzyme cleaner as soon as I realized what had happened. And I am pleased to report that the household has since returned to baseline, with Cora and Shadow having resumed their normal harmonious (if somewhat competitive) sibling relationship. The enzyme spray should help remove any residual anxiety-promoting pheromones, but you can bet I will be on the lookout for the "invader" and if necessary will set something up to deter him or her (I'm thinking maybe a pan of water in front of the back door).

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Bella demonstrating tabby camouflage

The photo above makes it pretty clear why tabby patterning is so prevalent in the cat population: I can see Bella's eye and part of her face here...but only because she happened to be looking up at me at that moment through a gap in the foliage. The spots on her body also seem to mimic the pattern of sunlight streaming through the leaves, which is something I'd not really noticed before looking at this photo. It's very neat.

And as for how things are of yesterday afternoon she was still nesting in the same place, probably because it's a spot that represents a good compromise between cover and convenience. The plants she's hiding in are mainly blackberry, which is both somewhat difficult to walk through if you're any less agile than a small cat and will make enough rustling noises if anything approaches (giving Bella fair warning of potential threats). The blackberries are also located between two garages so there's some protection from the wind -- in addition to escape routes in two opposite directions, which is something I've noticed feral cats place a premium on. And it is near enough to the feeding station such that she can still hear her babies when she gets up to eat.

I don't have any new pictures of the kittens yet but I was at least able to confirm that they're still alive when Bella (much to my amazement) actually approached my hand to accept a piece of chicken I was offering her! Which just goes to show you how energy-intensive nursing must be...she was growling the whole time but she wanted that chicken so much that she was willing to come and practically take it right out of my hand. (Which she has never done before to anyone).

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Brief Bella Update: Four kittens! FOUR!

Seriously, I have no clue how she fit them all inside her, but there were definitely four of them mewing under the blackberry bushes today when I went to check. Observe:

It's still going to be precarious for a while yet (at least 2 weeks) given how tiny these larval-stage kitties are and how small their mom is but I am more optimistic now than I was last night. At the very least, Bella has definitely cleaned off the babies quite nicely (in the picture you can see how soft and fluffy their fur is), and they don't seem to have crusty eyes or anything. And they (and Mom) are eating a ton, so that's promising too.

We could have easily picked the kittens up today and brought them into the house (with the idea being that Bella would follow and live mostly indoors until the family could be taken in for spay/neuter). But between me and Matt and his mom the consensus was unanimous that we should probably leave well enough alone for now. Bella is relatively bold for a feral cat but she is still far from being socialized to humans and we would not want to breach the trust she seems to be gaining in us. And as long as she is taking care of her babies it is best that she be able to do so with minimal stress and I think she'd have a pink fit if any primates touched her offspring at this point.

Saturday, May 26, 2012


So, Matt and I were on the way to find lunch and run some typical Saturday errands earlier today when his mom called, asking if we could possibly stop by and help her and Matt's dad troubleshoot a leaky washing machine. Thus, once we'd eaten we headed over to the parental homestead, and as luck would have it, we arrived pretty much just in time to see Bella show up at the feeding station. Unfortunately I didn't have my good camera with me -- just the one in my cell phone -- so the small picture below is the only one I was able to get of her:

When I took the photo I didn't know that the kittens were THAT close to emerging, but it was clear that something was going on. Despite the fact that she was still engaging in normal cattish activities like eating and playing, Bella was definitely walking with a bit of a "waddling" gait, and her back end was covered in a clear, slick substance that I soon realized must be amniotic fluid (meaning her water had broken). She wandered around the patio for about half an hour, then proceeded to make a beeline for a cardboard box Matt's mom had placed some old cushions and bathroom rugs in near the back of the house. And for a while she just sat in the box, breathing heavily and slow-blinking her eyes.

Meanwhile, something very interesting was going on with the other cats in the vicinity. There were maybe 4 or 5 of them, and before going to lie down in her box, Bella actually went over and approached each of them in turn, gave them a very intense look, waited for them to respond, and then walked away. Most of her feline cohorts simply gave her a brief sniff, blink, or nod, the one exception being Toby (the resident Queen Bee Boss Cat of the yard), who hissed and then trotted off looking annoyed.

I really wish I'd been able to film these interactions because I'd never seen anything quite like them before. Again, I can't even begin to offer an exact cat-to-English translation, but it was clear that something was being communicated. And then once Bella had taken her place in the box, I saw no less than three other female cats (who were all spayed, mind you) arrange themselves in a semicircle around her at a distance of maybe 10-15 feet from where she lay. As for me, I sat on a bench on the patio. I would have gone into the house but Bella didn't seem bothered by my presence -- in fact, she seemed to prefer it when I was there. At one point I did briefly get up to use the house bathroom, only to be informed by Matt's mom that when I'd entered the house, Bella had sat up, looked in my direction, and meowed!

But anyway...I'll get to the actual kitten-birthing I saw. It was simultaneously more awkward-looking and less gross than I'd expected it would be. Bella didn't explode with fluids or poop everywhere when the kitten started emerging, which was kind of a relief (I've read WAY too many horrifying birth stories apparently). What she did do, though, once the head began poking out was get up out of the box and walk over to the little rug under the food bowl. I think at that point she needed to stand up and move around more than the box allowed so that gravity could assist the kitten in popping out. And pop out the kitten did! Seriously, it was like Bella just did this one massive forward-sideways PUSH thing once she was standing up and suddenly there was a whole kitten AND a placenta dangling from her nethers.

At that point Bella seemed to sort of "shift into high gear". She was a little freaked out by what had just happened, and (this is the part I would describe as "awkward") spent about 20 seconds running in place in a tight circle with the kitten hanging down doing head-spins on the concrete (all the while going EEE! EEEEEE!). Needless to say, I got a bit worried at this point and hoped Bella wasn't too wigged out to cut the umbilical cord. But thankfully she figured it out and within another few seconds had the kitten in her mouth by the scruff. Which she then proceeded to carry off to the bushes. I had been hoping she'd go back to the box to have the rest, but my guess is at that point her instinct to seek deeper cover kicked in., to make a long story slightly shorter, as of right now I don't know whether she is even finished birthing yet. I will have to check with Matt's mom. Right now, though, I am just glad that Bella seemed to be getting through the process without complications despite her small size. Ideally Matt's mom will be able to coax her into the house where she will be welcome to nest in the bathroom for as long as she likes -- this will help immensely with both keeping Bella safe until she is strong enough to be spayed and with making sure the kittens can start acclimating to humans as soon as possible. As much as I know a feral cat can have a plenty worthwhile life without much, if any, human contact, being able to adopt out kittens is a very important part of good colony management as it helps maintain a stable-to-decreasing population (which means better living conditions for all the cats concerned). And in this case Matt even has a co-worker who may be able to adopt one of the kittens, provided they survive (which is still touch-and-go and will be until it's established that they're all actually born, and alive, and nursing, etc.). I'm planning on trying to make a case for her adopting two!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Brodie the feline fig enthusiast

Brodie may be shy when it comes to meeting new humans, but he's definitely the boldest of all the resident felines when it comes to meeting new foods. And since kittenhood he's had this obsession with dried figs, of all things. For his meals he gets meat, of course, but it is very difficult to keep him from getting up in my business when I'm having a snack of any kind that contains figs! Thus, the above one-minute video, in which he can be seen enthusiastically gobbling up bits of my fig cookie (which is sort of a hippie version of a Fig Newton). 

Monday, May 21, 2012

When kittens have kittens

Feline reproduction evolved in harsh desert environments where, despite being predators themselves, small cats tended to become the prey of larger animals. Being able to produce many offspring starting at a very young parental age was necessary in order for the survival of the species. Needless to say, the modern human-populated environs many cats today call home are a far cry from those their ancestors lived in. Which is one reason there are so many feral cats.

So, as I've written before, in the absence of any evidence that cats are banding together to start their own family-planning clinics. it falls to us -- the humans who share communities with them -- to help them out in this department. Mind you, I wish there was some way to do it that did not involve surgery, but the way things are now, the consequences for cats of not being spayed or neutered are frankly tragic. I won't go into any graphic descriptions here, as I'm sure most readers already know what I am talking about, but suffice to say that I would be totally fine with calling a moratorium on "breeding" cats until all the existing  ones get homes.

But I digress. The title of this post refers to a situation that I've seen happen -- or almost happen -- more than once in the local colony. Right now there's a beautiful, TINY tabby cat named Bella (Matt named her, and no, he was not making a 'Twilight' reference!) who currently looks like she's managed to swallow a whole cantaloupe. Unfortunately I have no pictures of her yet but I will try and get one. According to Matt's mom, Bella has been hanging around the house a lot lately (very common when female cats are 'nesting' -- even feral ones will tend to become much braver around humans if they see putting up with us as a sensible tradeoff for the safety of their babies).

I don't know how old she is, but probably under a year -- I'd guess seven months or thereabouts.  She's one of the little females that managed to evade the last round of trapping, and who then seemed to disappear for a while, only to show up quite thoroughly gravid. Still, her overall body size (aside from her belly) looks like that of about a typical four month old kitten, probably because this is not even her first litter. She's had at least one prior to this, though Matt's mom found the resultant kittens after they were born and they appeared to have either been stillborn or just too small to have managed to live a day.

But in any event, while I know some cats are just genetically small, I suspect that Bella's size is largely due to growth attenuation caused by early pregnancy and consequent nutrient deprivation. I have no idea if this impending batch of kittens will be born viable but either way, I plan on making sure it is her last litter...that way she might at least get to finish growing up herself. All I can think of when I see her is how there but for the grace of chance goes Cora -- who herself first went into heat at a mere 4 months of age!

Coraline, Calendar Cat!

A while back, on a whim, I submitted the photo below (which I've posted on this blog previously, but am re-posting for easy reference) of Coraline climbing the orange tree in my yard to Alley Cat Allies in response to a call for pictures for their 2013 calendar.

I didn't expect anything to come of it, but lo and behold, I got an email last week indicating my picture had been accepted. So now, presuming the designers can fit the photo to their layout (there was a disclaimer in the note I received) Cora gets to be a calendar cat.

Of course this isn't some kind of earth-shaking event, but Alley Cat Allies is definitely doing good work (advocating for TNR and encouraging/educating people to take responsibility for the cats in their community) and I am delighted to be able to contribute something that they can use in their literature and publications. I suspect Cora would approve as well, given she herself started out as a feral kitten and if not for the material on ACA's website I might not have had the confidence to actually try my hand at Trap-Neuter-Adopt (for Cora and her brothers) or Trap-Neuter-Return (which many of their colony cousins have since benefitted from).

Monday, May 14, 2012

Cora, Brodie, and Shadow in the wild

I found this video in a random folder on my computer the other day. I thought I'd lost it ages ago and had given up looking, but then discovered it by accident.

It's only a few seconds long, and was taken when the whole kitten-family (plus Mom and one much-older brother) was at the feeding station back in 2009. The kittens would have been maybe 5 weeks old here, as their mom, Coal (the very protective-looking black cat in the video) had only just started bringing them out of hiding to eat. I was not able to get close to them -- I was zoomed as far in as the camera could go while filming -- but you still get to see all their faces for a brief moment.

What I find really interesting is the whole inter-cat dynamic going on here...the 3 young kittens are already doing the same sort of close-proximity silent communication / awareness-of-each-other's-existence thing that they still do now at nearly three years of age. And their mom is so clearly guarding them and making sure that human over there with the camera (i.e., me) KNOWS she sees me.

Then there's brother Radar off to the right. Mostly he's just eating, but even that means something. Radar is a rather unusual his mom, he's extremely clever and suspicious and thus far has managed to evade all our Trap-Neuter-Return events. But he is generally very gentle with kittens, and as the video shows, quite content to eat with them without getting smacky and rrrrrrr-y.