Monday, October 20, 2014

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Saturday in Autumn

I am not entirely sure what to say all the time and it can be an awful lot of pressure to have to figure it out. Some days just don't work. Some days I just need time to do other things (like vacuum). Right now I am in NaBloPoMo so I have to post every day. That's usually a good motivator, but it can also be a lot of pressure and, more importantly to me, the quality of my writing suffers. I don't like that, and I can't imagine anyone reading this would either.

I am feeling very inarticulate today. I will be happy when NaBloPoMo is over, but I can't really explain why right now. I am actually in the middle of an anxiety attack. Today it is one of the ones that robs me of my ability to express myself clearly. I hate that. I promise to come back around to it but, for today, I have just decided to start something new instead.

I'm trying to take more pictures. I am trying to appreciate the beauty around me. I am trying to notice more. Taking pictures helps me do that. I've decided, then, that on days I am feeling like I can't write my best work (either because of health reasons or because I am just too busy to focus) I will, instead, just post some of the pictures that I have taken in the few days preceding the post. I hope that's okay.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Senior Pictures: The Years Are Short

Photo Credit: Emily Kubley

MS had his Senior pictures taken yesterday by my very talented friend Emily Kubley. I don’t think that it was what he was expecting… mostly because I think that he was expecting it to be a miserable experience that would take hours on end. It was, instead, about a half an hour of relaxed banter that occasionally required him to smile. I am very excited to see how the photos turned out. I apologize in advance that these photos will likely not appear on this blog -- as much as I like to make my reader's happy, I have to put MS's wishes first. He tolerates my writing about him since I don't use his actual name, but I am fairly certain that photos would be a bridge too far. I have, instead, provided you with some of Emily's other photography -- you can talk to her about getting prints.

Credit: Emily Kubley
Why yes, I do believe this guy was friendlier than
MS would be if I shared his photos without his express permission.
 Senior pictures are an interesting experience. These pictures almost didn’t happen. To say that they weren’t high on his priority list is an understatement, they were very much something that he did to humor me… or maybe because I threatened to follow him around with a camera as though he were an animal in the wild. In fact, when he cancelled the first scheduled shoot on me I told him that I not only would Emily and I follow him around, I would also record it and later have it narrated Wild America style. I considered contacting Morgan Freeman to see if he would do it – that seems like it might be something Morgan Freeman would choose to do for fun. That guy seems like a man with a sense of humor.

 In the end, though, things actually turned out really well. Yesterday was a warm, mostly still day with just enough clouds in the sky to make our late afternoon light that much more flattering. Even more, his delaying tactics actually DID benefit us in terms of getting the fall colors that he wanted in his pictures. I always kind of suspected that his stated desire for a “fall feel” was more a delaying tactic than a deeply held artistic preference, but the colors right now ARE truly beautiful and I do think that they add a layer of interest to the photos.

Credit: Emily Kubley
 Beyond just GETTING him to actually show up for the appointment, I didn’t push on much of anything. I did give him a haircut the night before because his hair was sticking up funny in the back (he has a very stubborn swirl that does not like to cooperate at certain lengths), but that was really the extent of it. I didn’t really care what he wore, I didn’t insist on wardrobe changes, I trusted Emily to do her job well, and I stayed out of the way.  Literally. Emily’s tiny assistant (her three month old son), does a fantastic job of keeping Monopoly mothers distracted so that they manage to refrain from meddling. Really, he’s a fine addition to the team.

In all honesty, it makes all the difference that Emily was taking MS’s pictures. She is incredibly talented and, probably just as important, she has the ideal personality. She’s funny, relaxed, and doesn’t take herself too seriously. She is friendly and professional. What always impresses me the most, though, is how well she can capture someone’s personality via a photo.

That last part means a lot to me, especially in this case. I feel Senior pictures are meant to capture the essence of the subject – but I rarely think that is what actually happens. They have become so staged and, even worse, they often become something that is orchestrated and micromanaged by parents to reflect what THEY want their kids to be – or at least what they want other people to think their kids are. I didn’t want that. I like MS for who and what he is – a young man with a good heart, quick wit, and determined spirit. He is, among other things, funny, talented, and kind. I’m not sure exactly HOW Emily manages to capture things like that in a photo – and yes, I am sure I am biased – but I think that she does.

Credit: Emily Kubley

I feel like I should pause for a second and say that no, this is not a sponsored post. I am not getting any discount from Emily that I wouldn’t already have gotten for my continued efforts to ensure that her son knows the proper way to pronounce “sauna” (it’s ‘sow-na’ NOT ‘saw-na’, for the record)... just as soon as he is actually able to talk. (Yesterday he learned how to roll over, I am convinced he is a genius.) I’m gushing because she is good, and because it means a lot to me that she both captures and understands how special MS is.

While I am writing, I want to take a second and note, for posterity, that I am exceedingly grateful to have been able to be there as he had his Senior pictures taken. It is a great gift and I deeply appreciate it.

Photo Credit: Emily Kubley
Gretchen Rubin, the author most famous for her book “The Happiness Project”, coined the phrase “The days are long, but the years are short.” I think of it often as I spend time with MS. I remind myself of it when he is doing something that I find irritating, like when he opens a gourmet soda and then forgets it ¾ full or when he sends me frustrated texts about cosigning car loans. I think of it when I watch my friends with their younger children too – I sometimes want to stop and tell them to REALLY enjoy what’s happening because it is true that it goes by REALLY fast.

I think that’s true, in a way, for everyone. It’s true whether or not you have kids or cats. I think it’s true with friends and with partners. If you love someone, the time will go by quickly. If you’re not careful, you’ll miss it. You have to take the time to pause and realize how lucky you are to have this time with these people.

My favorite television show is Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. I have seen every episode more times than I can count. One episode, however, undoes me like no other. Even just watching clips of certain scenes will leave me crying it is so touching. The episode is “The Visitor”, and actor Tony Todd gives a truly magnificent performance. Many regard this to be the best episode of the series. The first scenes include a quote from Captain Sisko as he speaks to his young son Jake, the final scenes revisit that quote as an adult Jake speaks to Melanie, an aspiring writer. I will end this post with those quotes, and I will tell you (1) that you should watch that episode, and (2) that you should follow the advice in the quotes, doing so will make you a happier and better person.

Captain Sisko: I’m no writer; but if I were, it seems to me I’d wanna poke my head up every once in a while and take a look around, see what’s going on. It’s life, Jake. You can miss it if you don’t open your eyes.

Adult Jake Sisko: I... want you to promise me something.
Melanie: Anything!
Adult Jake Sisko: While you're studying my stories, poke your head up every once in a while. Take a look around. See what's going on. It's life, Melanie.

Melanie: And you can miss it if you don't open your eyes.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Furry Friends Forever: Introducing Your New Cat to Your First Dog or Cat

So you’ve gone and done it. After reading my two previous posts about adopting a cat, “Things to Know Before Adopting a Cat” and “Bringing Home Kitty: How to Introduce a New Cat to the Home”, you’ve decided that you’re all up to date and ready to go with this cat adoption thing. Good for you!

Wait, though, you didn’t tell me you had another pet! That changes things a bit.

Many people think that you introduce animals by putting them into the same place together and letting them sort it out on their own. That is certainly one approach. In my opinion, it is the WRONG approach… but it IS still AN approach.

Look, some cats and dogs are super chill and won’t have any trouble if you just throw them into a situation like that. Most, however, are going to be stressed, anxious, and even possibly angry. Is that really the first impression you want to force on your furry friends? Think about it, one of them will be stressed to be in entirely new surroundings and the other will be feeling like their territory is being threatened. These increased tensions can lead to an explosive situation that could undermine the animal’s relationship with one another for a long time to come. What if one of them gets too upset to think calmly and tries to attack the other? What are you going to do then? Even if the attacked animal escapes you have begun establishing a dynamic of hunter and prey. Is that REALLY the way you want to go?

Luckily, there is another, better way.

The trick with animal introductions is to do them slowly, over time, in a way that eases both (or all) parties into the relationship. Here are some simple steps that you can take to do just that.

The Long Hello: Introducing Your Animals a Little at a Time

Isolate the newcomer. If you read “Bringing Home Kitty…” then you know that isolating the new cat is a good practice in general. The stress of travel and entirely new surroundings are an awful lot for a cat to take in. They are going to do better if you give them an appropriately equipped small space in which to adjust to the sights, sounds, and smells of their new home. This is especially true if there are other animals in the home… and it is also true for the established animal. By isolating the new cat you are providing an opportunity for the animals to get used to one another without having to be confronted by one another.  Both cats and dogs rely a great deal on scent, so they will definitely know that the other is there but the issue of establishing or defending territorial control will be greatly lessened if they don’t have to see each other. This isolation could last anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks, depending on the personalities of the animals involved. This may seem like a lot, but keep in mind that you are laying the groundwork for a relationship that will last the rest of their lives – it is worth it to go slow and start right.

Swap bedding. After the animals have spent some time getting used to the general scents and sounds of one another, it is time to present them with the other’s bedding. This is a more in depth getting-to-know you inspection. Cats and dogs can tell a great deal about one another from smell and bedding provides the most concentrated source of scent for an animal outside of their actual bodies. This will go that much further toward getting them accustomed to one another. You can return the bedding to its original owner after a few hours to a day. By then the other animal will have left some of their own scents on the bedding and they will now each have the opportunity to begin to learn what that it is okay when their scents intermingle, which is the start of sharing space.

Switch spaces. After some more time has passed you can carefully switch the animal’s spaces for a while. You’ll want to do this in a way that prevents them from coming into much contact with one another, so you may need to use the new cat’s carrier to get them out of the confinement room as you let your other pet into it. Once your other pet is securely in the confinement room, allow your new cat to explore the common areas of the house. Keep bedroom doors closed for this exchange and try to anticipate and block off anywhere your new cat might try to hide. If you know that you wouldn’t be able to easily get them out of a space (and no, it is not acceptable to use a broom) then find ways to deny access to those spaces. This exchange will allow your new cat to explore the home and get it’s bearings. It will also allow your original pet to more fully immerse and acclimate itself in the scents of the new cat. If you sense your new cat getting overwhelmed (watch for a lot of grooming, cats often groom themselves as a way of soothing their nerves), then it is time for the swap to end and for kitty to return to their secluded space. If, too, your other pet becomes distressed at its confinement then it is also time to end the swap. You don’t want either animal to associate the other’s smell with feelings of distress. Note, however, that you can make this all go a lot smoother if you have a calm friend to help you. That way one of you can observe the new cat as it explores and the other can be ready to go into the confinement room to soothe your other animal should they become distressed in any way. When the swap is over, use the same procedure as you used at the beginning to get them physically separated without exposing them to one another. Repeat this process as necessary at least once a day during the time you are keeping the new cat confined.

Use interactive toys under the door. If there is a gap at the bottom of the door to the confinement room, use that space to add a toy that can be played with by both animals on either side of the door. Often a substantive string/lace connecting soft toys on either side allows each animal to pull on their own side. This is another way to get the animals used to each other before they truly meet each other face to face.  Be sure to observe this play carefully so that neither animal becomes too aggressive or the safety of the string becomes compromised (i.e. if there is chewing or tangling that could lead to injury to either animal).

Add visibility, but not physical contact. The next step is to allow the animals to see one another but not actually come in contact. There are two good ways to do this. One good way is via a secure gate with each animal on either side. You can put a gate up right in the door frame of the confinement room. This works especially well with cats – though you must be careful to make sure that neither animal can find a way to jump the gate. Another option – one that works especially well with dogs, is to keep the dog on the leash while the cat is let out to explore the room. If that is the route that you take then your primary focus should be on soothing the dog and keeping its attention as the cat goes about its business exploring its new (cat proofed) home. Reward the dog for ignoring the cat. If either animal becomes over excited or anxious, however, it is time to separate them again. Continue to do this until both animals learn to coexist harmoniously in the same space. Pro-tip: play with each animal to the point of tiring them out BEFORE you try to do this, that way they only have so much energy to devote to this new excitement.

Remove the barriers. Once your animals get to a point where they seem to be getting along – or at least exhibiting indifference to one another, you can take the barriers down and allow them both to roam the area while supervised. If there is a confrontation, break the sight lines and, if necessary, confine one or the other to a comfortable space that meets their needs. (NOTE: This is NOT a punishment, it is meant as an opportunity to allow the animals safe and secure space where they can calm down.  There is little to no point in “punishing” an animal – punishment is rarely, if ever, understood, it does virtually nothing to teach an alternate acceptable behavior, and it teaches your animal to fear you – something their feelings of security as well as your bond with them.) Confine one or both animals when you or another responsible party are not present to supervise the animal’s interactions. Continue to do this until you feel secure in the knowledge that they are either friends or, at least, have reached some sort of understanding.

Different animals have different tolerance and anxiety levels about certain things. Some animals will progress through these steps in a matter of a couple days. Our cats, Buddy and Fuzzy, were both rather displeased with having to be separated at the beginning. They both very much wanted to meet one another and spent a good deal of time playing under the door. We kept them separated longer than would have been necessary had the only concern been their getting along. (That wasn’t the only concern, Fuzzy developed an upper respiratory infection when we brought him home – a side effect of a whirlwind of difficult changes that he had been forced to undergo. We kept them separated longer both so that Buddy did not also become ill and because it forced Fuzzy to rest more.) They are both laid back and like other cats. We were lucky, but that isn’t always going to be the case. Some animals can take months before they can really be left on their own together. The moral, then, is to be patient and let them ease into a relationship at their own pace.

Quick Tips

There are some things that you can do to make this process go even more smoothly.

Have at least one litter box per cat per floor of the house they are allowed to roam. You might get lucky and they will be happy to share litter boxes, but the consequences of territorial behavior around a litter box are significant for both you and for the cats.

Keep the litter boxes in locations where cats have access but dogs do not. Again, consequences of bad litter box experiences are not good for anyone. If your cat does not feel safe using the litter box, they won’t. Relatedly, dogs are known for their, shall we say, indiscriminate palette? What I am saying is – some of them eat poop and litter. This is not good for them and will potentially lead them to become ill. That also isn’t good for anyone.

Free feeding is usually not an option. Cats will sometimes eat dog food and dogs will almost always eat cat food. Their foods, however, are formulated for their species. These attempts at “sharing” will often lead to one or the other becoming obese and/or ill. Even two cats often cannot share the same food – one is almost always more food focused than the other and will try to eat the other cats food as well as their own. Our cats are also examples of different dietary needs – Fuzzy can only have a particular wet food, but boy would he also LIKE to have Buddy’s food. No, with more than one animal companion you need to either find ways to limit their access to one another’s food or watch them VERY CAREFULLY at meal times.

Provide multiple water sources. All animals need water, but they might not be willing or able to share with one another. Give them plenty of options for fresh, clean water.

There you have it. If you follow these steps as best as possible then you will have vastly increased your chances of having a harmonious home with your animal companions. Feel free to ask any questions you may have – I don’t know everything but I am happy to try to find an answer. Remember, too, that when in doubt, you should consult your veterinarian. I know a lot about cats and a good bit about dogs as well, but I am more of an amateur behaviorist – certainly NOT a DVM. Always defer to the doctor folks!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Bringing Home Kitty: How to Introduce a New Cat to the Home

My cat, Buddy, lounging on his preferred blanket.

So you read my post "Things to Know Before Adopting a Cat", given it some thought, and ultimately decided to go ahead and adopt a feline companion. Congratulations! Being a cat caregiver can be an exceedingly rewarding experience full of love, cuddles, and entertainment. First, though, you’ll want to get them started off right. Moving is an overwhelming experience for any of us. This can be especially true for a cat. Some cats are particularly sensitive to change, while others are much more relaxed. The simple fact is, however, that you won’t know whether your cat is the chill sort or the anxious sort. Your best bet is to plan for the worst and hope for the best. Here is a list of steps you can take to make things go more smoothly:

Make sure that you have a safe and secure cat carrier. Transporting a cat can be difficult in even the best of circumstances. All too frequently I hear of cats that have gone missing because they got out of their carriers when they were being transported – including when they were being transported to their new home. Make sure you have a carrier with a secured door, and don’t open that carrier until you and your feline friend have made it safely inside. Also, get your cat ID – microchips, in particular, are safe and much more effective than tags alone.

Keep the cat confined to one room while they adjust. I understand that you want to be able to spend as much time as possible with your new cat, and that confining them to a single room may seem harsh at first glance. The simple fact is, however, that your cat is likely already over stimulated by the change in surroundings and trip home. They will appreciate having somewhere to go to rest, relax, and get used to the scents and sounds of their new area. Depending on the cat and if there are other animals in the home, this confinement could last a couple days to a few weeks. This is normal and perfectly acceptable. The groundwork you lay here will be the base from which your cat’s perceptions of home will be made.

Pre-organize the room. Cats need certain things, and many of them will seek these things immediately as a way to gauge if they are in a place they can feel comfortable. Provide a water dish or fountain, food according to a feeding schedule, a clean litter box, and some sort of comfortable bedding. You may also want to consider getting a Feliway/Comfort Zone Plug in or spray and using them even before bringing your cat home. These pheromones will signal to your cat that the space is safe and they can relax.

Pet proof your home… and your family. Any time you bring an animal into a new environment they are going to want to explore their new digs. Make sure that they can’t climb anything they aren’t supposed to, that there isn’t anything for them to chew inappropriately (i.e. cords), and that there aren’t any small spaces that they can get into that you can’t get them out of… but keep a nice treat on hand just in case you miss something and you need to entice your cat back out. Of course the most important part of a home are the people in it – so make sure to talk to all of the members of your household about how to be gentle and respect the cat’s space.

Provide healthy outlets for common cat behavior. Cats are scratchers. Cats scratch for many reasons, but the five primary reasons are: (1) it feels good, (2) it allows your cat to mark their territory – both with a visual mark and a scent that releases from a gland in their paws, (3) it is great exercise, (4) it helps relieve frustration, and (5) it helps remove the dead outer layer of the claws. Your cat’s claws and your couch can coexist in harmony, but you’ll want to give your cat several appropriate outlets for scratching – and there are many options ranging from cardboard to cork and sisal to cedar (and several other types of wood for that matter). Try a few different kinds and see what your cat prefers. For us, the Natural Scratch cork scratching post was well worth the price – we bought it about 5 years ago and I expect that, at this rate, it will be around for another 5. If you’re feeling REALLY fancy, then there are also some pieces that have a rather artistic feel to them. Regardless of the scratchers you choose to use, however, please don’t declaw – I am firmly of the position that declawing is a LAST resort meant ONLY for those RARE cats with serious medical problems that would warrant such a surgery… not your being too lazy to properly protect a preferred piece of furniture. It is far better to replace double stick furniture tape (a common and effective deterrent for most inappropriate scratching) weekly than to cause your loved one harm.

Be ready to play. Cats get bored too. It is, therefore, important that you interact with them and provide them healthy outlets for their energy. Cats who don’t have such outlets are more likely to be anxious, develop neuroses, and engage in unacceptable behavior. Appropriate play helps them relax, maintain a healthy weight, and develops a bond between the two of you.  Of course, you have to know HOW to play with your cat and, yes, there is a right way. For more information on the RIGHT way to play with a cat, check out this short video from famed cat behaviorist, Jackson Galaxy.

Be ready to train your cat. There are appropriate and inappropriate ways for your cat to behave. Again, though, there are appropriate ways to do this. For the record, your cat does not understand what you are talking about when you complain to them about a behavior. Instead, you need to be consistent about gently stopping behavior and redirecting behavior. Yelling does not work, nor do squirt guns or making loud noises – sure they may stop the behavior momentarily but (1) you would always have to be there, and (2) your cat will, instead, learn to fear you rather than learn an appropriate alternative behavior. Cats, like humans, respond to attention and praise. They also respond better if you respect them enough to provide an alternative acceptable activity. For example, if your cat is spending time on counters then try to figure out why. Do they want food you’ve left out? Do they want to get higher for security reasons? Do they just want to observe what YOU are doing? All of these possibilities can be curbed through simple changes (cover the food) and/or more appropriate alternatives (i.e. a cat perch from which they can feel secure and observe). For more specific information, I again send you to the expert:

Be prepared to transition litter over time. Your cat has been eliminating in a certain environment for some time now. If you’re very lucky, they will be the sort that immediately adjusts to whatever litter you prefer… but don’t count on it. It is more likely that you will need to start with their old litter and, then, slowly add their new litter to the box over time as you scoop – which should be no less than once a day and, preferably, whenever you see that there is new “material” in the box. My cats (and I) prefer World’s Best Cat Litter, which is made from renewable materials, has less dust, seems to be more comfortable under paws, and is scoop-able and flushable. (During this transition time, though, you will obviously have to throw the litter away rather than flushing it since it would be mixed with other, non-flushable litter.)

Plan to transition your cat’s food over the course of 7-10 days. You should never switch a cat’s food “cold turkey” – though MY cats would like to you to know that if you have ACTUAL cold turkey they will be willing to take it off your hands. Switching a cat’s food rapidly is likely to cause stomach upset that can sometimes become severe. It will virtually always cause some unpleasantness for you as well as your cat. You’ll want to decide what type of food you want to feed your cat – though an ideal nutritional breakdown is going to be different based on life stages and individual needs, you’re going to want to look for a food that lists an actual protein source first on the ingredients list. For more information about food, check out this helpful article. For more information about how to transition cat food, check out this article. Daily calorie requirements for cats can be found here, and the calorie contents of popular foods can be found here (for wet foods) and here (for dry foods). Don't just go buy the feeding amounts provided on the labels because, unfortunately, some companies recommend more than what is optimal.

Cats are fascinating and independent individuals. Like most relationships, there will be compromises and you’ll have to put some effort into maintaining and growing your relationship. Once you do, however, that relationship will provide you with companionship, love, and even meaning. I could not begin to cover all that there is to know about cats, but if you start with these things then you will be setting yourself up for success.

Stay tuned for a follow up post specifically about how to ease introductions between your new cat and your other animal companions.