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by Nomi Berger
 
Pet parents find that cats of all ages -- from playful kittens to sedentary seniors -- will often engage in laser pointer play, stimulating them and encouraging them to be more mobile with minimal effort on their humans’ part.
 
But as ideal as it sounds, are laser toys good for -- even safe for – your cat?
 
To allay your concerns, begin by choosing a toy specifically designed for cats. This means avoiding all high-powered laser pointers and any not manufactured and sold with felines in mind. Those considered safe should have a power rating of five milliwatts or less. Anything higher is potentially dangerous. Most importantly, never point the laser directly at your cat’s face or eyes, projecting its dancing red dot instead on any inanimate object within her field of vision. And because she can injure herself by lunging into a wall or cabinet or by jumping off furniture, avoid aiming the dot at any high places and stay away from stairs.
 
Engaging your cat in laser play helps keep her fit and helps strengthen the bond between you. Chasing an erratically moving laser light also mimics her hunting behavior, often triggering her strong and instinctual prey drive. But for the greatest success, it’s essential that you keep each play session short and fun, challenging and engaging, and to end the session when your cat seems to be losing interest in it. If, however, you insist on continuing, she’ll either ignore the dot, stop playing altogether or simply stalk off with a sassy swish of her tail and a “so there!” shake of her head. Get the hint?
 
The major drawback to a laser pointer, though, is that it’s a toy your cat cannot catch. For such a prey-driven animal, there’s no natural “end” to the game, no “reward”, which can prove extremely frustrating for her. Some kitties may even begin to show signs of anxiety or exhibit such stress-related behaviors as clawing at the furniture, inappropriate chewing or aggression.
 
To prevent this, offer your cat several high-value treats together with pets and praise at the end of each play session. Two other options are having the red dot “land” on a toy she likes so that she can pounce and close her paws around it or switching from the laser to a toy on a fishing rod so that she feel the joy of catching her prey and “killing” it.
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by Nomi Berger
 
While fetch is a game most commonly associated with dogs, cats have also been known to enjoy playing fetch with their owners. The Siamese, for example, are felines famous for their love of fetch, but any kitty has the capacity to learn how to retrieve provided her owner is committed to teaching her the ABC’s of the game.
 
Whereas dogs may awaken from a deep sleep the second they hear their owners utter the magic word “play”, the same can’t be said for their more mellow meow-mates. To them, naptime is strictly that, naptime, thereby making it essential for committed coaches to catch their cats when they’re fully alert and feeling naturally energetic.
 
To capture and hold your own cat’s attention, choose a toy that she enjoys playing with, but isn’t always available. Test how catch-able it is by sliding it across the floor or tossing it down a hallway before you begin. Why? Because some toys are extremely light and aren’t fit for fetching.
 
Once you’ve chosen the ideal toy and your cat’s “all ears”, put some high-value treats in your hand and position yourself in such a way that you can toss the toy and she’ll have plenty of room to run after it. Then, show her the toy and toss it. While she may chase after it, she probably won’t return it to you on the first or even the second attempt.
 
Call her back by “flashing” her the treats as an incentive. If she drops the toy and comes running or if she has the toy in her mouth but won’t bring it back, you’ll have to, slowly and patiently, show her precisely what you want her to do. Walk over to the toy and pick it up from the floor or gently remove it from her mouth and return to your starting position.
 
Show her that you have the toy and call her to come to you. If she doesn’t respond, go over to her, lift her up and bring her back with you to the starting point. Then, once you, your cat, and the toy are all in the same place, toss the toy again. Repeat these steps again. And again. And again.
 
It may require several sessions before your cat puts the entire game together. Always use the same starting point and always toss the toy in the same direction. As with any new action or behavior, repetition and consistency are key. The first time she successfully fetches the toy, reward her with affection, praise, and some of those high-value treats. The idea is to have her associate her action with a reward she finds especially satisfying.
 
Cats are extremely intelligent, but they’re also extremely independent. Some of them may learn to play fetch in one session, others may learn over a period of several days, while still others may simply refuse to participate. Take training one step at a time, one day at a time, and if your kitty still turns paws down at playing what’s primarily a dog’s game, choose one that truly tickles her fickle feline fancy instead.
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by Nomi Berger
 
Are you surprised when you return home to find that your cat has urinated on your sofa or shredded your favorite shirt? Are you receiving complaints from your neighbors that she yowls or mewls all day? Although an underlying medical condition may be responsible for some of these behaviors, the most likely culprit is separation anxiety.
 
While many cat owners don’t associate cats with separation anxiety, a recent study by researchers at Oregon State University and Monmouth University found that when cats were given a choice between food, human companionship, scent and toys, half of them chose human companionship and only 37 percent chose food.
 
Orphaned kittens or those weaned too early from their mothers are the ones most prone to developing separation anxiety. A divorce, the death of an owner or some other abrupt change in the household and the familiar rhythm of its regular routine may also trigger separation anxiety, particularly in senior cats.
 
Cats with separation anxiety may express apprehension over their owners’ unexplained absence (ranging from a medical emergency to a vacation with advance care arrangements made) in highly destructive and/or annoying ways. Some of these “acting out” behaviors include scratching the furniture, pacing, crying, fighting with the other cats, refusing to eat and compulsively grooming themselves -- licking or chewing at their fur until they create large bald patches. While others sulk or become depressed, some begin urinating and/or defecating outside their litter boxes or spraying urine on their owners’ bed and/or clothing.
 
The reason for spraying is simple: spreading her scent around may actually help an anxious cat feel more secure. Mixing her odor with that of her cherished and absent owner is a way to feel closer to her owner.
 
If yours is an anxious and clingy kitty, don’t despair, there are ways to reduce her anxiety and improve her quality of life. The first step is to visit your vet to rule out any underlying health conditions that may be causing the problem. If your vet concludes that your cat does indeed have separation anxiety, consider the following ways to make her more comfortable and less fearful when you’re away from home.
 
Enrich her environment. Food puzzles and other interactive toys can engage your cat’s brain and help take her mind off the fact that you’re not there. Having the food released from a puzzle toy will both challenge her intelligence and keep her constructively occupied.
 
To reduce the risk of her growing bored, rotate her favorite interactive toys, bringing out the best ones only when you’re ready to leave.
 
Screen a nature DVD featuring a variety of birds, squirrels, and fish. Their quick movements and high-pitched noises should keep your cat intrigued and entertained for hours. Alternatively, set up a window perch with a view of a bird feeder outside or a wall perch with a view of an appropriately secure aquarium inside that she can watch but not access.
 
Plug in a diffuser that emits feline pheromones. They mimic the natural pheromones produced by a mother cat and appear to have a soothing effect on some anxious cats.
 
Because cats so dislike change, set up and stick to – as much as possible -- a fixed schedule of feeding and playing with yours at the same times each day to help relieve some of her stress.
 
In severe cases of separation anxiety, however, consider consulting a veterinary behaviorist whose trained observations may give new insight into your cat’s behavior. And, when necessary, your vet can prescribe an anti-anxiety medication to help her stay calm in your absence.
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by Nomi Berger
 
Coprophagia is the act of eating and ingesting feces. Although far more common in dogs, it does appear occasionally in cats. There are times when eating feces is part of normal feline behavior. A new mother will often eat the feces of her newborn kittens as part of her daily grooming routine, while her kittens may copy her in an effort to learn new behaviors. Cats may also eat their own feces as a way of keeping their personal areas clean.
 
Oftentimes, however, coprophagia is the result of an underlying medical condition that can lead to an extreme increase in appetite. In order to satisfy this extreme hunger, cats will eat anything available to them, including their feces. The most common medical conditions are parasites, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, anemia, vitamin deficiency, malnutrition, thyroid disease and neurological disease.
 
If your kitty is eating her own feces, your vet will have to determine whether it’s medical or behavioral in nature. A full blood profile will be conducted, including a chemical blood profile, a complete blood count, and a urinalysis. If her coprophagia IS the result of an underlying medical condition, it often stops once treatment begins, with follow up visits recommended during the first few months.
 
If it’s the result of a behavioral problem, provide your vet with a thorough history of your cat’s general health, diet, appetite, handling practices, recent activities and environment, and then take steps to remedy the situation.
 
The simplest way to prevent your cat from eating her feces is to eliminate her access to it by scooping her litter box several times a day. It can also be useful to change the location of the box, moving it to an area that affords her more privacy when she uses it.
 
A fixed routine of vigorous play and exercise can help distract her from engaging in coprophagia. Exercise aids in reducing anxiety and stress, and when a cat’s had enough stimulation to keep her active and tire her out, she’ll be less attracted to eating non-food items. But if your cat isn’t used to being exercised regularly, keep your initial play sessions short (begin with only a few minutes) and slowly work up to longer sessions as she becomes more accustomed to it.
 
Ensure that your cat is not only eating the required amount of food for her age and weight each day, but that she’s receiving all of the essential minerals and vitamins she needs. If not, have your vet recommend the best nutritional supplements to keep her diet the best balanced diet paws-ible.
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by Nomi Berger
 
Does YOUR cat like being lifted up and held? Does she remain in your arms long enough for it to count as a cuddle? Or does she squirm and wriggle and do all she can to escape your embrace?
 
According to some veterinary behaviorists, not all cats are created equal – in terms of cuddling. Whereas some cats view cuddles as cozy cushions of comfort, others see them as stifling sources of suffocation.
 
Most cats enjoy being up high because it affords them a purr-fect ”cat’s eye” view of the world below. But they usually prefer to paw their way to their favorite perch on their own. From a feline perspective, there’s a difference between leaping up onto a kitchen counter, a window ledge or a bookcase and being scooped up from the ground and held by a human. After all, despite their small size, cats ARE descended from large cat royalty, namely the lion, king of beasts, and should be treated with the proper deference and respect.
 
Some cats equate being picked up and held as a form of restraint even if it’s meant as a demonstration of affection. They might have had negative experiences with actually being physically restrained for such procedures as receiving vaccinations, having their temperature taken or having their nails trimmed. Sometimes all it takes is a single mildly negative experience for cats, especially sensitive ones, to be wary of being restrained from then on.
 
In fact, cats may interpret their owners’ well-intentioned efforts to hold them as an actual attack. They may perceive being restrained as a sign that they’re now trapped, that something bad is going to happen to them or that they’re about to be killed or eaten. It’s essential to remember that while cats are predators to smaller prey, they themselves are prey to larger predators.
 
Coupled with this is the fact that being held isn’t a normal form of interaction among cats themselves. They don’t pick each other up and cuddle. Instead, they express their affection by approaching fellow felines politely, then sniffing, licking and rubbing one another.
 
Some cat breeds LOVE being cuddled, such as Ragdolls and Ragamuffins, who are famous for flopping back comfortably when held by their adoring humans. But because each cat is an individual, not all of these so-called cuddly cats enjoy being cuddled.
 
Truly caring pet parents are extremely sensitive to their cherished cats’ preference. By forcing affection on their finicky felines, they run the risk of their kitties becoming increasingly more reluctant to interact with them on any level or even worse, becoming aggressive.
 
From reading your own cat’s signals, then, what kind of cat is she: snuggler or squirmer?
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by Nomi Berger
 
Due to the increased availability of both medical and recreational marijuana, as well as its use in foods, pills, oils and tinctures, marijuana is more accessible than ever before. It’s also stronger because new hybrids and cultivation techniques have resulted in plants with significantly more THC (Delta-9 Tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive compound) than in decades past.
 
It therefore poses an even greater threat to one’s cherished cat since THC and other cannabinoids affect the central nervous system, causing disruption of normal movement and behavior. The most common ways for cats to be exposed to marijuana is by inhaling its smoke or by ingesting the dried marijuana itself. Because of the cumulative effects of inhaling this smoke, cat owners who use marijuana, whether medical or recreational, should never smoke anywhere near their cats, particularly ones with asthma or any other lung diseases.
 
In some cases, cats may nibble on the leaves and/or buds of homegrown marijuana plants. Unthinking owners may also feed their cats cookies, brownies or candies infused with marijuana, posing a double threat to their health because anything containing chocolate or the artificial sweetener, xylitol, can lead to a double dose of toxicity.
 
As with all products, plants and medications dangerous for pet consumption, cat owners using marijuana in any form should store it somewhere out of reach of curious noses and even more curious paws – in a tall shelf, cabinet or drawer with a child-proof lock. The use of a thick glass container with a twist-off lid provides additional security because even if kitty does discover it, the lid’s impossible to pry open.
 
The most common side effects of marijuana intoxication are dilated pupils, lack of coordination (falling over or walking “drunkenly”), sedation or lethargy, vomiting, urinary incontinence, and slow heart and respiratory rates. However, about 25 percent of those who have ingested THC become stimulated instead, with agitation, excessive vocalization and high heart rates being possible side effects. After ingestion, cats can become affected in minutes to hours, and signs can last for hours.
 
If you suspect your cat has ingested marijuana and is unable to walk or cannot be roused, contact your vet immediately. Know too that veterinarians are NOT required to contact the police, even in states where marijuana is illegal. What’s of utmost importance is getting your cat prompt medical assistance.
 
Treatment for marijuana intoxication can include confinement in a kennel to prevent injury, intravenous fluids to keep her blood pressure normal and medications to lower her heart rate. Cats most severely affected may also benefit from intravenous lipid emulsions to help decrease the amount of cannabinoids circulating through their system.
 
The takeaway from this -- keep a watchful eye on your cat if there’s marijuana around.
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by Nomi Berger
 
National holidays, while celebrated by people, aren’t always cause for celebration by our cats. For them, a holiday like the Fourth of July means one thing: fireworks. Or simply put: NOISES, LOUD and SUDDEN noises.
 
Fortunately there are various ways to deal with your kitty’s paw-tential distress both before and after the fireworks have begun.
 
Keep your cat indoors on the day of the fireworks -- especially those allowed outside for brief periods of time. Since she may attempt to slip outside or even bolt in terror because of the flashes and sounds, take extra care when opening and closing all exterior doors. But if the unthinkable happens and she does escape, for your peace of mind and her ultimate safety, have her micro-chipped.
 
Forego the pleasure of leaving to watch the fireworks yourself, and stay home. Even if your cat hides or refuses to interact with you, she’s far better off with you there than being left on her own.
 
Close all windows and draw all curtains and blinds to help buffer the sounds and dim the unsettling flashes of light.
 
Provide your cat with a “safe” room equipped with several cozy hiding places, a litter box and a water bowl, and settle her in there before the fireworks start. If she’s especially fearful, create a tunnel to the litter box or use one you already have to keep her from feeling too exposed. An alternative is to purchase a specially designed “cave-style” bed for her to curl up in.
 
Set up a Feliway diffuser in her “safe” room. It contains synthetic feline facial pheromones that are said to have a calming and comforting effect on cats.
 
Turn on the TV or play music to create a noise distraction. Choose music (classical is best) that is soothing and play it at a comfortable volume. Don’t attempt to drown out the fireworks by upping the volume because it’s not only the sudden, loud bangs that frighten your cat but the whizzing and whistling sounds accompanying them as well.
 
Try to distract your cat by using a fishing pole-type toy to engage her in playtime or set out several tempting food-puzzle toys to whet her appetite and curiosity.
 
While some cats may find comfort in their solitude, others may crawl into your lap and bury their heads in the crook of your arm to be petted and stroked. What’s important, however, is to respect your own kitty’s preference, thus allowing her to be comforted the way SHE wants to be comforted. 
 
Never give your cat any of your own anti-anxiety medications! Consult your vet, who may recommend an OTC supplement such as Zylkene (it works best if begun several days beforehand) or prescribe an anti-anxiety medication for your fearful feline.
 
But, whichever path you choose, follow it with kindness, patience and love. Think back to the sounds that may have frightened YOU as a child, and you’ll know just how your purr-ecious pet feels.
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by Nomi Berger
 
Does your cat come to you when you call her name? Does she run to the door when you arrive home and call out to her or does she simply yawn and go back to sleep?
 
For cat owners curious enough to see if they can train their cats to come to them when called, cat trainers offer the following tips:
 
Since cats respond excitedly to treats, use healthy, morsel-sized treats (“morsel” is the operative word, vital to preventing any unwanted weight gain) so that she considers training a “paws-itive” thing.
 
Since cats react eagerly to higher-pitched voices, use a higher than usual tone of voice when you call out her name. 
 
Since cats are more attracted to a happy tone, make your tone upbeat and light to keep her from thinking that she’s being punished.
 
Since cats respond more easily to shorter names, if yours has a long one, try shortening it, turning it into more of a nickname. For example, if your kitty’s name is Vanessa, you might want to use “Nessa” when calling her. This, then, will become her training name. 
 
Since some cats react better to sounds than to names, clap your hands or use either a bell or a whistle to begin her training. Whatever method you choose, use it ONLY for this particular exercise.
 
Since repetition is key, be patient and take it slowly, paw step by paw step. Start out a few feet away from your cat. Call her name/clap your hands/use the bell or whistle, and place a morsel-sized treat (or a favorite toy) on the floor several feet in front of you. The smell of the treat or the sight of the toy should attract her to it. If she responds by approaching you, lavish her with praise, and once she’s eaten the treat or played with the toy, pet her, and in your best, happy and high-pitched voice, say “good job!”
 
If your cat doesn’t respond, repeat the exercise. Try it several more times before stopping to give both you and kitty a rest. Then begin the process again, and keep repeating it until, hopefully, you achieve the result you want. Increase the distance between you slightly and continue practicing the same exercise at this same distance for another few days.
 
Keep increasing the distance between you until she’s coming to you from any part of your home. And if she’s graduated gracefully and graciously to this phase, reward her with only praise – no treat, no toy – but with an especially relaxing rubdown or extra armfuls of affection.
 
In short, if your cat is now running to you whenever you call her name, you’ve succeeded!
 
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Photo by Angelica Norris Photography
by Nomi Berger
 
Cats with extra toes are called polydactyls, a name derived from two Greek words: “poly” meaning “many” and “daktylos” meaning “digits”. While the majority of cats have 18 toes, with five on both front paws and four on both back paws, it’s not unusual for a large number of cats to have extra toes -- some with as many as eight on a single paw.
 
Polydactyly is a genetic abnormality resulting in the formation of extra toes on one or more paws. Most polydactyl cats have extra toes on their front paws, although some will also have extra toes on their back paws. Passed down from parent cats through a dominant gene, there’s nothing medically wrong with a cat having extra toes, nor does it hurt. In fact, these extra digits can actually be beneficial.
 
Some breeds are more likely than others to have polydactyly. Historically, 40 percent of Maine Coons have had extra toes, a most useful trait in the state of Maine that receives more than 100 inches of snow a year. The extra toes assist Maine Coons’ paws by acting like snowshoes, enabling them to pad about outdoors without falling through the snow as easily.
 
Prized by sailors throughout the world as being symbols of good luck, they were often called “gypsy cats”, while their extra toes made them excellent at catching mice and allowed them to maintain their balance on rough waters.
 
Some polydactyls are called “mitten cats” because they have extra toes on the medial or “thumb” side of their paws. While these toes usually aren’t fully formed and aren’t opposable like human thumbs, some cats have learned to use them in ways similar to the ways we use ours. Many cat owners have been astounded by the ability of their “mitten cats” to open latches or windows thanks to these extra digits.
 
The most famous polydactyls of all are the ones known as “Hemingway Cats”. In the 1930’s, sea captain, Stanley Dexter, gave an extra-toed kitten to writer, Ernest Hemingway. Since the kitten was a descendant of Dexter’s own polydactyl cat, Snowball, Hemingway named his kitty, Snow White. Charmed and fascinated by them, he collected more than 50 cats at his home in Key West, Florida, half of whom had extra toes. He cared deeply about his cats and named each one after a famous person.
 
Today, visitors to the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum can view the colony of between 40 and 50 cats, some of whom are directly descended from Snow White. Half of them still have extra toes. They receive regular veterinary care, including vaccinations and treatments for fleas and other pests, and staying true to the tradition of the writer himself, they are all still named after famous people.
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by Nomi Berger
 
What do ailing people and ailing animals often have in common? The need for life-saving blood transfusions.
 
And when it comes to pet transfusions, it can be particularly difficult to find donors. This is why an increasing number of veterinary clinics are calling on caring cat owners to consider registering their kitties as blood donors. It’s why most veterinary colleges have a blood donor program, with some even having their own resident donors. It’s also why many of these colleges are looking for cats (and their humans) willing to participate in a donor program as well.
 
Unlike dogs who have more than fourteen blood types, cats have only three: A, B and AB. And unlike humans, there are no universal donors or universal recipients when it comes to feline blood types. If a cat receives a transfusion of the wrong type of blood, it could prove fatal.
 
In cats, type A is the most common, type B is uncommon, and type AB is very rare. For your own cat’s protection and your peace of mind, consult with your vet, who will either type her blood for you or refer you to a lab to perform the test.
 
And if you’re thinking of registering your cat as a much needed and most appreciated blood donor, she must meet certain requirements. One is that she be an indoor-only cat. Those allowed to roam free outside are considered too high-risk to be donors.
 
She must be healthy and up-to-date on her vaccinations. If she’s taking any regular medication(s) other than flea, tick and heartworm preventatives, she won’t be eligible to donate. Most blood banks have certain age (2 to 6 years old) and weight requirements (above 10 pounds but NOT overweight) for donors. They also prefer cats who are fairly friendly and are comfortable with being handled -- to prevent undue stress on both the staff and the animals.
 
If your kitty meets all of the requirements and is ready to donate, you’ll have to ensure that she’s properly prepared beforehand. To keep her comfortable and calm, she’ll be lightly sedated during the procedure, which means she can’t eat preceding it, but she can be fed the night before. You may, however, make water available to her right up until the donation itself. In fact, the better hydrated she is, the smoother the process is likely to be.
 
Collecting your cat’s blood (usually two ounces) will take only about 10-15 minutes, but because of the sedation, recovery and aftercare, the entire process may take several hours. Many pet parents drop off their cats, along with a favorite toy or blanket, and return for them later. In most cases, your kitty will be fed at the donation center shortly after the procedure.
 
Like human blood donors, cat blood donors can be lifesaving heroes for other cats in urgent need of transfusions. And if your kitty becomes just such a donor, both of you will have the heartfelt gratitude of emergency vets and anxious pet owners throughout your community.
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