Wand toys – better than string!

Cats love to play with string, but I find string and ribbon get easily tangled and athletic cats will sometimes jump up and attack the hand holding the string. So the solution is to use a wand toy – string on a stick! They come with feathers, mice, bells, ribbons, etc.. I find that wand toys with bells on them don’t work well for me as a pet sitter, as many of my cat clients are shy at first, and the jingling noise scares them. I also prefer lightweight wand toys, rather than the ones with heavy balls or stuffed animals hanging from them. Sometimes the cat and I misjudge a pass, and they end up getting bopped with the toys. Cats love feathers, but they do not last long and can get messy.

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The one I most often use and frequently find when visiting my cat clients, is a simple long soft ribbon attached to a plastic stick.  It’s sometimes called a dancer or teaser or charmer. You can wave it up, down, side to side, around, and make designs in the air to tease your cat friend into pouncing on it. You can exercise the cat without getting out of breath yourself. The wand toy is simple, effective, and generally inexpensive and durable. You can easily make one yourself, though they are not expensive and can be found at any pet store.

The great thing about wand teasers is that the cat is not targeting your body during play. A common mistake new cat owners do is to tease their young cats with their hands, and let their cats play rough with them because they think it’s adorable that their tiny fluffy kitten is attacking their fingers. When the cute kitten grows into a strong, mature cat and continues to play roughly, the owner no longer finds it cute. Letting your cat use their teeth and claws on you during play, or letting the play or petting session go on too long when the cat becomes overstimulated and becomes too rough, teaches your cat that you are a toy and that you want them to play with you like a kicker toy or scratching post. It’s confusing to them if sometimes it’s ok to grab, bite, kick, and scratch you, but sometimes it’s not ok. It’s best to be consistent and clear: you are not the toy. If a cat starts to play too roughly, I stop play or petting, say a firm “no,” and give them time to calm down by not touching them for a while. They will learn that it is not acceptable to play too roughly with me, and if the teeth or claws come out, I will stop playing or petting them.

A wand toy allows you to keep a safe distance from your mighty hunter’s sharp teeth and claws, and gives you control over the play session. They’ll be focused on the toy, and not on your hand. While laser pointers are also great, and I carry one with me, I prefer a wand toy because the cat is able to “win” with it. A wand toy is a physical thing they can attack, grab, chew, and “get,” whereas with a laser pointer, the cat can never win, unless you end the chase on a treat or toy. The lack of a “victory” at the end of laser play could lead to increased aggression; after all, everyone loves a happy ending! A wand toy never runs out of batteries, and sometimes cats will play with them on their own. Another great thing about wand toys is that they are small enough to put away easily, and also large enough to find easily.

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Cover of Pet Sitters World

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I am deeply honoured and thrilled to have been featured on the Jan/Feb 2018 cover of Pet Sitters World, the magazine for my professional association, Pet Sitters International (PSI).

Special thank you to Alex Tran, my excellent photographer, who kept telling me to look off into nowhere. Needless to say, I kept laughing and could not keep a straight face. I’m usually on the other side of the camera, taking pictures of my cat clients! But it was a fun photo shoot, and the animals all did very well and were rewarded with species-appropriate treats afterwards. Thank you also to my clients, who graciously granted permission to photograph their animals.

Cat water – choosing cup, bowl, or fountain

There are a lot of different options for keeping your cat hydrated.

Pet stores sell tiny, cutely decorated cat food dishes and cat water dishes. They can come in matching sets with little stands and they have little fish and cats on them. But if you were shopping for a new water bowl for your cat, I’d probably steer you to the dog section, which has nice, big wide-mouthed bowls. Your cat will be no less cute and cuddly if they have a big, practical water bowl with bones on it, instead of the thimble-sized ones with sardines on it marketed for cats.

There are water dishes with reservoirs, so you never have to worry about an empty water dish. These have the advantage of being heavy, so cats can’t move them around. You develop a routine of cleaning it out, filling the reservoir, putting the base bowl on top, then quickly upending it so it doesn’t spill as the water settles. I always wash them and refill the water at every cat visit, so it’s always clean.

Some cats drink out of mugs or tall plastic cups. Their owners swear the cats prefer it this way, and that works for them. I suspect this is because the cats don’t have to bend down as far as they would with a small water bowl. For older cats, who may have arthritis, this might be more comfortable for them. Or maybe it’s because they see their people drinking this way and they want to do it, too.

My personal favourite low-tech cat water bowl is a simple large casserole dish. I saw one of my clients using a pie plate, and went home and tried it with my own cats with an 8 x 8 pyrex casserole dish I rarely use. My elderly cat Ethel paws at her water and constantly overturns water bowls. She moves them around so that I often kick them accidentally. The heavy pyrex casserole dish is too heavy for her to overturn or move, even though she tries. The wide opening means there is less “whisker fatigue” – cats suck back their sensitive whiskers when eating and drinking, which can be tiring for them. Having a wide-mouthed water bowl makes drinking easier. There are handles on both sides, which makes carrying a dish full of water easy. It’s heavy and durable. It’s clear so I can see anything that’s not supposed to be there. It was lying around in my cupboard, so I didn’t go out and buy anything new.

If you have the floor space and space on your electrical outlet, cats like water fountains. It’s like drinking from an open faucet all the time. Let’s face it – there’s something nice and soothing about hearing running water. Like a mini waterfall, or a burbling brook. And it’s great for keeping the home humidified in the winter. They are usually heavy enough so cats won’t knock them over, and have a large capacity for water. Your wallet might cry a little if it breaks and you need to get a new one, but I haven’t encountered any problems yet with my clients’ fountains. If the water level gets too low, the motor will grind, so they need to be topped off daily. And yes, despite having filters, they still need to be cleaned with soap and water. Just like a basic water bowl, a water fountain will develop a reddish ring of bacteria around the water’s edge which needs to be cleaned off. Hard mineral deposits also form around the water level, too, as well as other parts of the fountain. For cats who paw their water a lot, I might clean out the water fountain every day or even at every visit to remove litter from the bowl. For others, I might only do it a couple times a week.

I always empty, scrub with dish soap, and refill water bowls at every cat visit. Like a person’s water glass that is left out on the table, cat water bowls collect dust (“there’s a speck in my water!”), debris, litter, and a filmy bio scum from saliva. I make sure my cat clients have clean, fresh water all the time.

A few good combs for cats

I’d like to suggest a few combs and brushes for daily or weekly cat fur maintenance. When I sit down to groom a cat, these are the ones I pull out first. I’m not a grooming expert, but I’ve found these useful for me.

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If you plan on only have one grooming tool for your cat, I suggest getting one of these (pictured above). This basic comb will work with long hair, medium hair, and short hair. You can’t go wrong with these combs. If you cat is prone to matting, use the wide-spaced teeth first to help detangle, then finish off with the finer side. If your cat ventures outside and gets bits of nature stuck to their fur, like burrs or leaves, you can get them out with this. If your longhaired cat has a messy bottom after using the litter box, this is a great tool to comb out the dirty bits. These combs are inexpensive, around $9-$13, durable, easily available at all pet stores, and practical. If you only have one grooming tool, get one of these.

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For short-haired to medium-haired cat, I recommend a Zoom Groom, or some other similar type of silicone brush. The Zoom Groom works well because it is small and you can maneuver with it easily; I got a handled silicone brush years ago, and it isn’t as easy to use as this smaller handle-free brush. It is gentle, and when your cat sheds, these brushes can remove a lot of loose fur quickly. Cats generally like these brushes and will let you brush and brush the loose fur away. They are soft, so you don’t have to worry about pricking or hurting your cat or creating bald spots. They’re easy to clean. They’re also great for removing hair from furniture and cat trees!

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If you have a long-haired cat, you can try this shedding comb. It has alternating long and short teeth. It can be used daily, and pulls out the loose undercoat. I’m not a grooming expert, so I’m not sure if you need both this one and the first basic comb I mentioned here, but in my experience so far, I’ve found this comb to be useful for long-haired cats, particularly in the early fall and the early spring when they shed their coats.

 

I also have Furminators, which are deshedding rakes, and a slicker brush in my bag, however I always go for the above items first. I always disinfect work tools I use on my pet sitting and boarding clients after each use with a special cat-safe spray and a clean toothbrush. It kills bacterial, fungicidal, virucidal, and tuberculocidal organisms so that my clients remain safe and protected.

Not exhibiting at SNAC this year

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While I am happily well enough to resume my regular pet sitting services, I will be unable to exhibit at this year’s Salon national des animaux de compagnie this weekend as previously planned. I’m told it could take weeks or even months for me to fully recover, but I’m well enough to get back to cats and hamsters as normal. I am grateful to all of my clients for their continued support and patience. Fred the Hamster is disappointed he won’t be able to showcase his booth babe skills, but perhaps he’ll have another chance next year.

 

Medical Leave through October & winter holiday pet sitting

Due to personal health issues, I am taking medical leave from pet sitting for the rest of the month of October. I am still available for small caged animal boarding (hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits, etc.), as well as for consultation meetings for future pet sitting, however I will not be accepting cat visit reservations before November so that I can rest and heal. I apologize for the inconvenience.

That being said, I am accepting bookings for November onward. I strongly encourage clients to reserve their winter holiday pet sitting as early as possible, as December-January are the busiest months of the year.

Cat care tips I’ve learned from my clients

I’m always learning, and even after just a year in business, I’ve picked up some great tips  from my clients to solve some simple cat problems when they go away:

  1. Leave out extra water. One of my cats loves to paw her water, and sometimes she flips over the dish even right after I’ve filled it. This is not something you want to have happen when a pet sitter is only visiting once or twice each day. The best water bowl I’ve seen has been a simple large glass casserole dish. It’s shallow, heavy, and large, so the cat cannot upend it. Some people also leave their extra water bowls in the bath tub, so the cat can do what they will and there’s no clean up needed. Water fountains are good, too, as they tend to hold more water than the average water bowl.
  2. Another water and food tip is to put the dishes on a tray to contain any messes. A boot tray works very well for this.
  3. Cut a hole into the door leading to the litter box. This won’t be possible for all of us, but I love this idea, because it means that even if the door gets closed, the cat will always have access to the litter box.
  4. Mix a little bit of water into canned food if the cat isn’t going to eat it right away. It looks a little soupy, but the extra water will help to keep the cat hydrated, and keep the food from drying out into hard, inedible cement.
  5. Keep your cat’s paperwork in the cat carrier. Proof of rabies vaccination, microchip locator information, medical history, etc.. This way, if your cat needs to be rushed to the veterinarian for medical care, if they go missing, or you need to travel with your cat or board them for whatever reason, this information can be easily found.
  6. Stock extra paper towels, even if you don’t normally use them yourself. Cats often shed when stressed, they may groom more when stressed, and then they vomit more and have more litter box accidents when stressed. Let me tell you – the pet sitter then gets stressed if there are no paper towels available to clean up said messes. There’s also the normal daily wiping around the food areas and sink. One client had a brand new package of 8 paper towel rolls waiting for me on the table, and I could have cried in gratitude.

Litter and litter boxes

My cat litter philosophy is that I want my cats’ litter box to be the cleanest, most accessible and welcoming place in my home. When they feel the call of nature, I want my cats to immediately and effortlessly use the litter box and only the litter box.

I read that you’re supposed to get a new litter box every year. Plastic retains odor, like that Tupperware container that always smells like the food you washed out of it months ago. I thought this was just a ploy from litter box manufacturers to get us to buy more litter boxes, but I decided to try it out. Washing with vinegar and hot water only does so much. The new litter would mute some of the smell lingering in the litter box, but wouldn’t remove it. So this weekend I got my cats a new litter box and gave away their old, smelly one, which was almost four years old. And yes, it did make a huge difference in smell. The linger odor was totally gone. So yes, I would recommend replacing your cat’s litter box to improve litter box odor.

Now onto what is sometimes a touchy subject: how often to scoop litter, and how often to completely replace old litter with new litter.

I scoop litter at every cat visit. Regardless of whether I visit a cat once per day, or twice per day, I scoop during every visit. I also completely change out a litter box after a week of cat visits – I empty the used cat litter, wash out the litter box, and refill with fresh litter. I recommend scooping solids as soon as you see/smell them, and if you use clumping litter, to do a thorough scooping at least once per day. The more often you scoop, the fresher your litter box will smell and the less your home will smell of dirty cat. Litter lockers – the diaper genie of the feline world – are a popular method for controlling odor and storing used litter until waste collection. Poop bags, the kind that dog walkers use, are another method.

So, when to change out the old litter for fresh litter? For my own cats, I don’t add fresh litter into old litter – when it gets really smelly or the the litter level gets too low, I change out the whole pan, around once per week, strategically timed to coincide with trash collection day. But some cat owners continually add fresh litter periodically, and then change out the litter pan once a month. It just depends on what works for you and your cat.

No one likes using a dirty public washroom – the kind where you avoid touching anything and sometimes you walk right out and hold it until you can find one that isn’t quite so disgusting. The same is true for cats and their litter boxes. If their litter box is dirty and smells bad, they will avoid using it and instead find other places in which to relieve themselves. Like your clothes, your bed, the rug, the sink, your potted plants, your shoes… you get the idea. And once a cat gets used to peeing in a certain spot, it may be hard to get them to go back to using the litter box and only the litter box. It also might be hard to clean out the stains and odor. I hear enzyme cleaners work well, and usually a rinse with vinegar will restore peed-on clothes, but personally, I’ve found that nothing ever works 100%.

Litter box issues are not always due to cleanliness. Sometimes there are health reasons behind the accidents. Please don’t hesitate to take your cat to the vet if they are regularly having litter box accidents. Cats may come to associate the litter box with pain if it hurts them when they use it, so even after they are healed they might need motivational help to use the litter box again. An elderly, arthritic cat might have trouble stepping into a litter pan with high sides; they might need a shallower litter pan. An elderly or sick cat might become incontinent. They might not like having their litter box next to noisy appliances, or it might be too far away. You might have to gently coax them into using the litter box again, so they learn that the litter box will not cause them pain. This might involve spending time in a closed room with your cat and their litter box and lots of praise for successful litter box usage until they feel comfortable using it again.

Aside from their willingness to use the litter box, I’ve also noticed that my cats start fighting each other when the litter box is too smelly. My neutered male will mount my elderly spayed female to establish dominance. They will chase each other and get into loud, fur-flying fights. And then when the litter box is washed out and refilled, suddenly all dominance plays and hostilities stop and peace is once again restored to the household. A dirty, smelly litter box is stressful for everyone.

No one really likes scooping cat litter, but like changing a baby’s diaper, it has to happen and is an integral part of caring for a cat. There are many innovative trends in cat litter boxes to help those who do not like to scoop. There are really fancy electric ones that will wash reusable litter like flushing a toilet. There are ones that automatically sift out solids and collect them in a compartment. There are stacked, built-in sifter models. There are systems with special litter pellets that catch solids and collect liquids in puppy pads in a bottom tray. There are covered boxes, boxes with guards on the sides, and classic basic litter pans. Some people build beautiful hutches for the litter box so it can be hidden in plain sight. I also love seeing cat flaps built into doors so that cats always have access to their litter boxes, even if a door is closed.

There are an endless variety of cat litter options, too. There is clumping litter, so that when wet, the litter forms easily scoopable clumps. There’s non-clumping litter, so that you only scoop out the solids. There is environmentally-conscious litter like those made from recycled newspapers or pine pellets or wheat. There’s crystal litter. There’s even flushable litter.

Some people will fill their litter boxes way up, but 2-3 inches of cat litter is just perfect. If the litter is too deep, the cat might not feel stable walking into it or might get into the habit of digging deeply into it. It will not stay fresher longer – you’ll just end up with a big, heavy, full pan of smelly litter that needs to be changed instead of a lighter pan of smelly litter that needs to be changed. And personally, I find it hard to scoop through a very deep pan of cat litter.

Generally, it’s recommended to have one litter box per cat plus one. So if you have 2 cats, you’re supposed to have 3 litter boxes. But, you have to find what works for you and your cat. Some lucky cats get two or three litter boxes to themselves. And I’ll come right out and say that my two cats share one litter box. I used two litter boxes when we got our second cat, but they both used both litter boxes indiscriminately, and then didn’t have a problem when I experimented downsizing them to one box. This won’t work for everyone, but it does work for us.

I have not yet encountered a cat litter that doesn’t track; in other words, no cat litter will stay neatly in the litter box, even the big pellets. They all track, at least a little, as bits get stuck in cat’s paws when they exit the litter box. Having a mat will help, but be prepared to sweep up bits of litter, too.

And if you and the people you share your cat with don’t want anything to do with cat litter – pregnancy, injury/illness, and really, who likes spending quality time with a cat litter box, anyway? Don’t stress about it – hire someone else to do it! There are pooper scooper services that will regularly visit your home and clean your cat’s litter box for you (like a diaper cleaning service!). They also clean pet waste from yards, which is useful for dog owners. I also offer litter box tidying services, however a pooper scooper service would be more economical (not that I wouldn’t value the business!). I will scoop litter, clean out the litter box, refill with clean litter, and sweep or vacuum around the litter box area. For regular litter box tidying service, I recommend leaving a key on file with me or scheduling service when you are always going to be present.

Animalerie Paul on Mont-Royal East

A few years ago, brunch with my family at St-Viateur Bagel in the Plateau would not be complete without a couple mini cupcakes from Petit Gateaux (which is sadly, sadly closed), and a stop in to see the animals for sale at Animalerie Paul. While we rarely eat out these days, I still like visiting this store because it’s a nice, small pet shop with live animals.

The left wall is a bank of aquariums with lots of fish. The right wall are small birds. The larger small animals, like rabbits, guinea pigs, and I think sometimes ferrets, are usually in the middle of the store, and the smaller small animals like rats, mice, gerbils, and hamsters, are in the back. There are also kittens and puppies. The guinea pigs and rabbits are housed together in a small bin, which is cute, but some people might not agree with that housing arrangement.

There are supplies for small animals, birds, fish, reptiles, cats, and dogs. Somehow they manage to pack everything into their tiny space. There’s even a tiny room in the back for grooming services. The fish tanks look clear and well-maintained and staff are friendly.

Hamster vs. Degu vs. Hedgehog

So I’m researching my next hamster. Or maybe degu. Or possibly hedgehog. I haven’t decided. And I still haven’t cleaned out Maximus’s cage. ::sigh::

Hedgehog

I was fortunate enough to board a hedgehog for several days not too long ago, and she was sooo interesting. She’d huff and ball up. She licked me… then bit me. (Then my 3-year old started licking my arms and cheeks, too.) She was a lot bigger than a hamster, ate what I think was crunchy cat food, and I only saw her awake at 4:30am when I started my day for cat visits. Fluffy on the bottom, prickly on the top.

The downside is that I’d need a new cage with a hedgehog-appropriate wheel, as well as a heating lamp, fleece for hiding, and other toys. Also, the purchase price for a hedgehog is around $175-$400 if you go through a breeder; even the SPCA’s adoption fee is $75 (in contrast, a hamster is $10). Also, the set up would go where I usually put pet sitting guests needing an electrical outlet. Getting  a hedgie of my own would mean no more turtle or hedgehog guests in the future.

 

Degu(s)

Another hamster-alternative would be getting a couple degus. They are 3-4 times bigger than a hamster, they live longer, and are active and affectionate pets. Getting degus would be even more expensive than getting a hedgehog, due to all the accessories. The cost of two degus (because they’re social and need a friend) is about $30 for a pair, whether you get them from a pet shop or the SPCA, but they need a large cage with several levels and toys to play with. So roughly $350+ for a decent cage, plus accessories. Degu food might be hard to come by, since they are newly domesticated, so the pet shop suggested mixing hamster and guinea pig food together (I’ll have to look into whether this a viable long-term option, or if I would need to hunt for degu-specific food). They also eat hay like rabbits and guinea pigs, fresh vegetables, and can clean themselves with chinchilla dust. They like to burrow, so some sort of bedding is recommended. And they are messy, so degu owners often recommend getting a handheld vacuum, as well.

I have to say, I’m leaning strongly towards degus right now. The average pet hamster lives around 2 years; the average pet degu lives 6-8 years. It would be nice to have a longer time with my furry little pet(s) before they die. Sorry, I guess I’m just feeling morbid right now because Maximus died just a few days ago.

Hedgehogs are neat and fun, but their active hours rarely coincide with mine, so I wouldn’t get to play with them as much. They’re still really cool, though! They eat bugs and worms!

Degus are very active and social, and in addition to needing a spacious, durable cage, they need a lot of regular play time with their humans. I have 2 cats – I might have to separate them when it comes time for play time. Also, degus have tails which can be pulled off if they are played with too roughly. Sadly, this tail does not grow back, and the degu then has to learn how to balance without their long tail. I have a 3-year old human – will she be able to interact with the degus in an appropriate manner and not pull off their tails? Will she learn how to open the degu cage and let them out to be chased by the cats? Well, only one of the cats would be chasing. But that’s still not a good scenario.

Ah, decisions, decisions. But a pet – even a small pet – is a big responsibility, and welcoming another living creature into my home isn’t taken lightly.