Fire safety for pets: keeping the cat carrier within reach

cat carrier
Olaf in the cat carrier, after being evacuated due to fire

At midnight last night, I was startled by pounding on my front door. A few moments earlier, I had heard thumping on the back fire escape of the building, and figured some kids (hooligans… those darn young’ins) were having some fun and chasing eachother down the fire escape and knocking on random people’s doors. As it turns out, it was one of my neighbours, shouting to get out because the roof was on fire. I could see, feel, and smell the red sparks and ash burning up above my head.

Having lived in Montreal for years, this was hardly my first fire or fire drill. And even back in my school days, I seemed to live in the dorms that had had almost biweekly fire alarms, usually at night, probably by students illicitly smoking too close to the fire alarms. Anyway, I knew just what to do. So I quickly got up my sleeping daughter, had my husband take her outside, and then went to get the cat carrier from the storage room for my cat, Olaf. I’m sorry to say that in the heat of the moment, I did not even think to get Mister Rogers, my hamster. But I will next time!

Anyway, as I was  going into the storage room to fetch the cat carrier, a big plastic hard-sided carrier sitting right there in plain sight, I went right past it and dug around for the soft-sided carrier that actually had never been used before and had been given to me by a former client who had moved away. I don’t know why I did that, I was just going going going, and knew I had to find a carrier for Olaf. I stared at the soft black carrier in my hand for a moment, unthinking, before my brain caught up with my body and screamed that this carrier was too small for my long, lanky Olaf, and to use the much larger carrier that was sitting right there that I’ve always used. The one that still had tape on it from the vet’s that said Ethel. I put down the soft-sided carrier. Grabbed the carrier, grabbed the cat who was scooting under the bed (got ‘im! haha.), got peed on as I crammed him into the cat carrier (sorry, Force Free training, this time I was getting him in there as quickly as possible, whatever it took), closed all the doors on my way to the front door, grabbed my jean jacket and handbag, and brought us both outside where my family, neighbours, and a ton of firefighters were there to greet us. All of this was done quickly, efficiently, and well under a minute.


No one was hurt, everyone got out quickly, even the older neighbours who had been in isolation for months. The fire, a small fire of unknown origin, was quickly extinguished by the well-organized firefighters, and after they had carefully inspected the area, rolled up their hoses, and removed the emergency caution tape, we were allowed to go back inside. Thanks, first responders! Montreal firefighters rock!

The first thing I did, after getting my daughter a drink of water, was clean up the pee from the floor, myself, the cat, and the cat carrier. I didn’t want anyone to step in it and I certainly wanted to eradicate the smell and not let it set. I keep a spray bottle of equal parts vinegar and water, which works very well at neutralizing urine odours in laundry, and is pet-safe. I used it on the floor, the cat carrier, the bath tub, and the laundry. Olaf had peed on the brand-new skirt I had quarantine-splurged on from the Gap and I wanted to wash the heck out of it right away to prevent the odour from setting. I wiped Olaf down with damp towels, but he was too worked up to bathe, and I didn’t think it was really necessary. He was able to clean himself after I got him started. Then I gave him a treat and started writing this blog post, since I’m too worked up to sleep despite it being 1:30am. Ahem, now 3am.

Cat carriers – getting your cat from Point A to Point B

Location location location

The reason why I am sharing this exciting moment, is because of the cat carrier. When I meet with a new client, I always ask where the pet carrier is, just in case the pet needs medical attention or there’s another emergency and I need to evacuate the pet. Living in small urban apartments, owners will often keep their cat carriers in their storage locker. In the basement. Down several flights of stairs. Wedged behind many suitcases and only accessible with a ladder. A few clients didn’t have a cat carrier.

If I had kept my cat carrier so far away from my living space, I wouldn’t have been able to get to it in a timely manner to evacuate with Olaf safely. I couldn’t just carry him outside in my arms. Despite being an indoor-only cat, he’s like any cat in a high-adrenaline situation – he would have clawed me in a panic, then ran and hid somewhere. Or gotten hit by a car. Or gotten taken in by well-meaning Samaritans despite being microchipped because he’s so handsome and friendly. I could have lost him as soon as I took him outside without a carrier.

Many cat behaviourists and also Fear Free recommend keeping your cat carrier out and in the open for your cat, to help familiarize them with the carrier and remove any negative associations of cat carrier = veterinarian = bad things. To combat this, some owners create a comfy nest for their cats in their carriers, feed them treats in their carriers, and integrate them seamlessly into their living room decor. Especially a couple weeks before a trip to the veterinarian, or a trip, it’s a good idea to bring out the cat carrier and feeding them lots of treats inside of it so they’ll associate good things with it. It then becomes easier to coax them inside the carrier so that the trip to the veterinarian is less stressful.

Disaster planning

It’s important to consider what to do in the event of a fire or similar situation. I have a clear plan of action and priorities. Child, cat, (hamster – next time, Mister Rogers!), shoes, coat if cold, handbag/keys. Closing the doors was a practical bonus. Meet in safe place outside. I’ve done this enough times in my life that it takes no thought, it just happens within seconds. This is one of the reasons why I ask so many questions during registration with new clients, so that if something unexpected should happen, we have all the necessary information and planning already agreed upon, and I can immediately act without having to wonder what to do during a stressful, emotional situation.

When I had two cats, I tried both using two separate carriers, as well as just cramming them both into one big carrier. Both got the job done, though when we lived up several flights of stairs, it was easier for me to carry only one carrier with 22 lbs of cat inside.

Is it washable?

When I got my first cat, Ethel, many years ago, I got a soft-sided carrier because it seemed like it would be more comfortable for her. It was small, easy to carry like a gym bag, and had mesh on all the sides so you could easily see inside. I still remember being offended when a pushy vet tech told me that my carefully purchased cat carrier was not secure enough and that a cat could easily escape it if they really wanted to by ripping open the mesh or pulling apart the zippers. I’m not saying that she was wrong, or than she wasn’t well-meaning, but I used that carrier for many years, until the plastic ribbing separated.

While Ethel never tried to escape the soft-sided carrier, she often peed in the carrier and it was impractical in that it was difficult to clean. There was a fuzzy covering for the cardboard bottom that could be washed in the washing machine, but it wasn’t waterproof, and that cardboard bottom could get soaked in urine and other bodily fluids of a scared cat. The soft shell only survived a couple washes in a front-loading washing machine before wearing out.

I saw some beautiful soft-sided backpack-style cat carriers at last year’s Cat Camp NYC, but the sales representative was a bit stumped when I had asked about cleaning. She had suggested maybe hosing it off outside. But most of my clients are apartment dwellers, so that option of blasting it with a forceful stream of water outside is not really available to us.


I usually put cats into cat carriers using the front door. It’s useful to also have a carrier that comes apart from the top, too, as that can be easier at the vet’s office, as the top can be removed without dragging out the cat. Having a carrier that’s easy to take apart and put back together makes it easier to clean.


A hard-sided cat carrier is durable and easy to clean and won’t retain odours as much as a soft-sided carrier. It will last longer than a soft-sided carrier. It’s easy to store, because you won’t be tempted to fold it all up and wreck it because you think it’s more flexible than it is. It can get scratched and knocked around a little (hopefully when empty). A cat won’t be able to rip through it with their claws and teeth. A dog will have more trouble getting to the cat in a hard case. (While waiting to go back inside last night, Olaf was well-sniffed by a neighbour’s dog, but was well-secured in the hard plastic carrier). Pet owners often buy soft-sided carriers because they are pretty, but the nylon shells can fade with wear, making them less pretty. You can usually find used hard pet carriers inexpensively via online marketplaces.

I guess you can see in which way I lean with regards to soft vs. hard cat carriers. I’m not judging – a soft-sided carrier works, but won’t last as long as a hard-sided carrier, and is harder to clean. I’d rather have a soft carrier than no carrier.

In Conclusion

  1. Make sure you have a disaster/fire safety plan for your pets.
  2. Keep your pet carrier within easy reach just in case there’s a fire and you need to put your pets into it.
  3. Practice getting your pet into the pet carrier.
cleaning the cat carrier
Taking apart and cleaning the cat carrier with vinegar

Stay safe, everyone!

Ethel’s litter box issues

I see a lot of litter box set ups, and have scooped my fair share of litters. Sometimes I find cats I watch are not great a using the litter box. I offer suggestions I hope will be helpful, but I’m not an animal behaviourist. Generally, ideas I’ve suggested include switching to a low-sided litter box, so an elderly cat can more easily get in and out of the box. Take off the litter box cover. Or if there are two litter boxes next to each other, separating them, as those two side-by-side litter boxes are considered one litter box to the cats, and it is recommended to have one litter box per cat plus one (so, for two cats, that would mean 3 litter boxes). Or talking about trying a different litter, as there is a wide variety to choose from.

I’m facing my own litter box issues, as one of my cats is approaching 19. She was my  first cat, and I picked her up from an animal shelter as a mature, dignified little lady of 5-years, fourteen years ago. Ethel was originally with her litter mate, Lucy (that’s right – they were Lucy and Ethel). When I went to look at cats, the volunteer tried to get me to consider both cats, but I was living in a small studio apartment right out of college that officially did not allow pets. I was working four different jobs and didn’t think I could manage financially supporting two cats, or that I had enough space for one cat, let alone two. The pair had been at the shelter for about five months already, and they wanted to adopt them out together. Ethel was very calm when I visited with her, but I had no cat experience at all at that point. I didn’t know what I was looking for, and it wasn’t urgent to me to get a cat. So I left. A little while later, I got a call. Lucy had been adopted by herself, and quiet little Ethel was still at the shelter, crying for her. So I drove to the shelter and brought Ethel home.

Ethel has since slowed down considerably. She used to like sleeping on the bed with me (and thus waking me up in the morning), but doesn’t anymore due to arthritis. I hoped she could use the tall wooden Ikea step stool that I had gotten for our toddler, but she doesn’t like it. She spends about 23.5 hours per day curled up on her heated pet pillow, under my daughter’s chalkboard. She used to lie pressed against the baseboard heater, but then one day I noticed a burn on her side, and her fur still has yet to grow back there. Fortunately, she prefers the heated pillow.


Olaf is modeling the new litter box tray

A month or two ago, Ethel started to go right over the side of the litter box. So I got a new litter box that was a little bigger and had lower sides so she could get in an out more easily. I put a spare small mattress protector underneath it, and an old towel, both of which seemed to be constantly in the wash. I was trying to avoid using puppy training pads to line the floor, for environmental and financial reasons. But I don’t think the mattress protector and towel are a good option anymore, as cat urine can be difficult to remove from cloth, despite rinsing in vinegar to neutralize odour, and it’s happening too frequently to keep up. As a mom and a professional pet sitter, I already do quite a lot of laundry already.

She still continued to go over the litter box sides about 25% of the time. I tried something I read about regarding litter boxes for elderly cats, and got her a large plastic restaurant-style serving tray. You can’t get much lower-sided than that for a litter box. And it’s quite large, to give her room to turn around. I smoothed out a layer of litter, and observed.

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The restaurant-style tray. Floor underneath lined with puppy training pads.

Sadly, it’s not working. She’s still going right at the edges, or just over. And the litter isn’t absorbing the odour as well, since it’s a shallower layer. And I’m starting to use the puppy training pads to line the area to protect the hardwood floor.

I need to look at other options. The clumping wood shaving litter I use, Feline Fresh, is already one of the softest litters on the market. I might try getting a large plastic tote bin and cutting out an entrance on one side. So it’s low-sided entrance, but the litter will all be contained and the high sides might discourage going outside of the box. I haven’t caught her using the litter box as she’s using it in a while; it’s been suggested that I set up a motion-activated camera to observe how she’s using the litter box.

Suggestions would be appreciated! I’ll keep you posted on how it goes. She’s always been very good at using the litter box, and it seems to be a physical issue that’s causing her to go just outside.

Video: guinea pig vegetables and cage comparison

In honour of Adopt a Guinea Pig Month, here’s a somewhat meandering video showing an example of vegetables I feed guinea pigs in my care, and a comparison of two common cages for Guinea pigs. Boarders must come with all supplies and equipment, and can come with up to 5 days of vegetables to offset the daily vegetable fee.

Video: Grooming tool kit for pet visits and boarders

I’m exploring posting videos about my pet care services and about pet care for animals that I care for. Here’s my first YouTube video, which goes over what is inside my grooming tool kit, some recommendations for grooming tools for cat, rabbit, and guinea pig owners, and a short grooming demo with one of my Guinea pig boarders, the charming Noisette.

Proper grooming is important for all pets, and so I include it for all of my clients if there is time. I can use my tools, which I clean and disinfect after each client, or the client’s own tools. I discuss such tools as the Furminator, deshedding rakes, HairBuster, slicker brushes, nail trimmers, styptic powder, etc.

I don’t consider myself to be a professional groomer. It’s on my to-do list to further explore formal cat grooming education, to further enrich my pet care skill set, but I just don’t have the funding for it yet. I do offer limited grooming services for my clients, which basically include brushing fur and trimming nails. I can visit regularly, or just during shedding season, or just as a once-off. It’s actually a great way to get to know me in person as a pet sitter, when you are choosing who to hire to care for your animals. That way, you will see how I behave with your animals, and what sort of care they will receive when you are away.

I do not cut fur, and if your cat is heavily matted, I encourage you to take them to a certified master cat groomer rather than attempt to cut out the matted fur yourself. Cat skin is very thin, and attempting to cut out mats can result in an emergency trip to a veterinarian.

This is only the second video I’ve every posted (check out my Facebook page to see my first Facebook live… which ended up being filmed sideways!).

Comments are strongly encouraged! I’d also love to hear what you want to see in future videos or blog posts.

Microchip Pet Feeder: 2+ cats with different diets

Feeding your cats different diets can be challenging. Maybe only one cat gets kitten food. Or one cat gets medication mixed into their food. Or they eat different amounts. Or one cat will eat all of the food. Or you have dogs or other pets or children who try to get into the cat food.

A great part of being a professional cat sitter is that I get to see how all of my clients set up their pets’ things, and how they solve problems. I’m always impressed with the ingenuity. People are so creative and inventive! If cats are fed different foods, there are a few common approaches:

  1. Feed them in separate rooms. Often one cat gets banished to eat in the bathroom, and unhappily meows until they are let out again. Sometimes one or both of the cats refuse to eat when separated, so you are all held hostage until both finish their food.
  2. Feed them in different areas. The idea is that if you put enough space between the cats, you can catch and correct one if they meander over to the other cat’s food. Either on opposite sides of a room, or one cat eats on the counter or shelf and one cat eats on the floor. This also requires attention and time from the person, and doesn’t work if one or both want to graze throughout the day.
  3. Just watch them like a hawk and correct them every time they try to eat the other’s food. Most cats are great at only eating from their special dish, but every cat eats at different speeds and then moves onto their friend’s food next. Or they congenially switch bowls for a taste of the other’s when you don’t want them to.

But thankfully, there’s another solution, and that is the microchip pet feeder.

I have two very different cats who now have different diets. Ethel, my elderly 18-year old sweetheart, started a hypoallergenic diet last month.

Ethel loves to eat, and has always wolfed down her food, even though most of her teeth were extracted years ago. But a few months ago she started losing weight, amongst her other health issues, and then didn’t seem to like the hypoallergenic food as much as her old food. Instead of finishing her food within seconds, she would daintily graze throughout the day and night. It took her all day to finish her portion of dry food and 30 minutes or so to finish her wet food. Meanwhile, Olaf, a robust 8-year old cat, has no problem inhaling his food and then going to inhale whatever other food is around, too. Not only is the hypoallergenic food not appropriate for him, but it is also one of the most – if not the most – expensive cat food there is. More expensive than raw food, than boutique cat foods like Orijen and Acana, or Wellness. So if he doesn’t have to eat it, I don’t want to feed it to him.

I started feeding Ethel small portions on demand to encourage her to gain weight. This annoyed Olaf, who didn’t understand why Ethel got so much food all the time when he only got fed twice a day. Both were shelter cats, and they do not self-regulate their food portions. If you put out twice as much food for them, they will cheerfully eat it all right away… then probably vomit it back up, or gain undesirable weight. This added work annoyed me, because while I love my cats, I have a business to run and family to take care of and I can’t tie myself down to feeding one of two cats 8 tiny portions of food every day when she cries for more. I have clients who do this, as there are some who believe cats should eat many mouse-sized portions of food each day instead of one or two big portions. But these clients work from home and enjoy bonding with their cats in this way, whereas I am often out doing my cat sitting rounds. It just doesn’t fit my lifestyle.

I first saw ads for the Surefeed Microchip Pet Feeder in my Facebook feed. It seemed like one of those gimmicky, impractical, silly gadgets people with too much money on their hands get. It looked too small for a cat to comfortably use, and I thought it would surely break down quickly and end up in a corner somewhere. It’s plastic. And what if you buy it and your cat doesn’t like it? But the idea started to grow on me, and I started checking out buying one online. Alas, it did not go on sale for Amazon Prime Day. But I did encounter it in a client’s home, which helped me decide how it would work for me.

The Surefeed Microchip Pet Feeder can be programmed with your cat’s microchip, or with RFID tags that are included in the packaging. A microchip is a small device that is implanted into your pet to help identify them if they are lost. Shelters and veterinarian’s offices can scan the microchip, and retrieve the owner’s contact information to help reunite pet and owner. I strongly recommend all cat owners to microchip their pets and to keep their contact info current. It is relatively inexpensive to do it, and if your cat ever escapes or goes missing, you’ll have a greater chance of getting them back.

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Left button opens/closes the cover. Middle button programs the microchip reader. Right button is for training.

To program this feeder, you don’t even need the microchip ID numbers, which was a HUGE relief. All you have to do is press a button, encourage your cat to hover close to the feeder so it can learn the cat’s microchip, and that’s it! The flap covering the food bowl will only open for this one cat’s chip, and will close after they have moved away.

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trying to break into the microchip feeder

The feeder has a cover flap that opens and closes. This can help keep wet food moist during the day, and possibly help keep out flies. It can keep out other pets who might want to eat the food. The feeder comes with two bowls, one of which is divided so you can put wet food one one side and dry on the other. Or two different foods in either one.

In my research, I learned that there is a rear cover for the microchip feeder, which is sold separately. Without the rear cover, another cat can sneak food by poking their head through the other side of the feeder while it is open. The rear cover prevents this. One of my clients constructs elaborate cardboard and book obstacle courses and blinders for their feeders to try to solve this problem. I read a review that said they keep their feeder in a cardboard box with a hole in the top to make it even more inaccessible to other cats.

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Surefeed Microchip Pet Feeder with Rear Cover

The feeder was available on, but the rear cover was not. I emailed and then called the Surefeed office in the USA to order one. I tried ordering the feeder and rear cover on wholesale to reduce costs, but unfortunately, they said they weren’t accepting applications from Canada at this time. Aw, shucks. They have excellent, friendly customer service. When 11 days had rolled by and I hadn’t yet received my rear cover (I had been told it only takes a few days to receive), they immediately sent me another one free of charge. Of course, I ended up receiving the rear cover later than day, and now will have a second, which they told me to keep. Which means I might have to buy a second microchip feeder to go with it. I only bought one due to the expense, but two would be fine, as well, so Ethel doesn’t try snacking on Olaf’s food, too.

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The rear cover makes it harder for other pets to sneak food. Ethel can eat in peace while Olaf looks on.

I think the feeder works well. The product is easy to assemble and operate. It comes in attractive packaging. It looks sturdy enough and well-made and comes with a 3-year warranty. My 4-year old can operate it. There is a training feature to help your cat adapt to the cover opening and closing, but timid Ethel immediately worked the feeder and had no trouble using it right away without a learning curve. There is a quiet noise when the cover opens and closes, but it doesn’t seem to bother her. She loves being able to nibble food throughout the day and night whenever she wants. She is less demanding in the morning. Instead of her urgent “wake up now! I’m starving here! wake up! wake up! wake up!” voice, she sounds more like “soooooo, when can I expect you to wake up? I kind of want to get a move on my day here.” She’s gained about a pound already, which is great.

The feeder is a good size for cats. Ethel is averaged sized and about 8.5-lbs underweight, and Olaf is a lanky 13 lbs. The height is fine. I prefer using a wide, shallow dish for cat food to prevent whisker fatigue – cats have to suck in their sensitive whiskers to eat from narrow or deep bowls and this can be a problem particularly for older cats – but I guess if the dish were too wide then other cats could more easily steal food from them. The bowl can fit up to 2 5.5 oz. cans of wet food.

The feeder is not a guarantee that your cats won’t still eat each other’s food. Olaf can still push Ethel aside, and if he is quick and close enough the feeder will remain open as a safety feature, which allows him to eat as much as he likes even if Ethel moves away.

The food cover is not airtight, but it will help to keep wet food moist longer. You cannot fit an ice pack inside to keep wet or raw food cool.

I don’t like that the feeder is meant to be hand washed. While I hand wash everything when I am pet sitting, at the beginning and end of the day as a cat owner and busy working mom, I strongly prefer items I can throw into the dishwasher. A little-known reality of being a pet sitter (particularly one with eczema like myself) is that during the colder months your hands really dry out, morphing into raw, split, scaly things due to winter dryness, frequent hand washing, and frequent bare-handed dish washing (after scooping litter boxes, washing all the food and water dishes, cleaning up after pets, etc.). I use several different products to try to combat this and relieve the painful splits (O’Keefe’s Working Hands is great!), and when they get really bad I have to resort to wearing disposable nitrile gloves until my skin heals. I really try to strategize the number of times my hands get into contact with soap or detergent during any given day. So it’s annoying when I have to wash even more dishes by hand when I get home. The feeder itself needs to be wiped down periodically, too, though it is easy enough as everything comes off and goes back on without issue.

Cost breakdown

This feeder is not at all cheap. The Surefeed Microchip Pet Feeder is $179.99 + tax from, which comes to $206.94 total for Quebeckers. The rear cover for the Surefeed Microchip Pet Feeder is not available from, and must be ordered directly from Surefeed in the USA, at a cost of $10 USD + $20 USD shipping. With the current exchange rate of $1.31 CAD to $1 USD, this comes to $39.36 CAD. So together, the feeder and rear cover ended up being $246.30 CAD. Keep in mind, it requires 4 C batteries, which is roughly $7, which, from reading past reviews, will probably last about 6 months. This is by far the most expensive item I have purchased for my pets. I really hope it works out, and so far, it is working quite well. I have suggested this feeder to clients in the past.

Alas, I have no affiliation at all with Surefeed (though I am absolutely open to sponsors and collaborators). I wrote this blog post because I thought it would be helpful for some of my clients and other cat owners.

I’d love to hear your solutions for feeding cats who have different diets!

Ways to keep your pet cool during a heat wave

It’s July 2018 and Montreal is suffering through a 35°C heat wave.

We are all miserable.

Most Montreal buildings are old and lack air conditioning. We’re all dripping in sweat and irritable. As we eat an indecent amount of ice cream, drink gallons of cold beverages, and take many a cold shower, here are a few ideas on how to help keep your cats and small furry animals comfortable during the hot summer days.

Our pets can’t sweat or take cold showers, or say “gee, I’m feeling too hot right now, I need help!” It’s up to us to make sure they stay healthy and comfortable when it’s really hot outside and inside. Here’s a link to some information about heat stroke in cats:

And here are some tips on keeping your animal cool, especially if you do not have air conditioning:

  1. Ice water. When it’s hot inside a client’s home, I add ice to their cat’s water to help cool them down. The ice is usually all melted before the end of the cat visit. At home, I like freezing a sizable block of ice and adding it to the water bowl (my cats use a square casserole dish). A large block of ice will melt slower than a bunch of smaller ice cubes. Cats sometimes like to lick the ice or play with it. Here’s a video of cats licking giant balls of ice:
  2. Shaving a cat might not make them cooler. Some people believe that shaving a cat will help them stay cooler in the summer, while others believe that fur is a natural insulator, and that shaving a cat will actually make them hotter in the summer.  Here are a few links regarding not shaving in the summer:;;
  3. Electric fans. Humans like them, and cats like them, too.
  4. Freeze a bottle of water and leave it out for the cat to lounge next to. Guinea pigs and rabbits sometimes like licking the condensation off the cold bottle, too. For smaller animals, you can chill a ceramic tile in the fridge for them to lounge on.
  5. Freeze cat-safe canned tuna (no added salt) into ice cubes, so they can lick the cold treat to help cool off.
  6. Pet cooling mat. Be careful of gel mats, as pets might accidentally ingest the gel.
  7. Keep the cage/habitat away from direct sunlight and windows. Make sure their cages are well-ventilated.
  8. Close curtains/drapes/blinds to keep inside temperatures cooler.


And, of course, fresh, cold water for all!

Water fountains

I’ve written about water source options for cats before, but thought I’d revisit the topic, focusing on water fountains.

We know that people need to drink lots of water in the summer. We don’t want to get dehydrated. The same goes for cats. Cats have a low thirst-drive, and they should have easy access to fresh, clean water at all times. I’ve even seen videos of people setting out giant ice balls for their cats to lick to help cool off – it’s on my to-do list for my own cats!

At every cat visit, even if it is twice in one day, I empty water bowls, wash them with soap, and replace with clean, fresh, cold water. I generally let water fountains go every other day before washing with soap, but if they are dirty – particularly if I see anything inside the water, like kitty litter or dust – I will also wash them at every visit.

It’s better to wash out the water bowl than to keep refilling it with water without washing it. If you’ve ever noticed a slimey or reddish film coating the sides of the water dish, you’ve seen the bacterial biofilm that can live in those water bowls. Also mineral deposits from hard water that are hard to scrub out. Don’t make your cats drink slimey water! It could discourage them from drinking and lead to health problems like urinary tract blockages.

I’m becoming increasingly familiar with various water fountain models. But they’re all similar to clean, even the big elaborate ones and the small cute ones. They all need to be unplugged, taken apart, and washed with soapy water every few days to clean off bacteria, dirt, and contaminates. Even the ones with filters.

I think a lot of pet owners assume that an electric water fountain cleans itself, or that it doesn’t need cleaning. But that motor is only recirculating the same water, and any contaminants introduced to that water remains trapped in there, sloshing around. A cat’s water fountain with a filter is not like a Brita water pitcher, though both help make water taste better by running it through charcoal filters. We don’t need to clean a Brita pitcher every couples of days simply because we don’t drink directly from it – our saliva never touches it, and we keep the pitcher on the counter or in the fridge, where it won’t accumulate the amount of saliva, dirt, dust, and fur that a cat’s water fountain will on the floor. Some cats like to paw at their water, which also introduces kitty litter into it. So yes, those nice big electric water fountains still need to be cleaned every couple of days.

If I have enough time at a cat visit, I sometimes even use q-tips dipped in dish soap and a child’s tooth brush (which I carry for this purpose and disinfect after each use) to get all the corners and crevices of the fountain totally clean. It’s a good feeling when you get all the yucky stuff out and the fountain looks squeaky clean!

Filters in fountains also need to be replaced regularly, roughly every 1-4 weeks, depending on usage. If it feels slimey or looks greyish/brownish/reddish, it needs to be replaced. When you look at an old filter next to a new filter, you’ll understand what a clean, working filter is supposed to look like. A client recently asked me which way the filter is supposed to face, and I contacted PetSafe, which makes many of the water fountains I encounter, to find out. I’m always curious and I love learning new things and helping clients. For models that take the rectangular filters, the white side of the filter is to face the incoming water, and the black part faces the water going out. So water flows in through the white and out through the black.

Don’t let this discourage you from getting a nice water fountain for Fluffy. I like water fountains. If I had a conveniently located outlet and the floor space, I might get one for my cats. Cats like them, they’re usually too big and heavy to knock over, they are pleasant to listen to, and help provide moisture during the dry winters. While they need to be cleaned regularly, it might save you a day or two in between cleanings, whereas a simple bowl of water needs to be cleaned once or twice per day. There are many models of water fountains available, and some are quite beautiful and charming.

February is Adopt a Rescued Rabbit Month

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Ok, so February is nearly over. But as we approach Easter, this has been more on my mind. Easter and spring make people think that bringing home a fluffy little bunny is a good idea. Then they find out that pet rabbits are expensive, high-maintenance pets. And then the depressing Kijiji ads to rehome bunnies that the kids aren’t taking care of start popping up a month later. This also happens a month or so after Christmas for all animals.

When I first went to the SPCA a number of years ago to look for what ended up being Olaf, my super fluffy cat, I was amazed that the exotic animal room was wall-to-wall rabbits. They’ve restructured the space now (the last time I was there a few months ago, it seemed like rats and mice had taken over), but after caring for rabbit guests over the past year, I can understand why there would be a room full of them at the shelter.

Rabbits are adorable, and I think people might assume they are kind of like giant hamsters – inexpensive pocket pets that only live for 1-2 years and happily sit around in a little hutch like a stuffed animal until you cuddle them for a couple of minutes each day. In reality, pet rabbits have a lifespan similar to large breed dogs, roughly 8-12 years. Like dogs, they need annual check ups and vaccinations and are usually sterilized. Actually, owning a rabbit is just as if not more expensive and time-consuming as owning a cat, due to their dietary needs and upkeep needs and social demands.

They can be delicate. When I noticed a recent bunny guest hadn’t eaten or pooped in 8 hours (very unusual), I notified the client that if he didn’t do one or both of those things soon I’d be rushing him to the exotic veterinarian to check for a possible blockage. I gently massaged his abdomen for a while and fortunately, he went back to eating and pooping as usual; the client said something similar had happened a few months previously, too. If their fur isn’t properly groomed during shedding season, it can collect in their stomach resulting in death by starvation (they cannot cough up a hairball like a cat; it has to be surgically removed). If they have long fur, it might mat. Their nails need to be trimmed regularly. They might be tiny and fit in the palm of your hand at the pet shop, and then grow into a burly cat-sized beast once reaching adulthood. There will be hay and a healthy coating of fine rabbit fluff on all of your clothes and possessions. Daily fresh vegetables – as someone who doesn’t normally eat lots of leafy greens, my fridge gets overrun with kale, romaine lettuce, herbs, and other vegetables when I board rabbits. Lots of litter – while they can be litter box-trained, they constantly poop and pee, which needs to be scooped throughout the day. Chewable toys. Homes must be painstakingly rabbit-proofed to prevent injury to the animal and property damage.

One of the pet services I offer is boarding in my own home for small caged animals. By far, the  most destructive boarders have been the bunnies. Whenever I think of bunnies, my mind immediately replays the bunny rocker song from Buffy, the Vampire Slayer‘s musical episode, “Once More With Feeling”:

My beautiful bunny guests have happily and efficiently chewed through:

  • a hand vacuum cable,
  • a laptop charger cable (necessitating a rush order via Amazon),
  • two new shirts and new jeans (at different times, but with me in them),
  • books (one rabbit had a particular taste for Dorothy L. Sayers),
  • and gnawing on the edges of wooden doors.

All under my careful, watchful eye during out-of-cage play time. At every instance, I was either holding the rabbit or only 1-2 feet from the rabbit, supervising them like a mother hen. No harm came to the rabbits. It has been a great learning experience for me, and caused me to change my policy of “just hop wherever you want while I watch” to either “be a couch potato on the sofa with me (somehow they don’t seem inclined to jump off the couch, since we have hardwood floors)” or “hop around in the enclosed front area which is virtually rabbit-proof.” No more free access to delicious cables and wires. And when it feels like they might be snuggling into me, I nudge them a little just to make sure they aren’t making holes in my clothes at the same time. Because ::sigh:: this is why I can’t have nice things.

But these caveats aside, when owners go in knowing what to expect, rabbits do make very good pets. They are smart and trainable, affectionate and quiet (as long as they aren’t thumping their displeasure on the floorboards). They like routine. As they can use a litter box, some people choose to keep them cage-free, and let them roam freely in their homes like cats or dogs. They are soft and cuddly and have definite personalities. They’re vegan. But they are definitely a pet you want to research carefully first before committing to ownership, to ensure they are the right pet for you and that you are prepared for all of their needs and quirks and expenses.

Two of my favourite resources online:

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.