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.

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.

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.

Hamster leashes – just say no!

I’ve had a nasty sinus/lung infection, but after a course of antibiotics and four weeks into it, I think I’m finally getting over it. But life goes on! And, in order to totally brag about my work ethic, it takes more than an infection to keep me from meeting my pet sitting obligations.


As I visit pet shops to network and shop, I’ve been absolutely horrified to see hamster leashes being sold at a number of them. I cannot stress enough how wrong I feel this product is, and how, as a life-long hamster parent, I will never ever use one. Ever.

I encourage anyone interested in buying one of these things to watch youtube videos of people taking their hamsters for a walk with one. In every one, the poor hamster is tightly tied into the harness/collar, often looking like its innards are squished on either side of the loop around its middle. It’s not like you can put a little dog collar on one of these little guys. The hamster is dragged along the ground, or yanked around. The hamster never appears to be enjoying the walk on the leash. They aren’t walking in a straight line, or trying to get some exercise or goofing around. In every video, they look like they are trying to escape, or aren’t interested in walking, and the people – usually teens – laugh and look like they are enjoying the hamster’s struggles and discomfiture. To me, a hamster leash is a torture device and trying to walk a hamster on a leash is akin to animal abuse.  Hamsters enjoy running on wheels, but in no way should that be seen as parallel to a dog’s need to be walked outside or a high-energy cat’s need to be exercised.

If you want to play with your hamster, there are many other fun things to do beside dragging them around on a string. The cutest activity I’ve seen so far have been hamster agility courses. First you have to make one, then you take a few days to train the hamster to run it. How do you train a hamster to run an agility course? You dangle a treat in front of them to lead them through each hurdle. Eventually, the hamster will remember what to do, and you can gradually switch to rewarding them only at the end.

But if you don’t have the patience and skill to build a dog agility course down to a hamster’s scale, never fear. Some people enjoy “free ranging” their hamsters on the floor. Instead of a plastic ball, which is the classic hamster exercise choice when out of the cage, block off an area so they can’t get into trouble (or stepped upon) and let them run around free for a little while. Make sure they can’t run under or behind the sofa where you can’t easily retrieve them, or fall down the stairs. I like doing this myself, but always make sure that my cats are put into another room first and my toddler is not around. I never leave the hamster unattended. I’ve heard of some people who free range their hamsters 24/7 without keeping them in a cage, but I’d imagine you’d need tile floors and mops in every room for that sort of lifestyle. It sounds pretty cool, though.

And of course, the hamster ball. The benefits of the ball are that you don’t have to watch the hamster like a hawk while they are in one, but the downside is that they can still get into trouble in one. Hamster parents sometimes forget their hamsters are in the ball, and find them hours later, sleeping in their own pee and poop. Some hamsters aren’t as good at running in the ball as others, and end up spinning around a lot, or have trouble navigating around furniture. The ball doesn’t work very well on plus carpeting. People and other pets can accidentally trip over the ball, resulting in mutual injury and unhappiness. The ball needs to be cleaned and they get scratched up. But don’t get me wrong – it’s a classic for a reason, and I’ve always kept one for my hamsters.

But please, please do not try to walk your hamster on a leash.

Be prepared for your pet sitter

The client is responsible for providing all necessary cat and cleaning supplies. It is awkward for me as a pet sitter to be unable to tidy up cat messes if the client runs out of paper towels or garbage bags. Or if they run out of cat food. Or if I need to use the bathroom and find there’s no toilet paper. All of these scenarios have happened to me.

Before leaving, please make sure there is a generous supply of the following:

  1. Payment.
  2. Paper towels!! *
  3. Medication and all medical supplies.
  4. Cat food.
  5. Kitty litter.
  6. Garbage bags and poop bags.
  7. Toilet paper.

*If washable rags/towels are preferred, kindly have a generous stack of them available, as well as a washing machine or laundry bag they can be placed into once used. I cannot describe the horror of having nothing but toilet paper and one reusable cloth to clean up vomit or litter box accidents.

*I am happy to provide missing items with a $25 concierge fee plus the cost of the items. I cannot guarantee the store I visit, the cost of the items, or the brands or quantities purchased. I normally get Bounty paper towels, Charmin toilet paper, and Glad Force-Flex tall trash bags. Kitty litter and cat food will be your usual brands/types to avoid stress to the cat.