Thursday, January 26, 2012


The purpose of this post is not to edify, but simply to eulogize my best cat ever, Belle.

Belle was a surprise from my parents when I was eight. My mom loaded me up in the mini-van and told me we were going to go visit a friend who had just had a baby. We pulled up in front of an unfamiliar house and were greeted by an unfamiliar lady, but still I had no idea. The unfamiliar woman invited us into the living room and said "I'll go get the kittens." I remember thinking that "Kittens" was a weird nickname for a baby. Moments later, she reappeared, a kitten in each hand. My mom told her we wanted the girl, and she promptly handed me one of the little tabbies.

That evening my friend Serina came over to help with the naming process. I remember lots of scurrying back and forth from my room to the kitchen, throwing potential names past my mom for her opinion. Eventually Serina suggested Belle, and that was that.

After Serina went home, Lisa came over for a "show off my new kitten" kinda sleepover. Belle spent the night cutting us up with her tiny little teeth and claws. I was ecstatic.

In the 17 odd years we had together, Belle was the best friend/cat anyone could ever ask for. When we slept she either curled up by my head, across my neck, or was the little spoon to my big spoon. Awake, she'd sit with her paws around my neck kneading and purring.

When doing the dishes, she'd lay on the back of my shoulders or sit by the sink and supervise. She greeted me when I walked in the door and always came when I called. Eight other cats combined doesn't equal the amount of cuddle time I used to get from just Belle alone.

When I was sad, she'd be there with her purrs and kneads, doing whatever she could to make me feel better. She knew when I was bummed out and was a great listener. I don't think she left the couch more than I did the summer I got really sick or the summer I had knee surgery. As a kid I had a lot of nightmares, but with her in bed with me I was most certainly safe from witches and monsters and vampires. 

Grandma Dorothy always said she was an ugly cat, but I think Belle was as her name implied. As she got older her fur got a bit greasy looking and would bunch up, stegosaures-esque, down her spine causing my friend Jen to nickname her Spike. (If only I had known about grain free food back then!) Her greasiness got worse in the summer and I would sometimes shave her. She didn't even mind it, she'd just sit with her arms around my neck and purr the whole time.

She loved to lick dresser drawer knobs and plastic bags. One time she killed a pet parakeet of mine. Another time a wild bird got in our house and she caught it in the basement, then let me take it out of her mouth, unharmed. I used to sing a song to her to the tune of "Rubber Duckie". It went like this:

Bella Button, you're the one,
you make (insert whatever we were doing) lots of fun,
Bella Button, I'm awfully fond of you.

Belle passed away when I was 25. She got old, went blind and deaf, and eventually her kidneys stopped working. Making the decision to have her put to sleep was so incredibly hard, but she had gotten down to four pounds (never weighing much more than seven in the first place) and Jerod reported to me that while I was at work she never seemed as content as she did while I was home.

The last three days of her life we spent on the couch together, just cuddling. I just tried to make her as comfortable as possible and spend as much time with her as I could. Since her kidneys were failing her pee was mostly water, which was good, because her bladder control was pretty much shot. She wasn't really eating anymore, or moving much. We'd been making regular trips to the vet, and eventually it was time to make the last one. I'd been fervently hoping she'd die while we were laying on the couch together, in her own home, but my vet and I decided to euthanized her on 12/31/08. It was a really hard day.

Belle, we were perfect for each other. You were the best companion imaginable and I'm glad I got to be with you as long as I did.

Friday, January 20, 2012

How Grain Free Food Changed Our Lives

The best thing that ever happened to my cat family was when my lovely, little Lola started losing all her fur. I know that sounds bizarre, but bear with me, I'll explain.

We had just moved to Chicago, I hadn't found a vet I really liked (still haven't found one I adore for that matter, any recommendations?) and on top of that we were broke. Husband was still looking for a job and I was imagining a vet with dollar signs in their eyes, wanting to do expensive blood work and tests. Since it wasn't an emergency sort of situation, I curled up on my couch and started doing some internet research.

So many diseases can make your cat's hair fall out! So many nasty parasites! Nothing sounded right though, outside of losing her hair, Lola didn't have the symptoms of Eosinophilic Granuloma or Feline Endocrine Alopecia or any other obscure cat disease I read about. One thing was for sure though, she was itching like crazy and balding rapidly.

When I found the answer it wasn't by reading anything about cats. Instead I learned that in dogs, food allergies can cause hair loss. Well, guess what y'all, the same is true for cats.

We learn as little kids that cats are carnivores. Why is it then that pet foods are routinely made using grains as a primary ingredient? Corn, corn gluten meal, oats, barley, brewers rice, not to mention a dozen other unnecessary things, some of which are truly awful. Felines do not require grain in their diets. Grains are nothing but filler, just something to keep the price low for the pet food companies. They cause allergy problems and obesity, leading to even more health problems. 

The number one ingredient in Lola's daily fare? Corn. This is how I became obsessed with pet food.

Within the same week of my revelation, I met a girl named Anna at a neighbor's grill out. Anna works at Soggy Paws*, a local pet store that sells grain free pet foods amongst other things. She was more than happy to have a passionate discussion with me about what I had recently learned and was super excited to come over and meet my cat family. The next day I went to Soggy Paws, where they hooked me up with samples and talked my ear off. 

So there I was, armed with new knowledge and a bag full of cat food, excited to see if all these supposed benefits were going to pan out. Being the giant nerd that I am, I set up a spreadsheet. In it, I listed each cat, any current or reoccurring issues said cat had, their current weight, and what food they were being fed. (When switching a cats food, most people say to do so gradually, over the course of a few weeks. I've heard different opinions, and don't really think it matters a whole lot, but I followed the gradual rule when I switched them on this. Expect some softer poop, or even diarrhea, any way you do it.) Then I followed up weekly, then biweekly, for nine weeks, reweighing and observing.

I opened up that spreadsheet for the first time in a long time to write this post. The first thing that jumped out at me from the "issues" category was our excessive hairball problems. Daily hairballs, sometimes multiple ones a day! Sly was by far the worst. He had a terrible hack, like a little kitty smoker's cough, that produced a hairball about every third time. The vet had given me a hairball paste and told me if there wasn't improvement we might have to x-ray for blockages. The hairball paste wasn't making an impact at all. By week two of switching to grain free, Sly wasn't hacking anymore and overall hairballs for the household were down to a once or twice a week thing. It was amazing. 

A few of my cats were fatties. Sly comes to mind, he likes to fetch, but had gotten so heavy that he'd be breathing hard by the second toss. During the switch, most of my cats gained a bit of weight at first. This was due to the simple fact that I was feeding them too much. Once I got their portions under control (and an appropriate portion for a cat is much smaller than what most people think), the lack of pointless grain fillers in their food helped my chunky cats to lose weight (with the exception of Boo, my rotund little pumpkin cat, in which there was no change.) In my slender cats, weight change was minimal. WARNING! If your cat qualifies as obese, then you need to be extremely careful while helping your cat lose weight. Losing weight too quickly can further strain their internal organs causing horrible things to happen or even killing them. Please don't try to help your obese cat lose weight without help. In the future, I'm going to write more about this. You can email me if you want to talk about you fat cat sooner ( I know I should recommend that you talk to your vet, so go talk to your vet, but they are probably going to suggest a low calorie cat food laden with grains, and obviously, I'm against that.

Here's one of those charts to help you assess your cat's weight.
Chart via
An unexpected benefit was that every one's fur got sooooooo much softer. Within the first week I noticed it in Harry's fur. After two weeks half my cat population was noticeably softer. The softness came with a small price - shedding. I've never seen so much shedding! Then, as they continued to get softer and softer, the shedding slowed, and now they shed less than ever. After about two months eating grain free food, Lola's fur was looking particularly nice. It was growing back in, softer than ever, and she was no longer licking and chewing constantly.

Grain free foods my cats really like include (canned/wet) Wellness, Dave's, and BFF (although BFF is primarily fish based, so don't use it as your cats main protein source) and (dry) Taste of the Wild. Honestly, the only reason I feed dry food at all is because it's economical. Wet food is really the way to go. It adds to all the benefits of feeding grain free and even better, it's a great way for your cat to get enough water. Raw feeding is another option, but that's for another day. I feed my cats dry food in the morning and wet food in the evening.

Overall, after switching to grain free, the cats have had fewer hairballs, the overweight problem came more under control, they got softer and prettier, started shedding less, have smaller and less frequent poops, and we haven't had any UTI's (Lola and Harry have both had serious problems with that when on dry and grain filled diets). One of my very favorite things about switching to grain free is that when I bring Lola her evening meal she trills an adorable little song while gobbling it down. It's so precious.  

Look at the label on your bag of cat food. Unless you are already intentionally buying grain free food, chances are it's full of a bunch of crap that your cat doesn't need. Websites for grain free foods usually have some sort of "where to buy" button. Click on it, go get some, your cat will be so happy.

*Soggy Paws did not compensate me in any way for the name drop or praise. Let me tell you though, they are an A+ store, and after working in retail for ten years, I have some pretty high standards for retail establishments. If you live in Chicago (or in Omaha, NE, they just opened a store there!), check them out. (Maybe even tell them you read about them here!)

Friday, January 13, 2012

Protect the Hearts of Your Children! Keep the Litter Boxes Clean.

I’m going to start off here with something near and dear to my heart. That is… the litter box.

Me; holding Bootsie, and my little bro; holding Fluffy.

As a little, little girl (we’re talking about three here) I got a cat named Bootsie. When I was five, my parents decided that Bootsie would no longer be a member of our household. Even now, approximately 23 years later, thinking about my goodbye to her brings tears to my eyes.

Imagine me, a tiny girl with big ol’ dimples, hugging her cat while lying in her brother’s race car bed, sobbing and explaining to her that she had to go to the Humane Society because she was a bad cat and begging her to behave better at her new house, assuming she got one.

That day was my first step down the road to Crazy Cat Lady-dom. (Also, it was primer for later adolescent rage at my father, but that’s beside the point.)
Why did my parents decide to give Bootsie the boot, you ask? Well, mostly because she peed, daily, on my dad’s work clothes. My dad got sick of smelling like piss, and since she was a “bad cat” for not using the litter box, that was the end of it, on to the next one.  

Cat peeing all over your house? Would you like some help with that? Chances are, the first thing that needs to change is your own behavior.*

Litter Box Etiquette 
(try to think of it from your cat’s point of view)

Minimum, you should be cleaning your litter boxes once daily. If you think the box stinks, your cat most definitely does, seeing as how it can smell better than you. If there’s poop smeared down the sides and they have to dig through stinky, wet litter to do their business (wet litter which, mind you, they then have to lick out of their paws), well, that pile of clothes just gets more inviting.  

          Make it part of your routine. I clean mine right before I feed my crew their evening meal. Even with eight cats, done daily, it takes less than five minutes. When I had my crazy retail schedule, I cleaned them right before bed.

Another added benefit of daily cleanings is that you look at their waste everyday. I know that doesn't seem like a benefit, but it means you will notice any changes or abnormalities right away.
First, start with a clean, dry, empty litter box. Then get some clumping cat litter. Fill the box deep enough that pee and poo piles won’t touch the bottom. Next, scoop daily. If a clump is stuck to the side or bottom, pick up the box and tap it forcefully against the ground to dislodge it without breaking it with your scoop. Keep clumping litter on hand to top off the litter when it gets too low. Keep your scoop and the sides of the box clean. The chore of cleaning boxes gets way less nasty and time consuming like this. I promise. Keep in mind that filthy litter boxes are more likely to spread toxoplasmosis ( and nobody wants that!

Keep food and water away from the litter boxes, in another room preferably. Nobody likes eating food while their nostrils are filled with the scent of their own waste.

Make sure your cat feels safe while using the litter box. Something as simple as your washing machine being loud or another cat harassing them can send them running to their favorite not-deemed-appropriate-by-people potty spot. Situate your litter boxes so nothing (your other cat, your dog, your child, whatever it may be) makes kitty feel cornered. Always give them an out. 

Golden Rule for multi-cat households; have as many litter boxes as you do cats, plus one. (Example: 3 cats, 4 litter boxes) Spread your litter boxes out in your household, otherwise you may be putting every box you have in one cat’s territory.

The goal is to make the litter box a lovely and inviting place for your cat. You may like that covered litter box because it keeps the smell in, but that’s exactly why your cat hates it. Keep things simple, clean, and unscented. Finally, remember that if you give your cat an option that it views as better, it will go there, so buy a hamper with a lid and pick up the stuff on the floor!

*Health issues, such as UTI’s, can cause litter box aversion problems, make sure your cats have a clean bill of health.