In Praise of the Microchip

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Saffron, 18, the cat who came back

The New York Times blog “Well,” reports the improbable journey of a lost cat named Holly from Daytona Beach – where she ran away from her owner’s RV – back to her old neighborhood in West Palm Beach. She traveled 200 miles in two months.

Holly was found about a mile from her home, weak, emaciated, and with bleeding paws, rescued, and ultimately returned to her owners.

Holly and her owners recognized one another immediately, but confirmation was provided because Holly had an implanted microchip to identify her.

Given the wear on her paw pads and claws, animal behaviorists believe Holly walked the entire way home.

“I really believe these stories, but they’re just hard to explain,” said a behavioral ecologist at the University of Colorado who was interviewed by the New York Times. “Maybe being street-smart, maybe reading animal cues, maybe being able to read cars, maybe being a good hunter. I have no data for this,” he added.

My 18-year-old cat Saffron was found three miles from home. But instead of two months, he was gone for six years. If he had not been found by a Good Samaritan and taken to her vet who scanned for a microchip, he would never have been returned to me. Many pet owners now microchip their furry friends, but thankfully few ever have to test the usefulness of the practice.

Our story is proof that microchips work. Before I moved from Walnut Creek to Oakland, I had microchips implanted in both my cats. It’s a simple, inexpensive procedure. Now that Saffron is home again, I’m glad I did. Too bad I didn’t have a video camera on his collar. The Times also reports on studies done using Kitty Cams to follow roving cats.

“New research by the National Geographic and University of Georgia’s Kitty Cams Project, using video footage from 55 pet cats wearing video cameras on their collars, suggests cat behavior is exceedingly complex,” reports The Times.

Apparently some cats routinely two-time their owners, seeking food and affection elsewhere. In fact, that may have been how Saffron’s adventure began when he was a lean and mean 12-year-old.

If only he could talk. Whatever happened to him, he shows signs of wear and tear – the skin on his paw pads is almost entirely worn away, he limps, and despite regular doses of immune boosting supplements, has a constant eye infection.

But his coat is now glossy, he’s gaining weight, and his thyroid condition is under control. Most important, he is loved and cared for – and harassed every day by the ever-playful Odie, my other orange tabby. It’s a far better life.

How and why cats come back remains a mystery.

“We haven’t the slightest idea how they do this,” one scientist quoted by the Times said. “Anybody who says they do is lying, and, if you find it, please God, tell me what it is.”

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True Love

A basic litter box and a bag of litter

A basic litter box and a bag of litter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Scott Peck says in The Road Less Traveled that love is not a feeling. It’s an action. I show my love for the cats by the things I do each day, like cleaning the freakin’ litter boxes.

Every morning, two littler boxes, very fragrant. Made pristine before I leave for the office. Every evening, two litter boxes appearing to have never been cleaned. If this is love, could I have a little less of it?

Now that plastic bags are banned from Safeway and CVS, I beg friends to save theirs for me.  I’ve been reduced to scrounging for outlawed plastic bags as the only safe alternative for disposing of the mountain of cat waste produced by two indoor cats every 24 hours, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

Now you may say, “But, Eleanor think of those countless parents out there changing diapers.” To which I say, shit happens. I raised two kids, and I’m doing my grandmotherly bit now. I’ve dealt with poop in every form. Let me tell you, there is nothing quite like cat poop. The pee is possibly worse.

Saffron has a large bladder Dr. Bynum informed me at one of his exams. She palpated his belly while peering at me over the rims of her glasses. I thought to myself, “If you only knew.”

Saffie is one of the pee-ing-est cats ever. Big, sticky globs right down the side of the box. I kneel there tossing litter bits with the pooper scooper at these fetid clumps to make them hard enough to scoop. This is true love, people.

As I leave the room  in the morning with my daily pound of poop, Odie runs in and jumps into the clean litter box. It’s not even his. He has his own box in the bathroom closet – one of those extra deep ones with the massive top the size of a small Volkswagen Beetle that supposedly keep the odors in check and the litter inside. Marketing genius. Most of the time Odie uses his giant box, but sometimes he just can’t resist using Saffron’s.

a cat and a Litter box

a cat and a Litter box (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And so I kneel down and scoop the poop.

I dispose of the tightly tied plastic bags in a second, larger plastic bag that lines my kitchen wastebasket. By the time it’s full after a few days, I stagger under its weight, risking my life as I wobble down the stairs, bag clutched in both arms, to get it from the second floor to the garbage can.

This may not be exactly what Scott Peck had in mind, but I know exactly what he meant. It’s easy to love my boys when I’m petting them and whispering sweet nothings into their upturned kitty faces. But it’s the daily grind of those litter boxes that really puts my love to the test.

Saffron & Lucia II

My old cat with my 3-year old granddaughter – she loves him. Surprisingly, he seems to be fond of her too. Whereas Odie runs away from LuciaI, Saffron hangs out with Lucia and lets her hug him.

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Saffron & Lucia

Saffron & Lucia

More Medication, Please!

Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched in the 1975 film.

Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched in the 1975 film. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”  Nurse Ratched arranges neat little paper cups of psychoactive drugs on a tray. The multicolored meds look like candy at a kid’s party. She won’t rest until every one of her patients is drugged to the gills. Sappy elevator music plays over loudspeakers to herald the arrival of oblivion. But Nurse Ratched never attempted to medicate a cat!

The scene here at my home is not unlike that loony bin, although I play George Winston-style piano solos on my Pandora. For perkier fare, I select the Keith Jarrett station if everyone is calm enough to handle Mr. Jarrett’s fortissimo accompanied by heaving moans. No mind numbing treacle for my cats or me!

Every morning at 8 AM, it’s time for Saffron’s medication. The medication, called Methimazole, is so potent that there’s a warning “Use Gloves When Handling” in big letters on the label. I don a pair of blue and yellow rubber gloves and crank up the calming music.

The moment I open the office door, Saffron crawls to the farthest corner beneath the desk.

But like Nurse Ratched, I’ve developed stratagems. I take in the supplies and set them on a little bench, almost as if they were an afterthought. Then I sit down on the floor and call gaily, “How about some pets?”

Or, “C’mon, Saffie, come and get some love.” Most of the time, he goes for it.

Saffron hobbles out from under the desk and comes to be petted, rubbing his head against my arm, purring loudly. His coat is glossy and soft now, not rough and filthy as when he first came back. I purchased a purple grooming glove and once he’s had his head scratches, I put on the glove and give his coat a thorough brushing.

He’s so blissed out by the petting that I can often administer the medication before he hobbles back under my desk. Lately, though, he’s gotten wise to my tricks and once the purple petting glove comes off and I begin to transition to the blue rubber gloves, he hightails it back into hiding.

Nurse Ratched stratagems exhausted, I crawl on hands and knees under the desk, pleading with him to take pity on me.

“C’mon buddy, time for your meds,” I say, even though I know that attempting to reason with a cat is fruitless or possibly insane.

He backs into the farthest corner, forcing me to crawl in after him, tilt his head back, and administer the Methimazole. The stuff costs $50 bucks a bottle! And he has to take it for the rest of his life.

But when I see how much better he looks, and pet his soft coat, and listen to the rumble of his purr, I think it’s a small investment for kitty love and well-being.

The majestic old cat, Saffron

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Kitty Coexistence

The first order of business after I roll out of bed in the morning is to brew a pot of strong green tea. The very next thing: feed the cats.

As I peel the lid off a can of Friskies, Odie rubs my ankles then jumps from floor to counter in one effortless leap. Apparently, he needs to ensure I’m apportioning the food fairly.

Orange Cat

Orange Cat (Photo credit: gamillos)

“Not for kitties,” I say, meaning my sparkling black granite countertop, and set him back down on the floor.

I don’t have that issue with Saffron – he can barely walk, let alone leap. And, he’s shut up in the office like a crotchety old grandpa in the attic. This is for his own protection, and by his own choice I must add, lest you think I am keeping him prisoner.

Once Odie’s been fed in the kitchen, I carry the can of food into Saffron. He sits six inches from the door looking at me adoringly. It’s mainly the food, of course, but Saffie has an uncanny knack for purring loudly the moment I enter the  room. It’s heartwarming.

“Good morning, handsome boy,” I say. “Here’s your breakfast.”

He limps over to his dish and hovers at my feet, gobbling the food like a homeless man at a soup kitchen – ravenous.

When I open the door to return to the kitchen, Odie dashes past me into the office. Oh, oh! In the weeks they’ve been together, these two have done little but snarl at each other. I hold my breath.

To my surprise, Odie approaches Saffron respectfully and the two touch noses. For several minutes they stand nose to nose sniffing each other. Saffron quickly loses interest and hobbles off. Undeterred by the snub, Odie follows.

Regal and disinterested, Saffie sits like a British gentleman looking down his nose over his newspaper at one of the younger, friskier club members.

“You boys be nice,” I say.

Low, threatening growls emanate from Saffron. Odie refuses to take the hint and playfully jumps at Saffie who unsheathes his claws and swipes at Odie.

A real cat fight!  Scooping Odie up in my arms, with a cat food can in the other hand, I gingerly open the office door and shut it firmly behind us.

“He doesn’t want to play with you,” I say.

But that seems too cold, so I try to distract Odie by throwing a toy mouse into the center of the living room. He bats at the mouse, tossing it in the air.

I return to the office and try explaining to Saffron that Odie is just a kitten. “He only wants to play,” I say.

I kneel down and begin petting my old guy, telling him how handsome and smart he is. I just wish he would be more patient with Odie. He blinks his yellow eyes at me but makes no commitments about his future behavior.

It doesn’t look like these guys will be friends any time soon. For now, the office door is our Maginot line, at least until such time as peace breaks out.

Money, Honey

Odie

Odie (Photo credit: kmaraj)

Have I mentioned how expensive my cats are?

“I’m putting two cats through college,” I tell friends, when I explain why I can’t afford to go out to dinner. They nod sympathetically, but really as anyone who watches You Tube knows, Maru, the Japanese wonder cat has to work for a living.

Saffron and Odie just lie around looking adorable. Well, Odie looks adorable. Saffron looks melancholy and dignified, as befits his advanced age.

One friend has suggested I start a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for their care.

One of my neighbors, God love him, routinely shows up with cans of food. Josef is a softhearted Hungarian who is in love with a dog named Margie that he takes care of at the local animal shelter.

Every few days I’ll come home to find some new obscure brand of cat food in a neat stack outside my door. Or, Josef will call and ask to come over. The moment he comes through the front door he croons, “Here, baby.” Not to me – to the cats.

He scratches Odie’s ears and rubs his tummy. If he can coax Saffron out from under the desk, he’ll pat his head and whisper sweet nothings. And he’ll put more cans of food into my outstretched hands.

The litter, alone, has jacked up my grocery bills. Not to mention more toys for Odie to assuage my guilt over disrupting his happy little conflict-free paradise, and keeping both boys in Greenies and dry food. Thank goodness they drink tap water!

Seriously, I had two huge vet bills on my October MasterCard statement. I’m working to support Odie and Saffie now. Retirement? Ha! We’re living on kitty love over here, and the charity of neighbors and friends.

But in the spirit of our impending Thanksgiving celebration, let me say how grateful I am for Odie and Saffron. Watching Saffron improve with the medication he’s taking and flourish with the love he’s getting is deeply satisfying. And Odie keeps me laughing with his antics. He is sitting beside me now purring. My boys are good companions and I’m thankful.

Vet Visit

I am one of the most over insured people on the planet, believing that if something can go wrong, it will. So after I got Saffron settled in my home office, I called the 800 number for Veterinary Pet Insurance. VPI had previously insured my cats with policies I canceled after Saffie ran away and Oliver died.

“Something unbelievable has happened,” I told the service representative.

“Wow,” she said, when I explained the situation, “That is unbelievable.”

She cheerfully signed him up again, with a long list of exclusions for preexisting conditions. I added the preventive care rider, figuring at least his vaccines and annual checkups would be covered.

Then I called my vet to make an appointment for both cats. Monday morning I brought out the two cat carriers, sprinkled them liberally with Greenies, and left them open for the cats to explore while I was at work.

That evening, I loaded both boys into their separate carriers and lugged them to the car. Perhaps the shared trauma of a vet visit might bring them closer.

It was mayhem at the vet’s when we checked in. Barking dogs. Snarling cats. Runaway rabbits. Saffron and Odie peered from the bars of their respective carriers with eyes reflecting their different life stages and personalities.

Odie was wide-eyed, taking in everything, seemingly eager to join in the fun. Saffron, older and more jaded, narrowed his pupils to pinpoints, his steely gaze warning off fellow creatures, be they feline, canine, or human. When a yippy dog peed on the floor two feet from my boys, Saffron gave a dismissive sniff. Odie, for the briefest of moments, appeared to break into a grin.

At last, the tech called us into an exam room. Festooned with tattoos on both arms and wooden discs the size of quarters in his ears, he lifted Saffron gingerly from the carrier. I set Odie’s carrier down on a nearby bench and turned my attention to the prodigal son. The tech set him on the scale. He weighed in just over seven pounds – less than the average newborn baby. After taking Saffron’s temperature, the tech said Dr. Bynum would be in shortly.

I stroked his head as he sat patiently on the cold metal table. I could feel each knob of his spine through his coat.

When Dr. Bynum came in, I told her our amazing tale.

Unbelievable,” she said. “I’ve heard of cats coming back after a year. But six years? Unheard of. You could do an ad for the pet retrieval service.”

“I could,” I agreed, quickly switching gears. “Can you give him a bath?”

She shook her head. She was already listening to his heart with her stethoscope and palpating his various organs through his filthy coat.

“In his condition, a bath could kill him,” she said. “But we can clean his ears and give him a nail trim.”

The last thing I wanted to do was kill him. He had no life insurance, and, heck, I just got him back. I agreed to the grooming services instead.

She stroked Saffron’s head, still examining him, and crooned, “What a handsome boy.”

I love Dr. Bynum. She called Oliver handsome the night she put him down. The memory of my beloved Oliver sitting up ramrod straight and unafraid – so frail he could no longer stand – almost made me shed a tear.

Dr. Bynum put her stethoscope in her pocket. “He’s a lucky boy,” she said. “He came home in the nick of time.”

She explained that Saffron’s heart rate was elevated and that he had hyperthyroidism which, if left untreated, would cause his heart to fail. It explained why he was gobbling food and drinking vast quantities of water – and pooping and peeing in equal quantities. I could barely keep up with the litter box despite twice daily cleanings.

She recommended putting him on oral medication and returning in two weeks for another series of blood tests. Ka-ching, ka-ching. He would need to take the medication for the rest of his life, she said.

She sent Saffie off with the tech for his nail trim and ear cleaning and turned her attention to Odie. This was his first vet visit and he was none too pleased with having a thermometer jammed into his butt. But she stroked his head and told him he was a handsome boy too. He fell for her charms and settled down for his exam.

At last, the tech returned with Saffron and I loaded both cats back into their carriers. When I went to the counter to pay the bill, the cashier looked at me sympathetically.

The bill was more than my last Macy’s statement. I could have purchased a fetching little black dress and a nice pair of shoes for what I was spending on my cats.

I handed over my credit card with an imperceptible sigh. Oh well. Possibly with Dr. Bynum’s help I could nurse Saffron back to health. Odie was the picture of a healthy roly-poly orange tabby and wouldn’t need to come back for another year.

I trundled off to the car with my boys. Once home, they hissed at each other and then went to their separate quarters. So much for my theory of traumatic bonding. We had survived our first vet visit but the great standoff continued.

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Introductions

Orange Cat

Orange Cat (Photo credit: DannonL)

Saffron let out a plaintiff meow after I parked the car, so I poked a finger through the carrier door to give him a little scratch.

“It’s OK, baby,” I crooned in my best cat mommy voice.

Little did he realize that he was about to meet Odie, a supercharged orange tabby a fraction of his age. I just hoped I could somehow finesse this introduction.

I lifted the carrier from the passenger seat, and was again shocked by how little my old cat weighed. Saffie was so skinny that I could have lifted the carrier with two fingers. I carried him upstairs in the carrier to my apartment with ease.

I unlocked the front door. The moment I set the carrier on my living room carpet, Odie came bounding over. I gingerly opened the door to the cat carrier. Saffron did not move. He sat and surveyed his new surroundings, content to stay in the safety of the carrier.

“It’s OK Saffie,” I crooned.

Odie sniffed the sides of the carrier. At the scent of a new cat, he immediately began to growl.

“Hey,” I said, “Saffie’s a friend. Cut that out!”

Odie sat down and flattened his ears, growling loudly. I patted Saffron’s head and tried to explain that Odie was a kitten and not wise in the ways of the feline world. Saffron turned to look at Odie but appeared unconcerned. Nonetheless, he would not budge from the carrier.

After several minutes of this standoff, I shut the carrier door and took Saffron into my office and closed the door behind us. I set down the carrier and opened the door. There he sat like a Sphinx, regal and unmoving.

“It’s OK,” I said. “This is your home now.”

He blinked and stayed put.

I went in search of a temporary litter box, and settled on the plastic tub I used for mopping the kitchen floor. I filled it with several inches of litter. Then I opened a new can of food and scooped some onto a plate. I filled a stainless steel bowl with water. When I carried these things back to the office, Saffron had left the safety of the carrier and was exploring his surroundings.

Progress! Odie, however, was pacing outside the office door, watching intently each time I went in or came out. Getting these two used to each other was going to be a challenge. I set the food down on the floor and Saffron began to gobble it up, a purr raging deep in his belly. I stroked his head.

Then I immediately went and washed my hands in scalding water. I feared fleas if not feline leukemia. I planned to get the first vet appointment I could.

Odie and I cuddled on the living room couch while I tried to explain the situation to him, babbling on about Oliver and Saffron, and how they had been such great friends back in the day. Odie blinked his yellow eyes at me and rolled over for a belly scratch. I figured he’d be fine as long as he got his fair share of love and food, but I somehow had to stop him from growling at or fighting with Saffron.

Later that afternoon, I downloaded tips for introducing a new cat into the household from the Humane Society website. The website recommended keeping the two pets apart at first, so my instinct to separate them had been right on. Preventing overt hostility or an outright attack was essential. One of the pointers recommended feeding the two animals on either side of a closed door. That way, they would associate the scent of the strange cat with the pleasure of eating their food. Genius!

I immediately placed Saffie’s food bowel on sheet of newspaper just inside the office, and put Odie’s dish right outside the closed door. Odie is a fool for Greenies, so I sprinkled the crunchy little fish-shaped treats around liberally.

For the next several hours I divided my time between the two cats. At one of my visits with Saffron, I combed his fur and immediately spied the telltale black bodies of live fleas on the comb.

“Icckkkk,” I said, heading for the closet where I kept flea medication. I gave him another helping of food, and as he purred and ate, proceeded to douse the back of his neck with a tube of Advantage.

Saffron’s transition back to house cat status had begun. Now, if I could just keep up the shuttle diplomacy until Odie and Saffie learned to tolerate each other!

That night, I fell into bed still amazed that Saffron was back. As a peace offering, I let Odie sleep with me, a rare treat. As we settled in, he cuddled under my arm.

Good boy,” I said. “I know it’s a shock for you, but now you have a brother!”

They did look enough alike to be related, but clearly the age difference made that impossible.

Odie gave a little purr and I took that as a signal that all would be well.

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