29 November, 2010

The Very, Very Last Plant of 2010. I Mean It This Time.

It's nearly December, and I'm still puttering in the garden. I went to Home Depot yesterday to get lawn bags, as the last leaf pickup is this week. I swear, that's all I intended to get. The garden center is filled with Christmas trees and holiday greenery, but in one sad little corner was a pile of shrubs at super markdown prices. And for two dollars, I picked up an Amethyst coral berry.

It has white flowers at midsummer, and pretty hot pink fruit in late summer.

At least the ground's not frozen yet, and I was able to get it planted. But that's it, I promise. No more plant purchases for the year. I even disconnected the garden hoses today, too, to prove it.

Introducing Sebastian Blue, Our New Maine Coon

We brought our new cat home on Saturday. He's a 16-month-old Maine Coon we've named Sebastian Blue. (And if anyone out there notices that our cats' names are now Bella and Sebastian, it was not inspired by indie Scottish band Belle and Sebastian, although we do like their music). He does remind me some of his brother, Seamus, but his face looks more feral. I hope to get a good picture of him this week.

I forgot how stressful it is (for me) to introduce a new critter into the house. I worry about the fact that he's been hiding for most of the last two days, has barely eaten, and seems really scared. Even though these are all normal symptoms for a cat in transition, I worry that he'll always be nervous.

We've set up the bedroom off the kitchen and the kitchen itself as "his" area, and put up a fence to keep Bella and the dog out. Sebastian spent most of Saturday under the bed, but sometime Saturday during the night decided to do a bit of exploring. We found him under the ice box in the morning. He didn't want us to scritch or pet him, it made him really nervous, so we pretty much left him there on Sunday, although I did set up the laptop in the bedroom and read to him out loud from the book I was reading so he could get used to my voice.

Sebastian under the ice box.

Later on Sunday he was back under the bed, still wanting to be left alone, although he did poke his head into the kitchen at one point when he heard Bella chirping. However, he was a little surprised to also see Maggie, his first dog, on the other side of the fence.

Sebastian sees Maggie for the first time.

Maggie and Bella, for their part, have not been happy with being left out.

Bella and Maggie look at me with disapproval.

Bella eventually said the heck with this fence nonsense, and came to see what the fuss was about. She jumped to the top of the refrigerator so she could watch Sebastian, who was in the doorway to the bedroom. The cats have been curious about each other, but aside from a little bit of growling in the first few minutes, have just been staring at each other. Last night, they had a fifteen-minute staring contest. I'm not sure who won.

Bella is up and over the fence in no time.

Bella, watching from the top of the fridge, wonders who the new stranger is.
Sebastian eventually went to the top of the refrigerator himself after having seen Bella do it, and from there, somehow managed to cram himself into the narrow space about the cabinet. At this point, I think he became overwhelmed, because we were all in there cooking dinner and Bella was hanging out. From what we can tell, he didn't come down at all during the night and didn't want us to go up there.

Sebastian hunkering down so we won't see him hiding on the cabinet.

I was pretty much worried about him all day today, and had placed his food and water dishes up there with him. Still, he hasn't wanted to eat, and I don't want him getting dehydrated. So I went to PetSmart and picked up some Catsip, which every cat I've had in recent years just loves. I also got a tube of GNC Ultra Mega Relax for Cats, which has chamomile and other relaxing herbs in it. I asked the store vet about it, and was told chamomile will work to calm some animals.

It is a gel; you squeeze out a strip up to an inch long and put it on the cat's paw. He'll lick it off. I figured if it didn't calm him, maybe it would at least stimulate his appetite. It tastes like chicken. Sort of.

I then left him alone for a while. When I checked 10 minutes later, it was still on his paw, but after half an hour I could tell he had eaten it. Fifteen minutes after that, I climbed up to the top of the refrigerator myself and sat down on it (we have high ceilings). This time, Sebastian let me reach up and scritch his ears and head, leaning into it. I did that for about 15 minutes, talking softly to him and stroking his head, and then went back to my computer where he could see me. Maybe the stuff does work to calm him. It only took him a few minutes after that to jump down and follow me into the bedroom.

So that's where we're at now. I've decided to cut his two rooms down to this one, until he's more comfortable with me and more confident overall. Perhaps the two rooms, with the view of the rest of the house, was too much for him. As I type this, he is slowly exploring the room, looking back at me to see what I'm up to. He keeps coming by for a finger sniff and a brief scritch, but it's all on his terms. If I approach him, he goes back under the bed, even if just for a minute, before he's off exploring again. He's sniffing at his food, so hopefully he'll eat soon.

I think I'll keep him in here another day or so at least, banning the others so he can chill; thank goodness I get to work from home, and can just drag the laptop around with me.

The stare down.

15 November, 2010

Early Start on the Spring Garden Plans, and Yes, We're Still Blooming in Chicagoland

Lest you think we're all Maine Coons, all the time around here, rest assured that we have been doing some work around the ol' Box House.

Last week we had some freakishly warm temperatures in Chicagoland and actually still have some things blooming--and green, yes, green! So I took on the challenge of extending the wraparound shrub border from the corner to our front walk. I had killed the grass using Roundup a while back, but didn't plan on doing any digging until March or so. But, since the weather has been sunny and springlike, and shrubs less than $5 at Home Depot, we planted up a storm. Here, I'm standing on the sidewalk that leads up to our door, looking toward the corner. Ninety-percent of what you're looking at went in this week. Some of it is perennial divided from other sections of the yard; most of it is new shrubs of the four-to-six-foot when full grown variety. What you don't see are the 100+ spring bulbs.
Let's hope the squirrels don't see them, either.

I've taken three steps closer to the public sidewalk for this pic. The dead grass at the sidewalk's edge will remain until next spring when I edge it properly. For now, it's to hold the dirt back over the course of the winter.

This picture was taken about halfway to the corner. Note the Weeping Norway Spruce at right -- my $5 Home Depot bargain. (It was originally $49.)

When full grown, it will only be 8-10 feet, and look something like this (I hope):

Looking back; there is an 8x10 foot unplanted section in the bulge. Next year, I'll plant my herb garden there and, hopefully, the neighborhood dogs won't pee on it.

View from the corner. What is hard to see unless you enlarge the pic is all the ground cover plants I added along the sidewalk; it's a mixture of ajuga, moss, and creeping myrtle meant to hold back the dirt and keep down the weeds.

In fact, it will look like this section that was planted in August. Enlarge this one and you'll see the creeping myrtle is blooming again, for the third time this year.

All in all, it's a delight to be able to actively garden in November! And because I have a few things growing, I can't believe I actually have a November submission for Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day.

12 November, 2010

New Family Member Coming Soon to the Box House

We miss our Seamus, a lot. I miss his kitten kisses and his soft, almost subaudible purr. We've lost pets in the past, but this one is hitting me particularly hard. I think it's because he was so young, and it was so unexpected.

Usually, we wait a while before beginning the search for another cat. We ended up waiting almost a year to the day after we lost Pascal before bringing Seamus and Bella home.

It's different, this time. In the past, we've only had one cat at a time. We now realize that they do better in twos. Our other animals, in their own way, have also been mourning the loss of Seamus. Bella looked for him for about a week, meowing into corners and dark rooms. It reminded me of when they were kittens, and came here for the first time. They spent a good few hours calling out, no doubt looking for their mother and siblings. Maggie, our dog, moped. And when Bella coughed on a hairball, Maggie raced over, poked her, and started crying. I'd never seen her do that before.

They're doing better, now, and the critters have settled into a new routine, but I miss the kitten wars. I realize that I really, really like have multiple cats around.

And so we are getting another cat. 

We decided to go back to the same couple where we got Seamus and Bella. They breed Maine Coons and Norwegian Forest Cats exclusively. I know a lot of people have problems with breeders, when you consider how many cats are in shelters. And seriously, when most people hear about breeders, they picture the ones on the news, where they keep animals in appalling conditions and breed them until they drop. But you should see the place where these cats live. The entire house is, and I'm not exaggerating here, bigger than the Box House. There's even a second house. There are maybe sixty cats on the premises, including the kittens, spread out over three levels. And the smell? Nothing. We have one litter box, and it doesn't smell this clean. They only do a couple of litters a year.

Also, I like the philosophy of what they're doing. Maine Coons, like Norwegian Forest Cats, like Manx Cats and Siberians, are an aboriginal breed. They developed naturally, without assistance. The theory is that Maine Coonsare descended from local short-haired domestic cats and long-haired cats brought over by English seafarers and Vikings. Over the centuries, they grew into a distinct profile. They are big--up to 25 pounds, muscular, with large feet and thick fur, perfectly suited for the harsh northeast winters. This couple has undertaken the task of helping to perpetuate the species.

Maine Coons are simply the most awesome cats I've ever encountered. They're large, curious, funny, extremely smart, and friendly. In fact, even when Seamus was so sick at the vet and then the animal hospital, he still greeted everyone with nose-to-nose kisses.

We've decided to adopt someone closer to Bella's age (she's two) instead of a kitten, and went to the cattery with a few specific goals in mind. We hoped to find a male between one and two years old, and not blue. (I know Seamus and Bella are technically gray, but the color is termed "blue.") I specifically didn't want a cat that was the same color as Seamus. We knew there were several male cats available at the cattery, and there were three in particular that I wanted to meet. None of them were blue.

We ended up spending nearly two hours playing with cats on the various levels. The three we went to see were each awesome critters, but all the cats were fun. Here's Ted playing with one group. The pictures are terrible, because I didn't want to use the flash.

But despite my intentions, the one that really got to us was blue. In fact, his name is Blue. How's that for the universe laughing at me?

Blue was shy at first. He hung out on his cat tree and watched from above. I spent most of my time playing with the others, occasionally looking up at him to see what he was doing, but still not really focused on him.

The woman gave me a toy to entice him with, something that dangled from a string. It got his attention, and he came down to play. Here he is with Ted. He is a big cat. So big, in fact, that he took the toy and walked off with it, dragging me behind him. He is strong.

After that, the decision was pretty much made for us. We would scritch or play with the other boys, but then Blue'd prance by, dragging the toy with him, trying to entice us. Here he is at left:

But it was his growl that melted my heart. We played tug-o-war, and he play-growled the entire time. I never knew a cat to do that; it is exactly how Maggie plays, very dog like. It just made me laugh.

There are a few similarities to Seamus, not the least of which is his color. But he seems to have such a strong and unique personality all his own, and his face does not look at all like Seamus, so I think it will be fine. We can honor the cat we loved by adopting his brother (or rather, half brother), but grow a relationship with him for himself. So here he is, the one in-focus picture I got that whole day.

We'll be bringing him home in a few more weeks, when we can get our schedule to match theirs.

04 November, 2010

A Cat Tree I Wouldn't Be Embarrassed to Have in the Living Room

On and off over the last few years, we have debated about getting a cat tree. The biggest problem with them is that they're so ugly, and most don't have perches big enough for Maine Coons. Now that Seamus is gone, I feel a little bad that I never got around to getting one. I just searched Google to see what stylish options might be out there, and came across this:

It's totally awesome, and I'd love to get it for Bella, but the $800 price tag is a bit out of my budget. If I can figure out how the platforms are attached, I might try a poor man's version. Thoughts?

This etsy seller has lots of cool cat trees and cat condos, so check them out at PetTreeHouses

If you have a lead on a cat tree for under $150 that isn't made from cheap beige carpet, let me know! 

Update: I found this one I liked, too, but as a city dweller, I'm not  sure where to pick up a tree trunk.

02 November, 2010

Goodbye to Our Sweet Maine Coon Séamus

I haven't felt much like writing, lately. A few weeks ago, we had to make the terrible decision to let Séamus go. It was less than two years ago that we brought him home. He was a sweet, affectionate kitten, a tiny little thing with blue-gray fur and golden eyes. He was also the first cat I ever "picked out," who didn't come to me by circumstance. Here he is with Ted in the car. Ted sat in the back while I drove. It was cold, and Séamus was snuggled down in his lap.

Although I got Séamus and his sister, Bella, as a birthday gift for Ted, Séamus quickly became my cat. He would sleep next to me at night, stretched full length by my side or tucked under my arm. When I worked in the garden, he would follow me from window to window to watch what I was doing, providing commentary along the way. And when I came home from wherever it was I had been, he would be waiting for me at the door, his sweet kitten face gazing up at me.

Bella and Seamus as kittens.
Séamus was a Maine Coon, and for such a big guy, he didn't have much of a voice. When playing with his sister, his battle cries would come out more like squeaks. When I tried to take a nap, he would stand on me, kneading my stomach with his little bunny feet, happily chirping. He didn't sound like any cat I ever had before.

The weekend before he died, his breathing grew wheezy and he wasn't very hungry. Also, he didn't want to roughhouse with his sister or our shepherd-mix dog, as he usually does on a daily basis. We were able to get him to eat, although not much, some Catsip milk, his favorite crunchie snacks, and took him to the vet on Monday. 

We were concerned, but figured it was probably just a respiratory infection; his gums were pink and healthy looking. I once had a cat who had asthma, so also considered that as a possibility. In any case, we expected to go to the vet, diagnose the problem, and get the appropriate treatment.

He did not like the car trip over, and I felt bad for making him go out when he wasn't feeling well. Luckily, we didn't have to wait in the lounge, but went straight to an examine room where he was able to calm down while we waited for the vet. 

His blood work all came back clean, and the vet said his lungs sounded clear and his heart sounded fine, too. She couldn't detect an arrhythmia. She couldn't detect any obvious issues, but wanted to put him on a broad spectrum antibiotic, just in case.

By this time, Séamus's breathing had become quite labored. It was obvious he wasn't well. Ted and I became alarmed that it might be feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a horrible form of heart disease that can affect any cat. I had read up on it before, but only in an abstract way, so didn't really think of it as a possibility until now. Séamus was only two. The symptoms, which can appear to come on suddenly, even in young cats, include:

  • lack of appetite
  • gagging
  • difficulty breathing
  • increased respiratory rate
  • reluctance to move around
The vet recommended a thyroid test and chest x-rays, so we went along with the x-rays to start. While we were waiting for Seamus to come back from the x-ray room, there was a gentle knock on the door, and a stranger stuck his head in. He was there with his critters, he said, and heard that we had a very sick cat. He wanted to know if there was anything we needed, and if he could go down the street to the Steak and Shake to get us dinner while we waited.

It was a very kind gesture from a stranger, but it sent me into a mild panic. No one at that point had said just how sick Séamus was. How did this stranger know? What weren't they telling us? The vet's assistant then came in and asked us to go into another room with her, so the vet could show us the x-ray.

At that point, we discoverd that Séamus had fluid collecting in the chest. The vet recommended that we take him to the emergency animal hospital, where they could tap his chest and drain the fluid, perhaps being able to determine what was wrong based on what they drained out. So we took him there immediately. He was obviously scared at this point, gasping to catch his breath, and I held his little paw the whole way over. Luckily, it was just a ten-minute drive, but I felt bad for having to put him through the emotional trauma. He calmed down by the time we got there.

The ER vet, it turns out, is very experienced with cardiomyopathy. She showed us on the x-ray that Séamus's heart was greatly enlarged. He was in heart failure, and without treatment, he wasn't going to make it through the night. She was very compassionate, very clear, and told us straight out she wasn't sure she could stabilize him, even with treatment, and if she could, his expectancy was going to be a few months, at best. I later learned that the majority of cats with clinical signs of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy can be expected to die within a few months of diagnosis, even with the most aggressive of treatments.

Above: Maggie, Seamus, Bella sleeping on the sheepskin.
Below: Seamus and Bella. Seamus is on the left.
We felt completely blindsided, as he was literally running across the house and jumping off the refrigerator and attacking his sister just a few days ago. We're also surprised the first vet didn't detect the enlarged heart on the x-ray, or at least didn't mention it to us. The ER vet traced the outline for us, it was hard to see through all the fluid in his chest, and showed us how it compared to a normal image. We were horrified, because we simply didn't know--he was a robust, active, vibrant cat.

The ER vet equated it with those athletes who seem to be at their prime, but drop suddenly from a heart attack, and that we shouldn't feel bad, as the standards for early detection include x-rays, electrocardiography, and cardiac ultrasounds, which aren't standard on an annual exam. A routine check wouldn't diagnosis it. In fact, earlier that day, the other vet said his heart and lungs sounded fine.

Still, I felt, and still feel, like I somehow should have known. He was my little guy. How did I not know something was seriously wrong? My mind flashed to the evening before, when he sat upright next to me at my desk, leaning into my side. I thought he might just have a cold and was congested, and wanted some comfort, so I scritched his little head and chatted with him while I worked.

It all seemed to be happening too fast. How does a cat run full-speed across the house one day, chasing the dog, to dying of heart failure the next?

While we were discussing the options between the two of us, Séamus started to seizure and had a series of strokes; he was sedated to make him comfortable. The ER vet had mentioned pulmonary embolism. We were losing him and there was nothing we could do to stop it.

It was a very hard decision, because we love our little guy so much, but the vet indicated if it was her cat, the kindest thing we could do would be to euthanize him, as his chest would just keep filling with fluids even after we drained him; at this point he would only get worse, not better, and it would become a quality of life issue. He was literally drowning in his own fluids. She emphasized that she works in an ER, and even with all the technology available to her, she felt it sometimes isn't in a cat's best interest to prolong the inevitable.

So we felt we had to let him go. 


Our house is only a few minutes away; with Séamus sedated and made comfortable, we rushed home to get Mom so all three of us could be there with him. I was digging my nails into my back so hard to keep from crying; the last thing Séamus needed to see as he left this world was me freaking out. How was I to know when I got up that morning I'd have to say goodbye to my little friend? He went quietly, surrounded by those who love him.
Our hearts are breaking.

Seamus (left) and Bella, earlier this spring.

To learn more about Feline Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy, go to Feline Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy.