Picture Sundays: Trout Smells Kraut

Somehow, in a post about a handy fermenter from the Farmer’s Kitchen, I failed to put up this shamelessly cute picture of our cat, Trout, interfering with the photo session.

If you’d like more proof that the internet is some kind of million typing monkey/non-linear/collective unconsciousness generation machine, try typing “cat and sauerkraut” into Google. You get a fluffy and deaf white cat who loves sauerkraut. We can now consider that long experiment in human civilization complete.

Altadena Kitten Needs a Home

Some horrible person kicked this little kitten. My friend April took her to the vet and saved her life. She needs a home. She is about 9 months old, is fixed with a tipped ear, and has had her rabies and 3-in-1 shots. If you’d like to take her home please contact April at [email protected].

Japanese Cat Baskets

omg that’s cute

Someone help me, I’m obsessed with Japanese cat baskets (稚座 or neko chigura).  Like all traditional Japanese crafts, they are functional and stunningly beautiful.

Mrs. Root Simple and I want to learn basket weaving just to make one of these things. Woven out of rice stalks, there are, thank you for asking, Youtube videos showing how they are made:

And, yes, you can watch cute videos showing their use–say goodbye to office productivity today!

According to Modern Cat (I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit I read that blog) these things aren’t available in the US, though you can admire this Japanese website that sells them. Guess we will have to make our own.

Note from Kelly:  Say we make one of these…100 hours and 1000 curses later, won’t our kitties promptly adopt their new 稚座 as a scratching post? The Japanese must have figured this out. Back to the  research!

Cat Poop Compost Installment #2

Drum full o’ cat litter

WARNING: Human waste and cat waste contain dangerous bacteria.  I fully believe that composting is a safe and sane solution to a waste stream problem–that’s why I’m writing about it, after all– I also know that it can be handled badly. (The stories we hear!) So please, read up on the subject before starting. You should have a solid foundation in regular compost to begin with, because all the basics apply. Take a good composting class or find a compost mentor. Read the Humanure Handbook. For complete safety, all cat/human waste compost should be allowed to sit for two years, and it should not be applied to food crops (but it can go around fruit trees).

***

Last year at the end of July I posted about our experimental cat litter composting solution in The Cat Poop Portal post. It’s been a while since we reported in, and I’ve received some gentle pokes from readers, so this is an update.

Long story short, it’s going slowly. At the time of the last post we’d installed a 50 gallon drum in our side yard. That drum filled up fast. We have two indoor cats now (I think we only had one when this started) and they are slinky little poo machines. Also, we were using pine pellets which require a complete change-out more often than clumping litters, so we managed to fill the drum in about four months. That was faster than I expected, and a little disappointing, but there are two ways to ease this problem.

1) Changing litter, so we use less. Most clumping litters are either clay-based, which is not good for compost, or have sketchy chemicals in them. We’ve recently found World’s Best Cat Litter, which is a clumping litter made of corn. I called World’s Best to make sure there was nothing added to the corn, and they promised me that there’s nothing added to the standard formula–the magic is all in the way the corn is processed. So yes, we’re supporting Big Corn…but what are you going to do? The stuff works really well and is compostable. Now that we’re using it we’ll reduce our overall litter waste volume.  (Of note: our friend John, a madman with six cats, swears by Swheat Scoop, which is wheat based. I don’t find it works for me, but he blames my litter management skills. It’s an alternative.)

2) We’re offloading half-finished cat compost to My Big Fat Worm Bin. Regular readers (and Vermicomposting workshop participants) might remember that composting expert Nancy Klehm had us add a good amount of mature cat litter compost to the mix when we built up the bedding material for the worms. She said she wouldn’t want to foist raw cat litter on the worms, but when it was well broken down they could handle it.

The drum has been, shall we say, resting productively over the winter. Today I went and dug it up to see how it was doing. As with any pile, the stuff on top was less finished–it looked pretty much like a cat box. It isn’t stinky, though, as long as I make sure all the cat poo is buried.

Down lower the material was more broken down. It’s an interesting rusty orange color. But I didn’t get the sense of lots of activity going on. It was a cool pile, and it showed very little insect life. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The pile is decomposing, just on a long timeline. But at this rate of decomposition I suspected it would need at least another year of sitting to be fully broken down, and then it would need to rest even longer for safety. Compost made from carnivore and omnivore poop needs a two year cycle to allow the pathogens to die off.

Digging down all I see is decomposing red sawdust

Wanting to move it along faster, I did what I’d do for any compost pile that was a little pokey: I turned it, and added nitrogen and water.* Shoveling 50 gallons of kitty litter is exactly what I want to be doing on any given Saturday! As I shoveled, I decided that if I didn’t already have Mad Kitty Disease, I’d have it by the end of the day. As if to confirm this, Trout sat in the bedroom window over the poo-bin, wearing a peculiar, self-satisfied expression while he watched me slave away over his waste. (Phoebe didn’t join in, because she doesn’t admit to creating waste at all.)

Okay, he doesn’t look smug here because he’s wondering what I’m doing with the camera. Prior to this I assure you he he looked very smug.

But back to business. For those of you who are new to composting, turning a pile stirs everything up, increasing bacterial activity, making the materials hotter. This speeds decomposition. There’s much debate over whether to turn or not to turn and how often to turn, and I’m not going into any of that right now, except to say that humanure piles are not usually turned, and I’d hoped not to do so with this catmanure pile, either, but necessity drives.

Just like turning, adding a nitrogen source to the pile heats it up. All compost piles are a balance between carbon and nitrogen sources, aka “greens and browns.” Too much carbon and your pile is cool and slow. Too much nitrogen and its slimy and stinky. But if you get the balance right, you end up with lovely compost.

In kitty litter composting, the litter is the carbon and the urine and poo deliver the nitrogen. Starting out on this path, I had no idea how the natural carbon to nitrogen ratio in a cat box would play out. Now it seems to me that the ratio is carbon heavy. Cat litter materials, such as compressed sawdust, are really dense carbon sources and need tons of nitrogen to balance them.

So my preliminary finding on this point is that it might be help to add extra nitrogen when you add a new layer of litter. Extra nitrogen could come in the form of green yard trimmings, veg scraps, urine, fresh horse manure, etc. Today, though, I decided to add alfalfa meal because we had some wasting away in the garage. Alfalfa meal is ground up alfalfa. It’s used as a natural fertilizer and top dressing, and is high in nitrogen. Generally speaking, I think nitrogen should be free, but if you don’t have a lot of scraps/trimmings/spare urine around, you could do worse than to have some alfalfa meal on hand to perk up your compost pile if it’s gone carbon heavy.

Mixing in the alfalfa meal and water

When it was all done, I thought my pile looked a little more loved, and I think it’s going to heat up nicely. I was able to move ten gallons of the more mature compost over to the worm bin, but the barrel is still pretty close to full.

Adding the kitty compost to the worm bin

For the near future we’ll probably be able to send about half our litter to the barrel, and the other half will have to go to the landfill. Eventually we’ll get rid of this big mass of pine litter, and I hope that by using the clumping litter will keep the bin from filling up quite so fast, and will somehow reach cat:compost equilibrium.

*To be clear, I added water because the pile was dryish, not because water in itself is a magic activator to be used in all circumstances. If a pile is too wet, I’d blend in dry stuff while turning. The goal is for the materials in the pile to be about as wet as a wrung out sponge.

Cat allergies, cat hearts, cat cuteness: an update on all things cats.

Many apologies to people who don’t come here to hear about the cats.
This won’t take long.

I just wanted to give two quick updates. The first is to let you all know that Phoebe is doing amazingly well despite having an insanely malformed heart. The meds have perked her up, so she and Trout are playing all the time. To look at her you’d never think anything was wrong. So thank you so much for all  your supportive thoughts and let’s hope she stays with us a good while.

The second update is on allergies. I’ve posted about this before. When we got Phoebe I was technically allergic to cats, but I decided to push on through that little impediment, powered by the twin engines of Denial and Will, just as I’d done when we got our dog. It worked.

Then Trout came into our lives. I hoped that I’d get a pass on the allergies, as I’d already adjusted to Phoebe. But instead I had to start all over fresh with him. And it was worse this time around. Not least because Trout is super affectionate and is always, quite literally, in my face. (He kisses!)

I worried that I might have overloaded my system beyond all tolerance, but guess what? The symptoms have been gone for almost a month now, long enough for me to declare victory over pet allergies–my third victory so far.

The secret? Pig-headedness. Willingness to be constantly snotty. Absolute faith in mind over matter. I took nothing for relief, nothing at all. Not even nettle tea this time, because I was out of nettles. I think it’s important not to have a crutch, to force your body to work through it. The whole process took about three months.

I realize that there are people with worse allergies than mine, and I don’t mean to underplay anybody else’s experiences. I’m sure some allergies are so severe that they can’t be ignored. But I’m intrigued that this works, for me as well as for others I’ve heard from, and just wanted to say that it is possible to break free.

Cat Update

Last week was fairly traumatic around here. We learned two scary things–the first was that we might be living on a Superfund clean-up site, and the second was that something was seriously wrong with our kitten, Phoebe.

As Erik just posted, the lead issue remains up in the air, and will be for quite some time. But we did find answers regarding Phoebe, and while it is bad news, it is not as bad as our worst imaginings, and it’s good just to have answers and a course of action. We’re finding our feet again and will get back to a regular blogging schedule this week.

Turns out little Phoebe, found on the street when she was only 4 weeks old and bottle raised by us, was born with a heart defect. The kitty cardiologist (the excellent Dr. Zimmerman at AVCC for you Angelenos) identifies it as a complete AV canal defect. This is a rare and serious heart deformity.  Dr. Zimmerman drew us a picture of a normal cat heart and then one of Phoebe’s heart, and all we could think was that it was a miracle this kitten lived a minute outside the womb.

As I understand it (and please forgive the very loose terminology) there are four chambers to the heart, the left and right atria and the left and right ventricles, and each pair is divided by a septum, a wall. In Phoebe’s heart, the septa are breached in both pairs, so her blood is flowing around her heart all willy-nilly. (In precise terms she has atrial septal defect and a ventricular septal defect).

We really don’t know how she’s functioning at all. It’s also a miracle that she survived her spaying. We will no longer be using the services of the vet who somehow overlooked her loud heart murmur when prepping her for anesthesia.

There is little we can do for her. There is medication which will ease her heart action some. Dr. Zimmerman would not give us a prognosis because, as she says, “kitties always surprise us.” So Phoebe might have weeks, she might last years. She’s not in pain–she is just not as active as she used to be before the symptoms of this defect became more pronounced. Basically she’s acting like an elderly cat, happy to nap a lot and watch our other kitten, Trout, play. If she does start to roughhouse with Trout she’ll run out of air and have to stop. But it seems like she’s figured that out already, and even simple Trout seems to understand that he has to leave her alone.

So yes, we’re sad, but we’re also relieved we don’t have to make any big decisions regarding surgery (there is none) or her quality of life. We’ll just enjoy her each day and be thankful we have that day together–which is, after all, how we should enjoy all the people and critters that we love.

Kitten Meet Kitten: How to handle kittten introductions?

photo by Anne Hars

I’m leaving behind the gloomy chicken news of the last couple days to announce that we’ve been suckered blessed yet again by our neighbor Anne with a locally grown sustainable kitten. We are now officially “cat people.”

Everyone, meet Trout, a bouncy brown tabby boy with white boots.

We’ve had Trout for a couple of day and are trying to convince Phoebe (our older kitten) that this is not, in fact, the worst thing that has ever happened in the world. While in actuality, in her little 5 month old head, it probably is the worst thing that has ever happened.

So Trout is living in Erik’s office/guest room and I’m trying to introduce them bit by bit. I read the internet things that said he’d have to stay in the office for a whole week before Phoebe could even set eyes on him, but I don’t have the patience for that. So I’ve already hosted limited interactions. They go like this:
 
PHOEBE: Mwwwwrrrrraaaahhhhh. Hiiiiisssssssssss.

TROUT: WTF lady? Let’s play! Look at this tennis ball! Woohee!

PHOEBE: Mwwwrraaaaahhhhhhhh

Basically she’s fascinated by him, yet terrified at the same time. At first I thought it was all about territory, but she bolts and hides if he starts toddling her direction. And sadly, he has no common sense or social skills, so quite often wants to run up to her. My job as cat hostess (because really, what else do I have to do?) is to keep him entertained so she can watch him from a safe distance. Then, when even observation is too much, I whisk him away.

We’d be very interested if anyone has any tips.  Like I said, I’ve read what seems to be the standard procedure of the extremely slow introduction–separate spaces, wiping their scents on each other, exchanging rooms, etc. We’re doing that stuff already–in our half-assed way.

I’d be particularly grateful for some kind of “Kitten Make Friends” magick spell that I could invoke over their tiny stubborn heads. Anyone got one of those, lemme know.

Homemade cat scratcher

I feel like I should apologize to non-cat people for all the cat-related content we’ve been generating of late. This should be the last cat post for a while. (At least until the widdle snugum wuggums does something adorable!)

We picked up this cat scratcher idea from Modern Cat. That version is much more polished than ours, in fact, it’s downright cute. Ours is also too small–we need to add to it a bit. But you can see how it’s made: strips of cardboard coiled up like a a cinnamon roll, duct tape at the breaks. If you go to the original, you’ll see how they finish the edges.

Easy. Kitty likes it.

The Cat Poop Portal: Litter Box Composting, Installment #1

View up the side yard, looking toward the back yard. The new bin is all pretty and shiny.

Mrs. Homegrown here:

I posted about cat litter composting a while back, and got lots of interesting comments and suggestions. If you’re researching the topic, I suggest you check out that post, the comments especially.

Since then, Erik and I have decided on the method we’re going to try. We’re just going to do straight up, classic composting, Humanure Handbook style. The only difference between this style and ordinary composting is that we’ll let this compost rest for two years before we spread it, to be sure the bad beasties die off. And in case they aren’t gone, we won’t spread the finished compost around edible plants.

No, this is not orthodox practice. It is not considered “safe” to compost pet waste–all the standard advice tells you not to– but we’re doing it anyway, because we trust time and bacteria and worms and our own composting skills to make good compost out of cat litter. Also, the standard advice is mostly in reference to a home’s one-and-only compost pile. You would not want to add cat or dog poop to your regular compost pile. It needs to be kept in a separate pile that is managed more carefully.

The biggest challenge in this scheme for us was figuring out where to put yet another compost container. Our yard is already overrun with barrels and bins. Worse, when we thought it through, we realized we needed room for not just one compost bin, but at least two, maybe three, because of the aging issue.You know, fill one up, set it aside, start on another. The barrels pile up!

The solution is our south-facing side yard. That “yard” is a 3 foot wide strip of sun-baked soil that no one ever sees. It’s divided from our neighbor’s side yard (also rarely used) by a hedge of tenacious jade plants. There is no access to the back yard from the side yard. It has been a wasteland for all the time we’ve been here. This year Erik put in two tiny raised planters there to see if he could grow hops on the side of the house. But it is still mostly unused, invisible space–perfect for compost bins.

The only problem was access. It’s an awkward hike around the front house to get to that side yard. It would be no fun to have haul the dirty litter over there. This is where Erik’s genius came to play. He decided to cut a hole in our back yard fence–a little section of fence convenient to our back porch– and make a small door that will let us dump the litter directly into the barrel, which sits on the opposite side of the fence. We’re already calling this the Cat Poop Portal ™.

The Portal from the back yard, looking down on the drum

 The specs:

  • We’re composting in a food grade plastic 55 gallon drum, which we found on Craigslist. It once held brown rice syrup. I prefer to use food grade plastics for compost, especially since we’re dealing with used barrels. Better food residue than chemical residue. 
  • Our drum is white because white was all that was available. I’ve heard white degrades more quickly than the blue or black. Don’t know if that is true, but I have also heard that the lifespan of the drum can be extended by painting or covering it with a tarp. We may do one of those things.
  • Erik sawed off the top of the drum, because it wasn’t the type with a screw off lid. Rather it had a bung hole configuration. (I’m still trying to become blase about tossing around the term bung hole.) This means we don’t have a lid. We’ll just put a piece of cardboard or wood on top, because we’re classy like that. 
  • We drilled lots of 1/2″ air holes in the drum, on the sides and bottom, for air flow.
  • We put a thick layer of straw at the bottom, before we added the first deposit of litter, to provide a little ventilation from the bottom. The barrel is sitting on soil, to allow worms and bugs access.
  • Once the straw was down, we added our accumulated litter. (Yep, that’s right, I’ve been saving my cat box cleanings just this occasion. Waste not want not!) See my thoughts below regarding types of cat litter. Then we wet down the litter really well, and covered it with a topping of clean straw, and topped the drum with a piece of wood. Let the decomposition begin!
  • Note:  Never place a place a poop-filled compost bin near vegetable beds, due to the possibility of bad bacteria leaching through the soil. Ours is remote from anything edible.
The holes inside the 55 gallon drum

Thoughts on the composting:

As I said at the beginning, this is pretty much straight up, normal composting, with the exception of a long aging period at the end. The Humanure Handbook is a good general guide to composting principles as well having special instructions regarding the safe handling of poop. If you don’t know how to compost, I’d start there. That book is widely available, and they have a free pdf on their website. See our resources tab. 


Our cat litter is compostable–we’ve been using both Feline Pine and Yesterdays News–pine and paper, respectively. Compostable litter is made up of a true carbon source–that means plant-based material: corn, wheat, paper and sawdust are all okay. Clay litter, or anything with chemicals in it, would not be appropriate for this. Clay is not toxic, it’s just that it wouldn’t ever break down into proper compost. I don’t know what the clumping kind is made of, so I avoid it–but if your clumping kind is made of unadulterated carbon material, by all means compost it. Litter with baking soda added isn’t a good idea, because it’s salty. Soil does not love salt. I also avoid anything with added scent, because the chemicals used in fragrances are not something I want transferred to my soil.

We’ll soon find out what the carbon to nitrogen ratio is in the typical cat box. The litter is a heavy carbon source. We’ll see how it is balanced by the cat waste (nitrogen), but I suspect we’re going to have to add green stuff, like kitchen scraps, to get it to heat up and decompose. Here’s how we’ll know: if there’s too much carbon (litter), the pile will just sit there, cold and unchanging.

Another thing I predict is going to be problematic about this new cat bin is that we’ll be adding too little material, too slowly. This means it’s going to be very, very slow pile. Mass creates heat. The best piles are big piles. This might have to be addressed by bulking up the pile with material from another source.

My final concern is odor. This is within whiffing distance of both our patio and the neighbor’s window, so we don’t want any cat box miasma drifting around. Initial precautions include covering the surface of the pile with straw, and covering the top of the bin with a board. We’ll see how it goes.

Stay tuned for updates…