Posted in Life, Lists

6 Tricks Pet Owners Will Love

I’m not talking about sit, stay, and roll over. These tricks will save you time, money, and sanity.

PetCollage

Our Story:

In 2010, my husband and I got married. We formed a blended family. He came to the relationship with two cats, and so did I. Our cats were pretty old.* We loved them all.** But we knew, realistically, that they wouldn’t be with us for much longer.***

* We only THOUGHT our cats were old. It turns out, they were just middle-aged.
** I loved them all. My husband loved two and a half of them.
*** We were wrong. So wrong.

For our one year anniversary, we got a puppy.

Six years have passed. We’re still married. We still have our dog and all four of our cats. The oldest cat is 17 and a half. The youngest is 14. The dog is 5.

In case you’re not keeping up with the math, that’s 2 cats + 2 cats = 4 cats + 1 dog = 5 pets = 5 pet mouths (requiring feeding, often prone to vomiting), 5 pet butts (doing what pet butts do best), 10 pet ears (for ignoring our verbal commands), 20 pet legs (perfect for tracking mud, clawing furniture, and being sat upon by unwary humans), and 1,000,000,000,000 pet hairs (to be spread in every space, container, nook, cranny, appliance, and orifice, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year for 6 years****).

**** and counting.

How to Stay Married in a House Full of Pets

We live in a house with four indoor cats and one mostly-indoor, sixty-pound dog. It’s like a zoo but with fewer cages and more chaos. The lolling tongues and wagging tails and cute cat naps and furry snuggles definitely help, but cleaning up after these adorable creatures is exhausting, and maintaining a living space that’s suitable for both the animals and their human companions can be a challenge.

Here are a few things that have helped us preserve a moderate level of sanity.

Level 1: BASIC

Trick #1: The marinade is the key.

Problem: Cat toys are expensive and the allure wears off too quickly.
Solution: Marinate in catnip.

CatnipCollage

There’s no need to buy new cat toys when all the good smells wear off the old ones. Just buy a bag of catnip and marinate the old toys in it. The longer they’re in there, the better, so I keep one or two toys in the catnip at all times and periodically switch them out.

Catnip toys keep cats happy. Happy cats are less likely to knock random objects off your desk.*****

***** not actually proven

Trick #2: This weapon will be called… the FURMINATOR.

Problem: HAIR and lots of it
Solution: The FURMINATOR

terminator-furminator

These grooming tools are not cheap, but they actually work. Five minutes of brushing your cat or dog with this brush and you’ll remove so much hair and undercoat you won’t believe it. It truly does reduce shedding and hairballs.

We have this one for the dog and this one for the cats.

The only catch is, you actually have to USE it, which I sometimes forget to do.

Level 2: ADVANCED

Trick #3: A Litter Box Fit for a King

Problem: Litter everywhere and/or outside-of-box peeing
Solution: Large plastic storage bins

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No, I don’t know why my cat sometimes puts his stuffed toy in the litter box. That’s an issue for another blog post.

Some of our cats won’t use the enclosed litter boxes with the lids, and those can be a pain to clean anyway. But if we remove the lid, the cats kick litter EVERYWHERE or do that annoying thing where they hang their butt over the edge to pee. So we bought tall plastic storage bins and cut “doors” in them instead. These are our litter boxes.

They’re not the prettiest things in the world, but… it’s not like we show them off to people anyway. (Until now.) The high sides keep the litter in, but they’re still easy to clean because of the open top. Plus, they’re cheaper than most litter boxes and easy to replace.

Trick #4: What Lies Beneath

Problem: Hair, drool, and that all-encompassing DOG STINK on your furniture
Solution: Treat your dog like a baby.

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We let our dog get on the furniture, in moderation, meaning we gave him one section of the couch (the largest section, for some reason) and some space on the bed in my office. When he was a puppy, simply putting down a towel or blanket for him to lay on was sufficient to keep the cushions and bedding underneath clean. But now that he’s a full-grown, sixty-pound, hairy, smelly DOG (who we love) one thin layer between him and the furniture isn’t enough. His stink seeps in, especially when he licks himself or chews on his toys or drools because we’re eating pizza and won’t give him any.

I got tired of washing the quilt and the couch cushion covers over and over, so I looked for a better solution, and I found one: crib pads.

For just $10-$20 you can buy a thin, washable, waterproof pad to go between your dog blanket and your couch or bed. It works SO WELL. Now Uno can shed and drool and chew all he wants, and the moisture and odor won’t reach the furniture. To make the space suitable for human use, I just have to remove the blanket and pad. Er… and the dog.

Note: Our cat has also thrown up on the dog’s couch cushion, and the blanket/crib pad combo kept that from reaching the upholstery too.

Level 3: EXTREME MEASURES

Trick #5: Location, Location, Location

Problem: One cat terrorizes the rest of the household.
Solution: Move cat to his own apartment.

Gink, in a sink.
Gink, in a sink.

I have a 17-and-a-half-year-old black cat named Gink who I got when he was just a baby. I love him very, very much. He’s very, very special.

He’s also a recovering holy terror.

Gink has mellowed out a lot in his senior years. If you met him today, you might not believe that he used to terrorize friends, family members, vets, pet sitters, and dogs. But he did, and he was quite good at it.

When we formed our family of 7 (cat, cat, cat, cat, dog, human, human) in 2011, things were a bit rocky, and most of the blame was aimed at Gink. He terrorized one of the other cats, he showed aggression toward the dog, and he peed everywhere. Things were rough.

I could list all the (many) things we tried that failed to remedy the situation, but instead I’ll skip to the end. Eventually, through trial and error, research, and a well-timed episode of My Cat From Hell (Season 4, Episode 3: “Penny Hates Puck”), we figured out the truth: Gink doesn’t want roommates. He doesn’t want other cats hanging around, flaunting their catness in his face. He doesn’t want a dog following him around. (Seriously. Gink used to get mad just because Uno was walking behind him.) And he really, REALLY doesn’t want to share a litter box.

The solution was unavoidable. Gink needed to move to his own place.

So we got him an apartment. In our house. Gink now lives in our master bedroom & bathroom suite. The rest of the pets live in the rest of the house. We, the humans, inhabit both sides. We keep the door between the two areas closed at all times. Gink has his own litter box, his own food and water bowls, his own toys, his own bed.

If this seems like an extreme measure, it is. But it works. EVERYONE is happier. It’s amazing how much more relaxed our other pets are now that Gink isn’t around to traumatize them, and I don’t have to constantly clean up cat pee. Plus, Gink is happier too. He loves having his own space. He lives like a king.

That’s not to say he doesn’t sometimes try to get out. Once in a while, he scoots past me into the rest of the house. When that happens, the other cats freeze, and I tiptoe after my escaped panther until I can safely scoop him up and return him to his abode, usually with much hissing. Then I close the door and everyone breathes a sigh of relief once more.

I will say it again. Gink is special.

Trick #6: Deny everything.

Problem: Guests.
Solution: Lie.

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Zora, cleaning her feet where I normally eat breakfast.

Despite all your preparations, there will still come a time when you have guests over and one of your pets decides to:

A) Steal a slice of cheese off the kitchen counter
B) Take a bath on the dining room table
C) Hack up a hairball on the living room rug
D) Eat a corner of the curtain
E) Sharpen their claws on a leather purse
F) All of the above

When that happens, your best line of defense is denial. Look your beloved pet in the eye and say, “What the heck do you think you’re doing? You’ve never done anything like this before! Stop it! Stop it right now!” Ignore the fact that your pet is gazing back at you, confused and bewildered, wondering why something which was perfectly fine yesterday is causing you such stress today. Later, when the guests leave, you can give your pet a treat and apologize and tell him he’s a very good boy.

* * *

If you have any pet tricks you’d like to share… Oops—gotta go. I hear the song of the hairball.

Posted in Teaching

Advice From a Teacher: Recommendations for Writing Help

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As a teacher* I’m frequently asked for advice on teaching, learning, studying, reading, and avoiding getting sick. While I don’t consider myself an expert on any of these things, I always try to give some helpful suggestions.

So… I’ve decided to start sharing those suggestions on my blog, hoping that my small pieces of advice might travel a little bit further.

* NOTE: I’ve decided to stop referring to myself as a “former” teacher. I am a teacher. I have a valid, current teaching certificate and over fifteen years of experience in the classroom. Regardless of the fact that my current job is not teaching, I am still a teacher.

Advice From a Teacher

Last week, a friend of mine sent me this question about his daughter:

“Any recommendations for helping a new 5th grader to write better? Any good grammar books for her to learn from? Any habits I should be forming with her for reading and writing? She did not do so hot on the STAAR test, but super enjoys school.”

Here’s my reply:

The short answer is that I don’t have a good short answer. But here are some thoughts:

#1:
Does she like to read? Find something she loves to read and get her to read a lot. Reading good writing is key to writing good writing. If she likes Star Wars, I’m currently loving the Origami Yoda series by Tom Angleberger. Some people probably consider it more of a “boy book” (<– ugh, I hate those words) but I love it. I also love many other books and can compile a list if you want. (I did compile that list! See below.)

#2:
Rather than force a grammar book on her, which could easily kill her passion for writing and/or her soul, get her to practice writing about things she likes. Letters to people, a description of a favorite movie or book, a story she made up. If you’re really serious about getting her some help before school starts, you could hire a writing tutor, but I would try to find one that will make the experience fun and interesting and not just drill her with test prep. There might also be a camp or something she could attend. I know we have some in Austin. (I’ve compiled a list of those too.)

#3:
For essay writing, I do have a book I recommend. It’s called Reviving the Essay by Gretchen Bernabei, and it’s an awesome teaching tool. It comes with many useful exercises and great examples. But it probably wouldn’t be seen as a “fun summer activity” by most kids, so you’d still need someone to guide her through it. Also, the exercises teach kids how to write REAL essays, not 26-line timed standardized test crud. Which brings me to my last point…

#4:
Standardized tests are mostly crud. (See example of cruddy test materials below.) If she’s doing well otherwise in school, I wouldn’t worry too much about it. However, not worrying is easier said than done. If getting better at the test questions will make you and your daughter feel better, you can always access released tests online and practice with those.

Resources

Books

Books I Love That I Recommend for Fifth Graders:

  • The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger
  • Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar
  • Wonder by R.J. Palacio
  • The Lost Track of Time by Paige Britt
  • Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
  • The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy by Nikki Loftin
  • The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly
  • Greenglass House by Kate Milford
  • A Tale Dark & Grimm by Adam Gidwitz
  • The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co. #1) by Jonathan Stroud

Austin Summer Writing Camps for Kids:

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The Awesomeness of Gretchen Bernabei:

If you’re a writing teacher, I highly recommend buying a copy of Reviving the Essay. You will definitely get your money’s worth. But if you’re a parent looking for some writing exercises for your child, check out Gretchen’s website. She offers a wide variety of downloadable writing advice, including strategies to help with the STAAR test.

Speaking of the STAAR Test…

THIS is what the STAAR Writing Test answer document looks like.

STAARWriting

Ugh.

But don’t worry. Good teachers know it’s crud and they will teach your kids to write well in spite of it.  🙂

* * * * *

Need advice from a teacher?
Send your questions to cariejuettner[at]gmail[dot]com.