Knitting is really good for you

Knitting, apparently, should be prescribed on the NHS to reduce depression and ward off dementia, amongst other benefits.  Now that’s some claim!  So I read today in the Sunday Telegraph, in the Science section, so it must be true.

If that’s the case, I’d better pick up my needles pretty soon.  I’ve not knitted for a long time and I really miss it.  Other activities have simply taken over.  But it’s up to me to make time and space for it.

It was kind of a New Year’s Resolution to start knitting again.  I mean, whoever heard of a knitting blog with no knitting on it?  It’s not that I’m short of ideas, either.  I’m just not very good at blocking out time for it.

But I am taking some inspiration from last year, when I made a couple of radical changes to my life.  I quit my day job and got another (better) one.  I also decided to get a grip on my health whilst I’ve still got it, made some lifestyle changes and dropped a dress size.  So the next thing will be to get knitting.  For health reasons, to express some creativity, and for the joy of it.

Now that I’ve said it out loud, I’ve got to do it!

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Raw Food Swap

I have a temporary job at the moment doing some admin for the NHS.  The people there are lovely and we soon got talking, and soon enough I mentioned my three Maine Coons. ‘Oh you must speak to Bev,’ they said,  ‘she’s got two amazing cats, can’t remember what breed, but they are spotty like leopards’.  Wow, I thought, they must be Bengals.

Sure enough, when Bev appeared we started talking cat.  She was soon showing me pictures of her two stunning Bengals. Then I said ‘I raw feed my cats’ and she said ‘I do too!’

Bev said she had never met anyone else who raw feeds their cats. We explained to the others the basics of raw feeding and why we do it. Everyone was fascinated. It was a great opportunity to spread the word.

I get most of my cats’ food from a great supplier in Sheffield called Better4Pets. Bev lives out of town and buys selections of meat in the appropriate ratios from local suppliers, and chops it all up herself. Her cats are quite fussy and sometimes refuse what they happily ate a week ago. Typical eh? The upshot of this is that she has a freezer full of Natural Instinct Wild Game Bird which her cats won’t eat. Well, I said, I might  be able to take it off your hands.

Next day, Bev brought me a tub of said Wild Game Bird, and I brought her a pig’s heart in return. Our co-workers were terribly amused by this.

Natural Instinct packaging

Natural Instinct packaging

I have never tried Natural Instinct, although I have heard of it.  This is only because there is no stockist near me, and it’s quite expensive to purchase via mail order. So I was very interested in trying it out on my cats.

It really is top of the range stuff. Just look at the packaging.

Special reusable box

Special reusable box

Great info on the wrapper

Great info on the wrapper

The food is very finely minced, so the texture is quite soft and mushy. So you would need to look after your cat’s teeth in some way if you fed this regularly. However, they have taken all the worry out of raw feeding because they have balanced the food and guarantee the correct ratios. The price to be paid for this is – it’s really expensive. The tub shown is 500g, and it costs £2.25 (you buy it in a pack of 2 for £4.50).  I buy a similar mince from Better4Pets called ‘Mixed Game’. It is not guaranteed balanced, but it does contain some bone and offal. It’s £0.95 for 454g (1 lb) – roughly half the price. The supplier to Better4pets is Manifold Valley Meats, who are based in Leek, Staffordshire.

Well, two out of my three cats loved the Natural Instinct. That was good enough for me to go ahead. Bev asked me to buy some food from Better4Pets to try on her cats. I brought her some Rabbit and Turkey, Mixed Game, and Venison Trimmings. We held our breath to see if her little darlings would go for it. It would save her a fortune if they did. But no! Fussy little noses were turned up, gah!

Still, I took the freezerful of Natural Instinct off her hands. She only charged me £1 a tub. Herbie still won’t touch it but the other two are polishing it off. And I have a nice stack of re-usable tubs in the cupboard.

Till next time,

L x

Heatwave

Here in Sheffield, UK, we have had an unbroken spell of baking hot summer sun for the last 2 weeks. This is most unusual for this country and particularly for the northern regions. Temperatures have nudged 30 degrees, which is almost unheard of.

Friends have said it must be awful to have a leg in plaster in this heat. But actually it’s OK. I don’t have to worry about cold toes, slippery conditions or getting the plaster wet. Getting dressed is ever so simple as I don’t have to put lots of layers on. Most of my trousers are not wearable over my ‘pot’, so I am living in summer skirts.

I am signed off sick until I am more mobile, but I have been doing some work from home via my laptop. It’s mostly repetitive, data-entry-type work so I can happily sit in the garden, in the shade of the tall trees, and play some music as I go. My phone is beside me at all times in case the office needs to call me. I like to think that they are struggling without me.

At the weekend some friends kindly took me to their house which was lovely. We sat on the deck and had a go in the kids’ paddling pool. Then we went to the pub and I got signed, including ‘Get Well Soon’ in Chinese! It was wonderful to have a change of scene and to be surrounded by cheery people.

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I had a lovely visitor yesterday who happens to be a trained homeopath, and she brought me some arnica tablets. This is meant to reduce swelling and bruising, and aid the healing process. I have never tried homeopathy before, and I am completely befuddled as to how it can possibly work, but I am willing to try it. My friend is very aware of the controversy surrounding homeopathy, so she discretely handed the tiny bottle of pills to me and I hid it away, in case we attracted attention and started a debate. It felt terribly risqué, like she was my drug dealer.

The cats are finding it far too hot to move. They are more sleepy and snuggly than ever.

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Till next time,

L x

Feline Disharmony

Herbie is a fidget. He has a tendency to overgroom. Sometimes he pulls at the fur on his back so much that thin patches appear. Occasionally he even licks himself raw and nicks his skin with his teeth. On a solid white cat this is very noticeable in vivid red which he then licks across his fur in a pink streak. Although it heals very quickly I am trying to find out why he does this and it is proving tricky.

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My vet suggested I give all 3 cats their flea treatment, in order to rule out the obvious. She also gave him a shot of steroids to stop the itching and possible inflammation. The shot wasn’t really effective, as later on that day, and the day after, there was a new red patch on Herbie’s back. That was a week ago, and there have been no red patches since then, but still plenty of scratching and fidgeting.

It is very difficult to pinpoint a cause, especially as it’s been happening on and off for months. It could be an allergic reaction, so a blood test is an option. Was it a reaction to his first booster vaccination, back in September? Well, he was scratching before this, but in the vet’s surgery he was absolutely rigid with fear, and as soon as he got home he attacked the vaccination site as much as he could and pulled the fur off around it. For weeks afterwards he continued to pick at the fur on his back.

This makes me think it could be stress-related. When Herbie came to us as a kitten, he had to find his feet in our house with 3 other cats (now 2). He did this very well at first but as he matured he seemed unsure of himself and his place in the family. I tried hard to boost his confidence as underneath his bravado he is quite a sensitive soul. His bad experience at the vet last year may have triggered a pattern of behaviour, a neurosis. My vet is very cat-friendly and patient, and I don’t know why Herbie was so freaked out on that occasion.

Then in December my senior cat Barney was put to sleep. This left Top Cat up for grabs. Larry decided he was going for it. Always a confident and friendly lad, he started to throw his weight around a bit too much. Monty took the brunt of it and there was lots of scrapping. Now Larry and Monty, litter mates, who used to be best friends as kittens, can barely be in the same room without friction. Herbie adores both of them and just wants everyone to be happy. He plays delightfully with each of them and he doesn’t like it when they fight – which is nearly every day.

Larry

Larry

Talking all of this over with my vet, she suggested I work on allowing Larry to be top cat, whilst making sure he is not top cat over us. The lads are together a lot, so I should let Larry have more time apart from the others. I could also feed him further away from the other two. He can be quite dominant and I need to come down on him hard when he crosses the line. For example, last Christmas he  lashed out at my hand whilst I was writing a card and drew blood. I was furious and I held him down by the scruff of his neck, shouting ‘NO! NO!’ I chased him upstairs and made him stay there on his own for an hour. I did not allow the OH to go and talk to him. Larry has been a lot better behaved since then…until yesterday when he scratched both my hands for no good reason. This time I was too shocked (and upset) to react. I just didn’t speak to him for the rest of the day. The OH rather unhelpfully says ‘but he doesn’t scratch me’. Well, Larry and the OH have a very close bond, which is lovely. But I feed them, so he has to learn that he can’t ‘bite the hand that feeds’. More to the point, he can’t be a scratch risk to anyone in the house: either myself or any visitors.

Coincidentally, Larry did not like his food yesterday and spent all day howling at me to serve something else. I took to opportunity to show my dominance by refusing to budge.

If anyone has an idea of how to handle this minefield of feline psychology, please pitch in!

Finally, my vet had another suggestion: get another cat. I am not sure if this is wise…

Till next time,

L x

Butter-free Carrot Cake

As part of the new dairy-free regime, I have been looking into dairy-free baking. I see that you can replace butter in a cake mix with oil, which doesn’t sound very appetising. But then I consider that butter is a type of oil too, which when you think about it isn’t that appetising either. It’s just that it tastes soooo good!

There is absolutely no point in making shortbread without butter, in my view. The whole point of shortbread is the butter. But what about carrot cake? Moist, flavoursome, with brown sugar, cinnamon and sultanas, the butter is not the star here. I found a recipe online which uses sunflower oil and gave it a whirl yesterday.

It turned out really well, and I would definitely make this again.  Next time, I think I would add a pinch of salt to enhance the flavour. As I’m used to baking with salted butter, I found the salt was missing.  Some chopped walnuts would be a good addition.

The other thing I really liked about this recipe was that it was so much easier to mix by hand than a butter mixture.  With butter baking, unless you are using a food mixer, it’s quite heavy-going. I don’t have a food mixer, because I really enjoy the process of baking by hand. I like getting up close with the ingredients, and feeling the rhythm of it all. Firstly, the butter has to be soft enough to beat, so you have to remember to take the butter out of the fridge and soften it before you can get started. Beating the butter and sugar by hand is quite hard work. Then folding in the flour properly takes a little time. I always think of those remarkable ladies, the cooks in the great houses in past centuries, who did all this mixing and beating by hand. They were strong women with stout arms!

With the butter-free recipe, light stirring is all that is needed. The egg does not curdle with the oil. When you add the dry ingredients, you just ‘lightly mix’, and it’s ready to bake.

Mmmm, carrot cake!

Mmmm, carrot cake!

I had a cup of coffee yesterday, mistakenly made with semi-skimmed milk instead of soya milk. It tasted surprisingly rich, but not in a good way. I drank it, but would have much preferred the soya milk. It’s as if my body is quietly on dairy alert.

I am also trying to think of dinners to cook which are free of red meat and dairy products. Unfortunately the OH likes red meat and creamy sauces. At the very least, he will want to chuck a knob of butter in. So we are looking for compromises at the moment.  Last night I devised a dish of spicy couscous with chargrilled chicken, roasted vegetables and salad. Well, it was a nice dinner, but the subtlety of flavour I was trying to achieve (lemon, coriander, spices) was rather swamped by the extra chilli powder he threw over the chicken. Still, I was pleased to have achieved another dairy-free dish we both like.

Till next time,

L x

Walking the Dogs

Sunday is my dog-walking day. I walk Harry and Dixie, a pair of West Highland terriers, for their owner Ken. I like to give them a good 2 hours off the lead, so we take a short drive to where we can have a good run away from any roads. Here we are on a jaunt around Endcliffe Park in Sheffield.

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Just for fun we like to have a game of chase where I run away from them, and they run after me, round in circles.  It’s good for me to have a run as well.  Simple pleasures!

Ken is a very experienced dog owner having had dogs all his life. He’s had Harry and Dixie from puppies and now they are 7 years old. They are extremely well-trained, well-socialised and great company. Ken relies totally on volunteer dog walkers, so sadly  this means that the lads don’t get out every day. They only get walked 3 or 4 times a week, sometimes less. Sometimes it’s only a quick stroll around the block. So on Sundays I give them as much time as possible. It’s wonderful to see them run free in open spaces.

Wyming Brook

Wyming Brook

There’s a nature reserve near us called Wyming Brook. The brook runs down a steep wooded hillside. There’s a wide, winding track which leads through the trees down to the reservoir.  Alternatively there’s a steep rocky footpath running alongside and criss-crossing the brook itself. Here you have to jump from rock to rock and cross rustic wooden bridges as you go, with the constant roar of the water around you, shaded by tall trees. You can go down the rocky footpath, and back up the track, or vice-versa, making a round walk. The footpath is exciting, but the track has its own charms. The trees and their alpine scent make you feel you are up a mountain, with the occasional glimpse of distant Sheffield.

Harry and Dixie are game little dogs who will tackle any terrain. I don’t have to worry about them: they always come back to me when called and they are relaxed around other dogs. However, I do have to watch out for horse or fox manure because Harry is a roller. Dog walkers, you know what I mean. When this happens we divert to the nearest stream or brook to wash the worst off. Harry doesn’t much like getting wet. His brother Dixie jumps straight in, even if he’s not dirty, but Harry needs persuading. Fortunately Ken isn’t in the least bothered if I come back with two filthy dogs. As far as he’s concerned, they should be out all afternoon getting mucky. He gives me a dog blanket for the car and baths them before teatime.

Harry asking ever so nicely for a crisp in the beer garden.

Harry asking ever so nicely for a crisp in the beer garden.

Ken is full of appreciation for his dog-walkers. It was the Cinnamon Trust who put us in touch. They are always looking for new volunteers, particularly for dog-walking and fostering cats. If you live in the UK and if you are a pet lover with a bit of spare time, do get in touch with them.

I am looking forward to this Sunday’s outing, especially now the weather is improving! We might have company, in the form of my friend, her daughter, and their little terrier Daisy. Woof!

Till next time,

L x

Week 2 of no dairy

It’s almost 2 weeks since my doctor told me to cut out diary products, and it’s been surprisingly easy. I haven’t had any dairy cravings particularly. On the occasions when I would typically chow down a load of butter, cheese or milk, I have snacked on an alternative, or just not eaten anything. In fact I am really enjoying trying new foods and new flavours.

I am wondering if the almost constant headache and feeling of fatigue is due to dairy withdrawal. Or perhaps more likely, a slight head cold. How irritating to get a head cold after the amount of fresh fruit and salads I have eaten recently. Still, I have been sleeping a lot better, which is a good sign.

It’s interesting how differently I regard dairy products now. I feel as if I am on ‘the other side’: before dairy, and now after dairy. My attitude has completely changed. I really do not want milk in my tea now. I don’t particularly want creamy, cheesy sauces on my dinner plate. As for butter, my no 1 favourite food for years, I realise what I really loved about butter was the saltiness. I have salt cravings more than sweet cravings. I never crave chocolate. I’d rather eat a great big packet of crisps. So when I’m in the danger zone and want to rip through the bread and butter, I either have some plain mixed nuts, or a slice of bread drizzled in olive oil, salt and pepper.

I have a few business trips coming up, so I will have to be careful to avoid dairy whilst out of my usual routine. I went to a big trade fair on Monday with a colleague. She thoughtfully brought some sandwiches to share. Cheese and pickle, or chicken salad. I reminded her that I was avoiding cheese, but said I would share the sandwiches anyway. She insisted I have the chicken salad, but was concerned that there might be butter on the bread. No danger of that in a Tescos sandwich, I said. More likely to be a scraping of industrial grease. So that was OK then. Thank goodness I’m not a vegetarian as well. Or I would have gone hungry that day. If I was a vegetarian, I guess I would be trying to go vegan right now. Which seems terribly difficult to achieve.

One thing I need to work out is, where am I getting my calcium from, if not dairy? And what about probiotics, as I’m not eating yoghurt?

Sometimes compromises have to be made. At work one morning, I had masses of work to do but felt lethargic. It was only 10.30 but I really wanted to eat my lunch. A large coffee with milk and sugar was the answer. It really picked me up.

My other weakness is butter biscuits. I pretend that because I can’t see the butter, it isn’t really there. And I need the energy to fuel my 40-minute walk home…

Til next time,

L x

No More Dairy

My doctor told me this week that I should give up dairy products. This was quite a blow, since I love all things dairy. I love toast slathered in butter, cheese sandwiches, desserts in pools of cream.  One of my earliest memories is being caught by my mother with my fingers in the butter. But in order for my nasal medication to have the best chance of working, I have to cut out, or at least radically cut down, on dairy foods.

The whole subject of diet is such a minefield, rife with contradictions. I have always been an advocate of eating anything you fancy, in moderation, including as much variety as possible. Now my doctor says that dairy proteins are quite a foreign to humans, in evolutionary, biological terms. Milk is meant to feed baby cows. When we ingest it, the body isn’t ideally equipped to deal with it, leading to some quite adverse effects. Yet milk is considered healthy for kids because of the calcium (and the protein). I suppose when we reach adulthood we can sometimes develop an intolerance.

I am at the point now where I am almost constantly blocked up, especially at night when I often find I can’t breathe at all.  So I wake up and pace about. This is very disruptive to my sleep and leaves me with a headache all day.  It can’t continue, so I am being sensible and embracing the new regime.

The new regime consists of non-dairy alternatives to what I am used to eating. So at breakfast, instead of cereal with loads of milk, or yoghurt on muesli, I have some cooked plums, apples and raisins in a sort of syrupy compote, on muesli, maybe with a banana.  At lunchtime, instead of the usual cheese salad sandwich (which included butter!), I am having a salad or a wrap of beans and feta cheese, or beans and tuna or smoked mackerel. At dinner time, I am cutting out creamy pasta sauces and cheese sauces.

I have stopped eating bread altogether, because I will only spread loads of butter on it. For snack time, which is the danger zone for me, I have stocked up with plain mixed nuts. As for tea and coffee, I don’t much like coffee anyway and can only take it with lots of milk and sugar.  So I can quite easily give up coffee.  I drink a lot of tea but I only have a drop of milk in it.  So it’s a small step to having black tea. Fortunately I quite like Chinese teas like Pai Mu Tan, so it’s time to get the teapot out again.

I’m feeling very motivated at the moment because I really want to breathe properly and sleep well again. Ultimately if there is no significant improvement they will offer me surgery to widen the nasal passages. In fact they offered me this surgery 3 years ago but I declined because it seemed a bit radical at the time.

Still, I am not going to obsess over this.  If I fancy a bit of cheese on top of my spag bol, I will have some. And the occasional butter shortbread biscuit is not going to guilt-trip me. Who knows, I might even shift a bit of weight.

If anyone has any suggestions of non-dairy snacks or recipes please let me know!

Til next time,

L x

Raw Feeding my Cats

I started raw feeding my cats in January 2011. There was no dramatic reason for the switch. It was just that the more I learned about raw feeding, the more it made sense.

I first read about raw feeding cats on a forum. Switching to feeding raw had very quickly cured a nasty case of cystitis in a cat, where vet-recommended food and medication had persistently failed. As someone who had never thought to question a vet’s judgement, this was fascinating and I wanted to find out more about it.

At that time I had two young kittens, Larry and Monty, and my elderly cat Barney. The kittens were on top quality kitten kibble (ha! that’s what I genuinely thought at the time).  Old Barney was on ‘senior’ kibble, and had been mostly kibble-fed all of his life. I had always fed my cats dry food, from the ‘better’ brands like James Wellbeloved and Iams. None of the cheap and nasty Go-Cat or supermarket’s own brand stuff. I believed the blurb on the packaging and I believed that was a good diet for them. In 20 years of cat ownership, no-one, including vets, had ever suggested to me that it might not be the best option for my cats’ health. After all, my cats were perfectly healthy. Or were they?

Looking into raw feeding, the same stories came up over and over again. Switching to raw had miraculously cured all manner of niggling health problems which conventional veterinary medicine could not alleviate. A good raw diet had even stabilised the health of cats with more serious conditions such as kidney failure, diabetes, and irritable bowel syndrome, obesity, bladder infections, allergies, and dental issues. On top of this, it was claimed, fur became softer, silkier, less matted; teeth cleaner; poop did not smell any more and there was less of it; cats had more energy and zest for life.

Well this just sounded amazing. But what really gave me the push to switch, the real eureka moment for me was this. The top two causes of death in the domestic cat are cancer and kidney failure. I knew this. Every cat owner knows that lots of cats die of kidney failure. Very common. And cancer. Look at my own past cats. Kibble-fed. Died relatively young of: cancer, and, uh, kidney failure. Hang on a minute! Had I been responsible for shortening their lives via their dry food diet? It was a devastating thought.

Of course, this was speculation. There is no way I can know for sure if long-term kibble feeding had caused their deaths. I had to conclude though, that it must have played a part. The idea that I might have given them a longer, better quality of life by simply feeding them a better diet was a terrible revelation to me.

So I set about making the transition to a raw diet. I found that there was a lot of useful information out there and friendly raw feeding groups for cats. An invaluable resource was (and still is) the Feline Nutrition and Education Society, founded by Margaret Gates. I wish I had found this site first. It is so comprehensive and well-written, and it answered all of my questions.

Larry’s turkey drumstick

Fortunately, Larry and Monty didn’t need much persuasion to switch to raw. In fact, Monty was wild about it. He thinks he is a wild animal, after all. It was hilarious seeing him with a chicken wing. Lots of melodramatic growling. He never growled over his kibble. As they are young, I didn’t see a dramatic difference in their health or appearance. But their poop was easier to cope with: less of it, dry, and almost odourless. There is very little waste matter with raw.

Monty’s turkey drumstick

Barney, however, was a different story. The change in him was unbelievable. As a kibble junkie with bad teeth, it took much longer to get him fully onto raw. But even before he was fully transitioned, he had more energy, softer, shinier fur, and cleaner teeth. He was up and about and in our faces just like when he was a young cat. He started to jump onto chairs and laps again. He looked and acted like a cat half his age. It was wonderful to see.

Barney

Sadly I discovered that raw feeding carries a lot of controversy and not everyone would accept what I was doing or my reasons for doing it. It is still a hot and sometimes heated topic on many forums. For me it always comes down to this. The domestic cat is a carnivore, 100%. Cats are not able to digest vegetable matter or carbohydrates. They rely on meat, meat, meat (i.e., meat, bone and organs, in the correct ratio) for their nutrition. Just like the big cats. So why is commercial cat food so often more than 50% vegetable matter, and the meat protein of such questionable quality? No wonder feline health problems abound. And typically, this poor quality, species-inappropriate food is promoted by vets who should know better. There are powerful commercial interests at stake here.

Till next time,

L x