The Animal Doctor

Don’t Add Cat Litter to Compost

DEAR DR. FOX: I’ve had a compost pile for decades for natural disposal of leaves, grass clippings, eggshells, peelings and all kinds of rotten vegetables. Years ago while living on a farm, my mother also added chicken and rabbit manure to her compost (horse and cow manure, mixed with straw, had their own pile). This “black gold” made a huge difference in our gardening efforts.

Dumb Question of the Day: Is it safe to put cat feces and urine clumps in my compost pile? I use unscented, clumping kitty litter. -- I.E.E., Danbury, Connecticut

DEAR I.E.E.: The compost pile, when we worked our kitchen gardens and grew some of our own food, was indeed a source of “black gold.” I would not put cat poop into a compost pile unless I knew that it generated sufficient heat to kill off any potentially harmful bacteria and other organisms in cat feces.

It is good that you are using a fragrance-free cat litter. We are all better off without synthetic chemical fragrances, from laundry products to toiletries, in our homes, and our gardens would be better without herbicides, fungicides and insecticides. Such chemicals are likely to be present in a corn- or wheat-based clumping cat litter, and I would not use that kind of litter in my garden. Cat litter made of clay would probably not turn into good compost, nor be good for any kind of soil.

DEAR DR. FOX: When I whistle, my dog is able to quickly locate where the sound is coming from, and looks at me. When I whistle at my cats, they look all over and can’t seem to locate where the sound is coming from. They even run into another room, trying to locate it. It’s like the Monty Python skit called “Confuse a Cat.”

Is there something different about the way cats and dogs locate sounds, or are my cats messing with me? -- S.P., St. Louis, Missouri

DEAR S.P.: You have made an intriguing observation comparing the reactions of your dog and cats to your whistling.

I am a fan of Monty Python -- and not just because I am English, but because we need to laugh at the absurd aspects of human nature, which is often too far removed from authentic nature. Crazy cats can help us bridge that gap.

Cats aren’t stupid, nor are yours (necessarily) “messing with you.” Rather, in my opinion, they are having difficulty understanding why you are whistling. Could you be mimicking a bird outside or in another room, setting them off on a search for it? Or do they simply think that whistles do not come from people, so it must be from a bird somewhere else? I recall that every time I used to play a birdsong CD, my wonderful Siamese cat Igor would run up to the windowsill and look out, rather than running to the speakers.

Dogs have spent thousands of years longer with humans than have cats, so they have evolved a greater ability to read our body language and signals with greater alacrity and accuracy. They know through early experience that a whistle is a signal to get their attention, or to come, or to execute some other particular behavior. Given time and patience, cats will learn to respond to a person’s whistling -- especially if it is used to signal that their food is ready.


I am one dog owner who would never take my dog to a county fair or carnival because she would experience more stress and anxiety than enjoyment. But many people do take their dogs, regardless of crowd size, noise, temperature and humidity. I wonder how many do it just because they like the attention of so many passersby stopping to comment and asking to pet their dogs.

Other animals at such events -- including animals in petting zoos and farm exhibits, and animals used for children’s rides -- need special oversight and established health and animal-care protocols, ideally with an animal welfare or veterinary expert consultant and monitor. Pigs and poultry can and do transmit diseases, especially influenza, to humans. Infections such as salmonella and E. coli can be a risk from calves, goats, reptiles and other animals on exhibit with close public exposure.

All states should follow the protocol of Red River Valley Fair in West Fargo, North Dakota, which recently stopped one vendor from giving rabbits away as prizes, citing state law. In my mind, this is a significant step forward in animal rights and protection. Next is to put an end to the nationwide sale of millions of chicks, ducklings and bunnies as Easter festival gifts every year. Most of them die, turning this Christian celebration of life into one of sadness for many families.

(Send all mail to or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.

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