Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

FELINE CONVENIENCE

It takes a lot for a new pet product to reduce me to staring in amazement, but the new CatGenie (www.catgenie.com) managed to do exactly that.

The automatic cat box does it all -- removes the waste, disposes of it through the sewer system, rinses the non-absorbent filler clean, and then dries itself before resetting. At last month's Global Pet Expo in San Diego, I stood and gawked at the thing as it went through its cycle. And again. And again.

I wasn't the only one. The massive three-day pet-industry trade show had been open for less than an hour, and it was clear by the crowd around the CatGenie booth that this product was catching more than its share of attention.

It's just a cat box, I reminded myself. A $300 cat box, money that would be spent strictly for our convenience. What we think and what we spend doesn't matter if our cats don't like a box -- although the company says 15,000 test cats like the CatGenie. With all those caveats for a product that won't be on the market for a few more weeks, I still think it's the most gee-whiz pet product I've seen in a long time, maybe even since the first automatic cat-box came on the market.

That was the LitterMaid (www.littermaid.com), and they were there, too, along with PetMate's Purrforma (www.petmate.com), another line of automatic self-cleaning boxes.

LitterMaid has made the most of its early lead and claims sales of more than 4 million units. The company launched new models at the show, one aiming for the high end of the market and the other for the bargain-conscious.

The basic LitterMaid rakes the box clean when the cat owner activates it, not automatically when the cat finishes his business. This model is designed not only for the person who wants hands-off convenience at a lower price (less than $100), but also for those with skittish cats who want to be miles away when the unit starts cleaning.

The new top-of-the-line LitterMaid ($199) sports the cool colors and smooth lines of a sports car, along with a handful of customer-requested improvements. The appliance can now be set to turn off for the night, so a cat's midnight potty run won't set off the motor and wake the owner. The filler rake removes for easy cleaning, there's more room for the cat who doesn't want to be crowded, and the holding cartridge for waste has a carbon filter to deal with odors.

You still have to empty the holding compartments yourself on the LitterMaid and PurrForma but, really, how much effort is that?

For the low-tech cat lover, there are still plenty of products to choose from. Cat boxes of all sizes, fillers made of everything from silicone to corn to old newspapers, scoops, deodorizers and cabinets to hide it all -- if they're not at your pet-supply store now, they soon will be.

Because while product innovations for dogs have a lot to do with being on the go -- leashes, collars, tennis-ball flingers and more -- the emphasis on cats was clearly on where they go.

And on making the chore of cleaning it all up as effortless as possible for cat owners.

SIDEBAR

Be careful with convenience

Any product that makes living with a cat easier will help more pets get into caring homes. That's a good thing. But when it comes to automatic litter boxes, there's a small risk to convenience that cat lovers must keep in mind.

Cats are very good at hiding signs of illness, and sometimes the only way to spot a problem is by noticing subtle changes in eating, drinking and litter-box routines. If you're not paying any attention at all to what's going on in the box, you may be missing important health clues.

So enjoy the convenience, but always be aware of your cat, her routines and what's normal for her. You may be able to spot a health problem before it becomes a health crisis.

Q&A

When ring, ring means yap, yap

Q: Can you give me some advice on how to shut my dog up when I'm on the phone? Every time the phone rings, he starts barking! -- S.N., via e-mail

A: Anyone who has ever worked taking phone orders for a catalog company can tell you it seems half the dogs in the world start barking the minute their owners get on the phone. Why? Because they've been taught to behave that way -- accidentally, of course.

The problem starts when a dog barks at you once when you're on the phone. If he did that while you were watching TV or paying bills on the computer, you'd likely not reward the behavior. You'd probably ignore the dog, and the behavior wouldn't be repeated.

But if you're on the phone, you don't want the person on the other end to hear your dog barking, or to hear you yelling at your dog to shut up. Chances are that you'll pet your dog, just to keep him quiet.

Before too long, you have a dog who starts yapping in anticipation of your rewarding him every time you pick up the phone. Some people take it a step further. There are plenty of people who give their dogs treats to shut them up while they're on the phone. This is a big payoff for the dog, rewarding every yip and yap with a biscuit.

The best way to solve this problem is never to have it -- don't reward your dog in the short term for behavior you don't want in the long run. Instead of rewarding your pet for yapping, work on "sits" and "stays," and ask for those when the phone rings. (Get a friend to call to help you with the training.)

If you can't get anywhere with your dog, ask your veterinarian for a referral to a trainer or behaviorist who can help work through this situation.

Cats, cocoa and snails

Q: Would you pass along a suggestion about cats and gardens? After finding several pots knocked over (or even off the porch), I returned to an old standby for keeping my cats out of my garden -- mulching with cocoa hulls.

Not only do cats not like cocoa hulls, but neither do snails. And, on a warm day, your garden will smell like chocolate!

Of course, this isn't a good idea for people with dogs who might be willing to eat the cocoa hulls. -- K.P., via e-mail

A: You're right about the risk to dogs. The ASPCA's Animal Poison Control Center (www.aspca.org/apcc) lists cocoa mulch on its list of hazardous garden substances. (Dogs, more than cats, are attracted to chocolate.)

I agree with you on the smell of cocoa mulch -- yum! However, I would suggest covering the soil with sharp-edged decorative rock instead. Cats don't like the rough edges, and there's no potential problem with snacking.

As for snails ... the Hershey Co. agrees that slugs and snails don't like its cocoa mulch. But hand-picking slugs and snails is the safest method of control to use around pets. Sluggo is also often recommended as safe for use around animals.

(Do you have a pet question? Send it to petconnection@gmail.com.)

PET Rx

Dog's yawn often a sign of stress

Does your dog yawn at the veterinary office? It's more likely he's stressed than bored or sleepy. Dogs yawn both to charge themselves up and calm themselves down.

A yawn increases the flow of oxygen and boosts the heart rate -- actions that give the brain a wake-up call. If you go to a canine agility competition, you'll often spot dogs yawning at the starting line while waiting for the signal to race for the first obstacle. You'll also see dogs yawning at the veterinarian's as well -- a sure sign that they're stressed and trying to calm themselves.

In training classes, dog owners will often interpret a yawn as a sign the dog is bored. Not so, argues Turid Rugaas, author of "On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals" and a popular lecturer on canine body language. The dog who's yawning in obedience class is more likely stressed than bored, either from nervousness or from wanting to please, but not yet understanding how.

Just as with humans, yawning can be contagious to dogs. If you catch your dog's attention and yawn, you may well get a yawn back. Some experienced dog handlers actually use this to their advantage, training their dogs to yawn on cue as a way to get them either focused or relaxed.

By the way: We bet you yawned while reading this section.

(Pet Rx is provided by the Veterinary Information Network (VIN.com), an online service for veterinary professionals. More information can be found at www.veterinarypartner.com.)

ON THE WEB

Getting a handle on cats gone wild

Kitten season starts to warm up as the weather does, which means that volunteers working to keep feral cats under control are switching into high gear. When caught young, wild-born kittens can be tamed and placed into responsible homes.

For their anti-social parents, the increasingly popular option is trap, neuter and return (TNR). These programs maintain feral cat colonies in place without an increase in numbers.

TNR programs can be controversial. One Web site that helps to educate on this option is Neighborhood Cats (www.neighborhoodcats.org). The group has plenty of reading on how and why TNR works, and how it can work in any community.

PET TIP

Cats, dogs: Not all can get along

One of the reasons we like dogs so much is that hate doesn't seem to be in their vocabulary. Even when it comes to cats, the answer to why some dogs are unsafe around cats has more to do with instinct than emotion.

Cats are both predator and prey. Their predatory skills and tools are obvious, but perhaps a little less obvious is that to many bigger predators -- such as urban coyotes and some dogs -- a cat looks like lunch.

Aside from dogs who consider cats to be prey, there are dogs who will naturally chase most anything that moves. Such dogs will happily chase a cat and maybe even bite if they catch one in flight, but they would probably back off if faced with an angry cat in full defensive mode.

While some dogs can never be trusted around cats -- their prey drive is just too strong -- many (if not most others) can be socialized from a young age to at least tolerate cats and be trained to leave them alone.

If you have a cat and are thinking of adopting an adult dog from a shelter or rescue group, be sure to choose one who shows no signs of prey drive toward smaller animals. Many shelters have a "test cat" who is relaxed enough to accept the short-term annoyance of being safely introduced to dogs in the interest of gauging the pet's level of interest in cats.

It's important to note that prey behavior toward smaller animals and other dogs does not necessarily mean a dog will be a danger to humans. Many dogs who cannot be trusted around other animals are very reliable around people.

BY THE NUMBERS

Unlucky breaks

Proving once again that it's far less painful to your pet and your wallet to prevent accidents rather than treat them, the Veterinary Pet Insurance Co. (www.petinsurance.com) has released its top three bone fracture-related claims submitted in 2005 for both dogs and cats.

Kind of treatment Average claim in dollars

Cast or splint $254

Bone graft $206

Bone pin $972

THE SCOOP

Do our dogs really dream?

According to renowned author and veterinary behaviorist Dr. Nicholas Dodman of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, the idea that dogs dream is based on the fact that dreaming is a normal part of organizing and reorganizing memories.

Dogs definitely have the capacity for memory, so it makes sense to believe they have the ability to dream just as people do.

Like humans, dogs have two kinds of sleep, the deeper of which is characterized by rapid eye movements (REM). When people are awakened from so-called REM sleep, they've often been able to remember vivid dreams. Dodman points out that the whining, erratic breathing and leg movements we've all seen in our dogs occur during canine REM sleep, making it not too far-fetched to believe dogs are dreaming.

What they're dreaming about, though, we'll never really know.

Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to petconnection@gmail.com. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.

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