When one of her cats steps into a litter box, Dusty Rainbolt picks up her notebook and goes to watch the show.
"It's true," she laughed. "My poor cats have no privacy."
Her interest is not limited to her cats' litter-box habits. She watches, too, to see which beds they sleep in, which toys they prefer, and even which cleaners do best on a carpet stained by the cat who perhaps is seeking a few precious moments beyond the gaze of a woman who is always paying very close attention.
She watches because she has to. Rainbolt, you see, makes her living paying attention to what her cats do and writing about her observations. The former newspaper reporter and current resident of a Dallas suburb has made a name for herself as a meticulous and fair reviewer of those products of interest to cats and the people who love them.
In this endeavor, she relies on the help of her cats: six permanent residents and a revolving roster of fosters. Her work appears in a variety of cat-oriented publications, including Cats magazine and the newsletters Catnip and the Whole Cat Journal.
"I've been doing this for 2 1/2 years," she said. "It started with an e-mail from a lady with Catnip. She had heard that I had a lot of cats and could do a product review in a fast amount of time."
She took on that job and hasn't stopped testing products since. "You have to keep copious records," she said. "You have to be exact. I usually talk to a couple of veterinarians and also to people in similar industries to the products I'm testing. And I talk to the manufacturers, of course. I really do make every effort to be completely objective. It's hard when I don't like a product or the cats don't. But you have to tell the truth."
Over the course of testing more than 30 products, she has learned she cannot predict with certainty how her cats will react. "I used to get products and think, 'They're never going to touch this.' And then they'd prove me wrong.
"Still, there are things that are pretty obvious," she continued. "When you have lemon-scented cat litter, you just wonder: 'What were they thinking?' I wonder how many cats have been put to sleep because they started going in the corner instead. It's a classic example of selling to the people instead of the animals. A cat's nose is a hundred times more sensitive than ours, and they don't like lemon!"
Some products, like the lemon-scented litter, get a unanimous paws-down from the test cats, while others have met with mixed reviews. And then there are the overwhelming favorites, of which Rainbolt lists three:
-- World's Best Cat Litter. "It's a crumbled, kernel-corn litter. Clumps hard, feels like dirt. Cats love it. I had a cat who was peeing on the stove, and this cured it." (It's available in some health-food stores, independent pet-supply stores, and directly from the manufacturer at 1-877-367-9225, or www.worldsbestcatlitter.com)
-- Sticky Paws. "These are double-sided strips that keep your cat from scratching. They don't like the sticky feeling, and the product does not damage your furniture. Sticky Paws literally saved my furniture. I had holes in my couch." (They're available at Petco and Petsmart, and in many pet-supply catalogs and Web sites.)
-- Affordable Cat Fences. "This is a fence that you put at the top of your fence, and it keeps your cats in your yard. I can let my cats in the yard now without worrying about them leaving or other cats getting in." (It's available from the manufacturer, 1-888-840-CATS.)
Rainbolt just finished a definitive wrap-up of her year-long litter project for an upcoming issue of Cats magazine, so perhaps her cats will now be able to relieve themselves in peace. Unless ... well, somebody has to test the litter boxes themselves, no?
"You have to give them credit," she said. "The Rainbolt test kitties do work very hard."
PETS ON THE WEB
On Harvard biologist Mike Schindlinger's "Amazon Parrots -- Life in the Wild" Web site (www.people.fas.harvard.edu/(tilde)schindli/index.html), he offers advice for anyone who's thinking about getting a pet parrot: Don't. Any commercialization of the creatures, he believes, further risks their status in the wild.
While his point of view isn't likely to sit well with those who keep parrots as pets or for breeding, it comes from the heart and from his experiences documenting the lives of wild parrots. With plenty of photos, video clips and audio files of wild Amazons, Schindlinger's site is an educational and entertaining must-see for any bird lover, no matter how you feel about the keeping of parrots as pets.
Occasionally another pet lover will forward to me a dire warning circulating on the Internet regarding the use of clumping litter. The missive will usually note the death of a kitten (or more rarely, an adult cat) who died after ingesting some litter, which then solidified in the intestine. Scary stuff, if it were true, but it's probably not.
Clumping litter has been around for years and has a fine safety record, not to mention a fair measure of popularity among both cats and their caretakers. Indeed, clumping litter should probably be credited with saving the lives of those cats who'd pass on the litter boxes offering other fillers -- and end up homeless after their owners tire of dealing with the mess.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I've been thinking about getting a dog. But I don't know how to be sure that the shelters in the area are good ones. We have both shelters that euthanize and those that are "no-kill."
How do I go about deciding on a shelter? And once I find a shelter, how do I go about finding the right dog for me without going on impulse alone? -- P.B., via e-mail
A: You'll find good shelters among both the traditional and "no-kill" variety, and less-than-ideal ones in both categories as well.
Some no-kill shelters get that way by refusing to accept animals that are not adoptable or by refusing all animals when they are full. The turn-aways often end up at another shelter, one whose staff often very much resents having to be the bad guy. As for traditional shelters, some seem to believe it's easier to euthanize surplus pets than to make much of an effort to see them adopted.
Fortunately, pioneering shelters in both categories have done a lot of work in recent years to raise the bar for the rest, and both the pets and those who adopt them have benefited greatly from the changes.
Good shelters of all philosophical persuasions have a few things in common. You should look for these traits when choosing a place to find a pet because it's good to support a progressive organization, and because it's in your best interest to do so.
First, a shelter should be clean. Because money is always tight, it's not uncommon for even a good shelter to look a little worn around the edges. Many would love to have new buildings, new cages, new runs and so on, but few can afford them. Still, clean should always be a priority. If a shelter can't manage the most basic cleaning regimen, you should wonder about what else it isn't doing right.
Another key sign: an upbeat professional staff and a supportive group of volunteers. Both are essential when it comes to offering healthy, well-socialized animals for adoption, as well as counseling to help you pick out the right pet from so many needing homes.
Make a list beforehand of the attributes you want -- such as coat length, size, activity level -- and stick to it. You won't be doing the "wrong" dog a favor if you let your heart rule the day, then decide at a later date that you made a poor match. Take your time, and take a friend who'll help you to suppress the impulse to take home the first sad face you see. And let the shelter help you. Those adoption counselors want to help you make a match for life.
Q: I have a question concerning my 10-year-old golden retriever mix, Clark. We rescued him from the shelter in April. He is a joy and is wonderfully behaved, except for one fault: He acts like a puppy and has an incredible amount of energy!
I would like to do "agility" with him for fun, not for competition, but to use up some of this endless energy. Is he too old to do it? -- S.B., via e-mail
A: I have never in my life considered "acting like a puppy" to be a fault in a 10-year-old dog! Count your blessings, will you?
I'd take a slightly cautious approach to agility work for Clark. Ask your veterinarian how he or she would assess the dog's fitness, and if you get the go-ahead, build up Clark's stamina and strength with long walks or free-form gallivanting at the nearest off-leash dog park.
When you start agility, don't push too hard -- pay close attention and stop when you see your dog tiring. You're right in your feeling that you're better off emphasizing "fun" over "competition." That's because in training sessions you can keep the jumps at levels lower than is required at trials, and spare the wear and tear on your oldster's joints.
The bottom line: Proceed with caution, but give it a chance. Agility work is a joy for both dogs and humans, and it will go a long way toward keeping you both feeling young.
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 writetogina(at)spadafori.com.
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