Some experts have credited the invention and improvement of cat-box fillers as the driving force behind the feline rise in popularity, and certainly such a case can be made.
Before absorbent fillers became widely used and accepted, cats were mostly outdoor pets that our kind didn't appreciate for their companionship as much as we should have. After modern litter took off, however, cats became an integral part of the lives of an ever-increasing number of people. The rest, as they say, is history: Cats rule!
Here are your choices when it comes to thinking inside the box.
-- Clay. More than a half-century old and still a significant part of the market, fillers made of clay started the cat on the road to popularity. Clay is one of the least-expensive options in terms of price per pound, but you need to use more of it because the material needs to be completely replaced weekly to combat bacteria and odors. To remain competitive, the makers of clay litters have done a great deal to make their products more attractive, with the addition of deodorizers, dust-reducers and more.
-- Clumping. Also called "scoopable" litter, clumping has a high level of popularity among both pets and their owners. These materials dissolve around the moisture in urine or feces, reforming as a lump encasing the mess, which can then be easily scooped, raked or sifted out. Because the entire mess is scooped out each time -- assuming the clump doesn't break -- odor problems are minimized.
Although clumping litters are more expensive per pound, they require you to use less because all you need do is replace the litter you've removed with the waste. Although clumping litter does need to be replaced eventually in its entirety, that chore doesn't need to be done as often as with clay litters.
Drawbacks to clumping litter include tracking problems, because the material that sticks to moisture on cat mess clings just as easily to moisture on cat paws. A mat around the box will help knock the granules off your pet's paws before they end up all over the house.
-- Alternative litters. There's no end to the creative minds that have been active in the creation of new cat-box fillers. You'll find products made from wood fiber, corn cobs or kernels, and pelleted newsprint and other materials (some of them recycled from other uses).
Because the range of products in this category is so varied, it's hard to generalize about them. Some of these products, such as the corn-based World's Best Cat Litter, collect marvelous reviews and a dedicated following, while others come and go quickly.
Which kind of cat-box filler should you choose? Each variety has its benefits and its followers. Clay litters maintain a hefty share of the market to this day, which says this industry-starter is obviously still the right choice for many cats. Clumping litter's ease of use has made it a popular choice, and many behaviorists say it's best in terms of what cats prefer. And I know of cats whose homes (and probably lives) have been saved by the use of an alternative product when nothing else could get them to use their boxes.
Today's choices of cat-box fillers are mind-boggling, and when choosing one, it's essential that you keep in mind who the real customer is here: your cat. It doesn't matter how much you like a filler for its no-tracking, low-dust or odor-control properties. If your cat doesn't like it, you'll be finding waste in places you neither anticipated nor wanted.
Find the brand your cat likes, and then keep the box scrupulously clean. It's the only way to go.
PETS ON THE WEB
The Maine Coon is one breed of purebred cat whose popularity has grown in recent years, which means some of these large, sweet-natured cats are turning up in shelters. Rescuing and finding new homes for these down-on-their-luck kitties is one of the goals of the Maine Coon Alliance Web site (http://mainecoonalliance.vjungle.com), which also offers information on the breed and few imaginative features as well.
Now that gardening season is in full swing, a lot of people are thinking about compost piles and wondering: Is it OK to recycle pet waste in this way? It depends on your pet. If you have a pet that eats plant matter -- rabbits, guinea pigs, rats, hamsters and mice fall into this category -- then sure, compost their waste. It'll be great for your garden.
The waste of carnivores such as dog and cats should never be composted, however, because it could carry disease. With these pets, put the waste into bags, wrap up tightly and put into your regular trash. I always use old pet-food bags for waste disposal -- they're sturdy enough to stand up to reuse before being discarded.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: A few months ago I ran over my beloved cat in my driveway, and I've been having a hard time ever since, as you can imagine. Eventually I intend to get another pet, but the last two cats I've had both "adopted" me and were indoor-outdoor cats. I've never had a cat box except when they were spayed and needed to stay indoors for a while, and I have a cat door.
I've been worried about whether to have the same system with my next cat, and I was interested to read your column about moving cats. You seemed to indicate that it's a good thing to have a strictly indoor cat. Could you give me a little feedback on this? -- D.C., via e-mail
A: Yes, I do believe in keeping cats indoors, but I'm also enough of a realist to know that some people will always allow their cats to roam. I also trust that pet lovers always try to do what's best for their animals, and I believe that differences of opinion are what makes the world the interesting place that it is.
That said, there are compelling reasons for keeping cats indoors, and safety is tops among them. You are not the first person to have run over your cat -- I know of at least one other person in my extended circle of acquaintances, and at least a half-dozen readers in the last few years. And your own car certainly isn't the only risk out there.
Outdoor cats are run over by cars, attacked by dogs and coyotes, trapped intentionally by cat-hating neighbors, and trapped unintentionally by cat-neutral garages, outbuildings and basements. They get into poisons, contract diseases from other cats, and end up with painful and expensive injuries following cat fights. Seeking warmth, cats become injured when they snuggle up in still-warm car engines.
People who resent cat mess in their gardens or paw prints across their cars argue that cats are a nuisance. Free-roaming felines can also be a threat to birds and other prey animals, some of whom may be endangered. (Although to be fair, the biggest threat to these birds and small animals isn't cats, but the claiming of habitat for development or livestock grazing, here and in developing countries.) You might also be breaking the law by letting your cat out, since many communities have established laws against free-roaming cats.
Cats live longer, healthier lives inside, but can they also find happiness? Yes! Make sure your pet has a good cat tree, lots of toys and plenty of your attention. A screened-in porch or other safe access to fresh air is also tops on the list, but many cats do fine without them.
Converting a cat to the indoor life can be a trial for you both, but it can be done with patience and persistence. It's by far easier, though, to start a cat or kitten out indoors from the first day in a new home.
Q: Can you please explain how to put on a choke collar properly? I'm tired of seeing people walking their dogs with it on wrong. -- C.N., via e-mail
A: With the dog sitting on your left, make a downward facing "P" out of the collar, with the base of the letter on your side. Then slip the collar over the dog's head. The moving end of the collar should go over the dog's neck, not under it. If it's put on incorrectly, the collar will not release easily when the leash is slackened.
The choke collar is one of the most difficult pieces of training equipment to use properly, which is why I have in recent years discouraged its use. Newer products such as head halters are easier to use and provide control with less strain on the dog.
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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