Your cat really isn't asking for anything more than you would when it comes to a bathroom. All that's required for most cats is that the bathroom be clean, quiet and offer no surprises.
That sounds simple, but the failure to use a litter box is the top behavior complaint of cat lovers, sending countless cats to shelters every year.
Before you even consider such a drastic step, you need to try to work things out with your cat if you have a litter box problem.
The first step in solving such a problem is to make sure it's not a medical condition -- and that means a trip to your veterinarian for a complete workup. Urinary tract infections and diseases such as diabetes make consistent litter box use impossible for even the most well-intentioned cat. You cannot hope to get your cat using the box again until any health issues have been resolved.
If your cat checks out fine, you need to start working to make sure that everything about the box is to your cat's liking. The second rule of solving a litter box problem: If the cat isn't happy, no one will be happy.
Here's what to look for:
-- Cleanliness. Cats are fastidious animals, and if the litter box is dirty, they look elsewhere for a place to go. Clean the box frequently -- twice a day at least -- and make sure it's completely scrubbed clean and aired out on a weekly basis. Having an additional litter box may help, too.
-- Box type and filler. Many choices people make to suit their own tastes conflict with the cat's sense of what's agreeable. A covered box may seem more pleasing to you, but your cat may think it's pretty rank inside, or scary. Likewise, scented litters may make you think the box smells fine, but your cat may disagree -- not only is the box dirty, he reasons, but it's got this extra "clean" odor he can't abide. Start with the basics: a large box with unscented clumping-style litter.
-- Location. Your cat's box should be away from his food and water, in a place he can get to easily and feel safe in. Consider a location from a cat's point of view: Choose a quiet spot where he can see what's coming at him. A cat doesn't want any surprises while he's in the box. You should also experiment with additional boxes in your house, especially if you have more than one cat. The rule of thumb: One box per cat, plus one.
Make the area where your cat has had mistakes less attractive by cleaning it thoroughly with a pet-odor neutralizer (available from pet-supply retailers). Discourage reuse by covering the area with foil, plastic sheeting or plastic carpet runners with the points up.
If changing things around doesn't clear up the problem in a healthy cat, you may need to retrain him by keeping your pet in a small area such as a guest bathroom for a couple of weeks.
Make sure that the area you choose has no good options besides the litter box -- no carpet, no pile of dirty laundry. Block off the bathtub or keep an inch of water in it to discourage its use as a place to go. After your cat is reliably using the litter box, let him slowly expand his territory again. As long as you keep up your end of the bargain and keep the litter box clean and safe, you have a good chance the good behavior will become permanent.
If you just can't seem to get the problem resolved, ask your veterinarian for a referral to a veterinary behaviorist. These veterinarians are skilled in behavioral problem-solving and are able to prescribe medications that may make the difference during the retraining period.
Making it easy
At the massive Global Pet Expo trade show earlier this year, the trends in litter boxes and accessories reflected an interest in keeping litter boxes both neat and attractive.
Petmate (1-877-738-6283, petmate.com) showed off its new Purrforma self-cleaning litter box in two sizes and three option packages: self-cleaning box only, box with paw-cleaning ramp, and box with ramp and lid. Prices range from $179.99 to $299.99.
Two companies showed products that hide litter boxes. The Out of Sight Litter Box (outofsightlitterbox.com, 1-877-702-5368) is a cabinet with storage and a ramp on the bottom level and a litter box on the upper level. Prices range from $189.95 to $229.95, depending on finish.
Hidden Litter (www.hiddenlitter.com, 1-800-884-1917) disguises the litter box as a planter, with several styles available. The top lifts off for cleaning. Prices range from $89.95 to $189.95.
Unfair to ask puppy not to dig
Q: Our 6-month-old golden retriever, Jax, has a habit of removing and digging in the new sod we've just laid. What can we do to discourage this? Some have suggested giving him a place to dig, but this is not possible. -- C.B., via e-mail
A: You're being unfair to your dog. Jax is a puppy, and it's unrealistic to expect him to sit around unsupervised and do nothing in the yard.
If you don't want him to destroy your yard, you need to rotate some sturdy and tempting chew toys to help absorb all that young dog energy. He should not ever be in the area with the new turf unless you're there to supervise closely. He also probably needs more exercise than he's getting (that's just a guess, because few dogs get all the exercise they need).
If you cannot supervise him while he's in the yard, cannot exercise him adequately and cannot offer him a way to release his normal energy through chewing, then you need to accept some degree of yard destruction. The amount may decrease as he matures, but don't count on it. A bored, lonely dog will always find something to do. It's not his fault: He's of an active breed, and he needs an outlet for his energy.
Garden solutions often need to be a little creative. For example, my yard is divided with a small area that's fenced off for the dogs. They can come and go through a dog door into "their" yard, and they go into the main yard only when I'm with them. There's generally at least one major excavation in the dog yard, but it's out of sight. I just fill in the holes before they get to the stage where I'd have to get a building permit for the construction of a swimming pool.
In the main yard, the lawn is undamaged and green -- when I remember to water it, that is.
You can learn more on how dogs and gardens can peacefully coexist by picking up a copy of Cheryl S. Smith's "Dog Friendly Gardens, Garden Friendly Dogs" (Dogwise, $20).
Q: I have a 6-year-old male Lab mix, Zues. My boyfriend has a 14-year-old shar-pei, Pugsly, who is partially blind and has problems hearing, but he's a happy, healthy dog otherwise.
When Zues and Pugsly started to visit with each other, they would play together fine. But during one of our visits, Pugsly wandered toward Zues' food while he was eating. Zues snarled and snapped at Pugsly.
I was so surprised at Zues that I scolded him and put him in a separate room for half an hour. Since then, Zues has had nothing to do with Pugsly. He doesn't act afraid of him -- he just has nothing to do with him. Did I do this to him when I scolded him? -- M.B., via e-mail
A: I'm guessing that before Zues snapped at Pugsly, he gave him several "get away from my food" signals that Pugsly neither saw nor heard because his senses aren't what they used to be. The fact that Zeus didn't connect on the bite suggests that he was still trying to get his point across without violence.
It does sound as if Zues took your correction to heart and has decided not to deal with Pugsly anymore. I'd advise you to just let the situation rest as it is. Whatever you do, don't put old Pugsly in a dangerous situation again. Make sure he leaves Zues alone when he's eating.
If, however, Zues, has a problem with anyone else approaching his dish, please seek advice from a trainer or behaviorist with experience in resource-guarding issues.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com.)
ON THE WEB
Common sense and pit bulls
Optional caption: Love them, hate them or just want them controlled, most people have strong feelings when it comes to pit bulls. They're banned in Denver, and San Francisco is looking to regulate them after a 12-year-old boy was killed by his family's pets.
The pit bull -- a generic term for any one of several similar breeds -- was developed to fight other animals. Many experts say that killer instinct toward other dogs and smaller pets remains to some degree in many pit bulls today. Aggression against humans was never in the plan for a well-bred pit bull, but the breed's popularity with gang members and quick-buck breeders has produced a lot of unsafe pits that should never be pets.
Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pitbulls (www.badrap.org) is a pit bull advocacy and education group that offers information about these dogs in a way that's both sensible and cautionary. As the pit bull debate continues, it's important to understand as much as possible about what's behind the problems with pit bulls -- and to explore all possible solutions.
Swollen ear flap needs medical aid
Blood vessels broken by head-shaking can cause a dog's ear flap to fill up like a water balloon. The condition is known as an aural hematoma.
Although the problem will eventually resolve itself if left alone, the process takes a long time and is painful to the dog. Allowing the ear to heal itself will also result in an unattractive "cauliflower" ear. Surgical intervention to drain and treat the ear flap is a more effective and humane choice.
Another argument in favor of veterinary care: The reason a dog was shaking his head may also be a condition in need of treatment. An ear infection is a likely culprit that will need to be treated along with the hematoma.
(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.)
Unclipped wings a hazard for birds
The idea of the freedom of flying adds to the appeal of birds as pets.
Birds are not the only creatures who fly, of course. A zillion insects manage it, as do mammals such as bats. But birds do it with style, grace and -- in the case of many parrot species -- with a flash of brilliant color.
Maybe what we feel is more envy than admiration. After all, it's only recently that we've been able to fly. Let's be honest: Blasting place to place inside a jet-propelled metal tube hardly has the same appeal as going when and where you want just by stretching your wings.
When it comes to most pet birds, though, flight is very risky. Avian veterinarians see the result of letting pet birds fly free every day: birds who have slammed into windows, landed in sizzling frying pans and touched down in boiling pots of water. Some birds have even flown into open toilets and drowned.
My "Birds for Dummies" co-author, avian specialist Dr. Brian L. Speer, has seen all these kinds of tragedies, along with birds who've landed in ovens, in fireplaces and into the open drooling mouths of dogs and cats.
These dangers are why pet parrots need to have their wings kept trimmed and be trained to stay safely in and on top of cages and play stands. An avian veterinarian or reputable bird shop will be happy to keep your bird's wings properly trimmed so your pet can manage a soft landing in a pinch, but no lift-off.
The benefits besides safety: Birds whose wings are kept in good trim may be less likely to engage in dominant behavior. And a well-socialized bird with wings safely trimmed may enjoy accompanying you on trips outside the home.
Be careful with games of fetch
Retrieving games are great for getting your dog some exercise and for strengthening the bond between the two of you. But sometimes those rousing games of fetch can end in serious injury if you're not careful about how you play the game.
Never throw things for your pet in a way that makes him leap high in the air or twist to catch them. If you do, your pet might seriously injure his legs or back upon landing, with the kind of damage that often requires expensive and painful surgery to correct.
Instead, throw the ball or other toy so it stays low and in front of your pet, to help him keep his body near the ground, running instead of leaping. And at this time of year, don't push your dog to play in the heat. Strenuous activity needs to be limited to cooler parts of the day.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.
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