Week in and week out, the No. 1 question I get from cat lovers is this one: "Why has my cat stopped using the litter box?"
Start solving this behavior mystery by making sure there's no health issue involved -- and that means a trip to the veterinarian (see sidebar). Once you have a clean bill of health on your cat, you can start going through the list of common reasons why pets start choosing other places to go.
What you need to know:
-- Cleanliness is catliness. 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 is ideal -- and make sure it's completely scrubbed clean and aired out on a weekly basis.
-- Not all boxes are equal. Many choices that people make to suit their own tastes don't match what their cats want. Covered boxes, hidden boxes, automatic boxes -- these are all just fine, if your cat accepts them. But if your cat wants a plain, open box, that's the one you'll need to buy.
-- Not all fillers are fine. Some kinds of litter that people may like might not be the ones their cats prefer. Litter with scent added may smell great to you but may be driving your cat away. Likewise, "paw feel" is important, since some cats are picky about how a litter feels. An unscented clumping litter suits many cats best.
-- Location is everything. Your cat's box should be away from his food and water dishes, in a place he can get to easily and feel safe in. Consider 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.
Also, consider adding boxes on each level of the house, to make it easier for a cat to get where he needs to go.
-- Sharing doesn't always work. Multiple-cat households face additional challenges. Some cats will happily share a communal box, but many others won't. The rule of thumb: as many boxes as you have cats, plus one additional box. Watch to see if your cats have divvied up the household real estate, and make sure each cat has a box in his home territory.
Retraining a cat to use a box requires keeping him in a small area with all the basic essentials for a few days. Make sure that the room has no good options besides the litter box -- no carpet, no pile of dirty laundry. Block off the bathtub -- 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.
First step: Clean bill of health
You cannot hope to sort out a litter-box problem if your cat is sick. That's why the first step to solving chronic inappropriate elimination is to make sure your cat sees your veterinarian.
Urinary-tract infections are common triggers for unwanted behavior, and diabetes may also be a factor. For other cats, the infirmities of old age may contribute to litter-box problems, with creaky joints making it difficult to negotiate stairs when nature calls.
Your veterinarian will conduct a complete examination, and it's likely that some diagnostic tests will be involved. Any physical problem will need to be resolved for you to have any hope of getting your cat reliably using the box again.
Quality of life at end of life
Q: Why do you believe in killing animals who are terminally ill but not people? There is absolutely nothing wrong with allowing a higher being to choose when your pet leaves, as long as one assumes responsibility for pain management and loving care until there is a natural passing.
It's very difficult, time-consuming and scary, but it's how we let people pass, so why are you pushing killing your ill pet? Is it because the veterinarian charges for the killing of the pet? Would you kill a human in this way?
Your article on cancer was very one-sided and rather offensive in that you advocated murder and not end-of-life care. -- M.C., via e-mail
A: I have absolutely no idea how you could have possibly come up with the idea that I advocate euthanasia as a convenience or as a moneymaker for veterinarians. (As for the latter, you don't know anything about veterinarians if you think they like euthanizing animals.)
Veterinarians -- especially cancer specialists -- are all about options for seriously ill pets, from the most high-tech of human-grade treatment to pain-management and hospice care. I am all in favor of getting the most time for any pet, as long as that time is of good quality and without pain or fear.
Too often, though, I have seen people make decisions that do not have their animals' welfare at heart. They are thinking too much of themselves and not enough about their animals. When considering end-of-life decisions, you must put aside your own grief and always be an advocate for your animal's comfort.
I have kept terminally ill pets on pain-control regimens that maintained their comfort and mobility to almost the very end of their lives. But when I could no longer assure my animals a pain-free life, I chose a painless death for them. I consider it nothing less than a final gift of love and respect.
If the course of disease cannot be reversed and an animal's pain cannot be eased, I believe we must act with mercy and choose euthanasia. We all make our own decisions in different ways, but we always need to keep the welfare of our pets in mind when doing so.
Q: I know you've warned people to beware of hip dysplasia in large dogs, but that's not the whole story. The No. 2 breed in the canine hip dysplasia ratings is the pug.
More important, there are other serious problems -- such as congenital heart disease -- that puppy buyers should require screening for. And because buyers usually haven't heard of those problems, they need writers like you to make them aware.
I had my 2-year-old Doberman a mere two weeks when he dropped dead of a congenital heart disease. This is a problem in Dobermans, golden retrievers and several other popular breeds. And few buyers ever hear of progressive retinal atrophy but, sadly, it is a common cause of blindness in many breeds.
Hip dysplasia is well-known, so can you add to the list of things that puppy buyers need to be aware of? -- Diane Blackman, www.dogplay.com
A: Thanks, Diane. In fact, everyone who decides to purchase a purebred puppy -- and yes, those trendy puggle, doodle and schnoodle mixes, too -- needs to find out what hereditary defects affect a particular breed (or breeds). Then, you should ask the seller for proof that the parents have been screened and certified as clear of these defects. Verbal assurances of health are not enough.
The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals has excellent articles on its site (www.offa.org) regarding hereditary defects. This organization maintains registries of health information on dogs certified to be clear of congenital defects. If the puppy being considered doesn't have parents with OFA certifications, the risk of health problems is significant.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com.)
Pet collar takes a high-tech turn
The PetSafe Co. drew more than 5,000 entries to its IdeaFetch pet product contest, and the winner is a collar that combines the need to keep ID on a pet with the convenience of using a computer for information updates.
The MicroID collar offers a way to keep a digital journal on a pet, storing not only traditional identifying information but also veterinary records such as recent visits, required medication and more. The collar has a memory chip that is inserted into a computer's USB port for updating. Anyone who finds the pet can put the collar insert into his or her computer to access the information.
The winning entry brought its inventor $40,000 plus PetSafe's pledge to develop the product. The MicroID collar will be available through retail outlets with a suggested retail of $30.
The top 10 ideas are featured on the contest Web site, www.ideafetch.com. The finalists include a collar that lights up and sounds off when smoke is detected so firefighters can find pets in a burning house.
ON THE WEB
Spinning clothes from dog hair
Those of us who share our lives with animals often feel as if we're wearing our pets or, at least, are constantly trying to keep pet hair off our clothing. But there are people who value pet hair for its ability to be spun into beautiful yarn and to be knitted into garments as lovely as they are sentimental.
Pat Lee's Chiengora Chic Web page (www.mdnpd.com/pd) shows how to take combings from your dog and spin them in into yarn. ("Chiengora" derives from "chien" -- French for "dog" -- and Angora, which Lee says dog yarn most closely resembles.)
Lee offers guidelines on what breed types have the best fur for spinning (double-coated longhaired dogs) and how to go about it. (She recommends brushing out loose fur after a dog has been bathed.) The end results -- lovely scarves, vests and more -- really make working with dog yarn seem like an interesting project to try for the dog-loving person who loves to learn new crafts.
Urine testing a key diagnostic tool
Performed in the veterinarian's office or by an outside laboratory, an analysis of a pet's urine can be used to rule out certain health problems and identify those that might otherwise go undetected.
Some abnormal results may prompt your veterinarian to do further testing, but they don't necessarily mean a pet is ill. For example, a urinalysis will check for the presence of crystals, which can sometimes mean the pet has urinary stones or an infection. However, crystals will frequently form in urine that has been sitting or has become cold. Also, glucose and pH levels in urine can be disrupted by things other than illness.
A urinalysis will also check for "specific gravity," which gives valuable information about the health of the kidneys.
Urine is tested for the presence of blood, protein, ketones, bilirubin, bacteria and white blood cells. Normal urine will have no blood or protein, although traces may not be significant if the specific gravity is normal. There should also be no ketones present, which would possibly indicate diabetes or other disease.
Bilirubin is a pigment formed when red blood cells are dying or dead. High levels can indicate liver disease, obstructed bile ducts or other problems. The presence of bilirubin is significant in cats, but very low levels in dogs may be normal.
Bacteria or large numbers of white blood cells may suggest a bladder or kidney infection. If bacteria is present, an additional test should be done to identify the bacteria and the appropriate antibiotic to treat it.
Your veterinarian should be willing to answer all your questions about the results of any and all diagnostic testing performed on your pet. -- Christie Keith, pethobbyist.com.
BY THE NUMBERS
Image: Man with bird
Optional cutline: Toys are the top purchase bird lovers make.
A 2004 survey by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association suggests that bird lovers are getting the message about the importance of toys when it comes to keeping their pets happy and healthy. Top purchases reported include:
Toys 61 percent
Dishes 34 percent
Supplements 28 percent
Cages 18 percent
Water bottles 9 percent
Deodorants 11 percent
Problem parrots best avoided
Because of their real or perceived value and long lifespans, problem parrots are often sold time and time again, with each owner hoping to reclaim at least part of the purchase price while dumping a difficult-to-handle bird on someone else. The only absolutely sure way to know a bird's history is to buy a weaned youngster from a reputable source, such as a breeder or specialty bird store. Hand-feeding is not for the novice pet-keeper, so don't buy a baby so young you have to wean him or her yourself.
A reputable seller should know the age of your parrot. Ideally, a "hatch date" will be written on the paperwork that comes with the bird. Good breeding practices include good record-keeping. When you see evidence that the paperwork has been taken care of properly, it's more likely you're dealing with a reputable bird-breeder or knowledgeable and caring retailer.
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.
4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600