Any pet expert will tell you that the No. 1 behavior problem that cat lovers complain about is "inappropriate elimination," which has nothing to do with being an error-prone hit man and everything to do with missing the litter box.
My co-author on two upcoming books, "Good Morning, America" veterinary correspondent Dr. Marty Becker, loves to tell the story of a veterinarian who was so ill he'd received his last rites -- and yet a member of the hospital staff tried to ask him a question about her cat's litter-box problems.
"He had to think real hard if it wouldn't be easier to head into the light rather than stick around to answer another cat-box question," says Dr. Becker, who quickly notes that his friend recovered and is still answering those questions.
Many people tend to immediately assume a cat's misbehavior has something to do with spite, and that's a wrong assumption to make. Or they decide to shove their cat's nose in the errant mess and smack them, which will likely make things worse. While chronic cat-box problems can be the result of a combination of factors and can be difficult to resolve, other issues can be fixed by asking the right questions and making the right changes.
Here are five questions to ask yourself when a good cat stops using the litter box:
1. Has anything changed about the litter box?
Cats are creatures of habit. Once they're happy with the kind of box, the location and the filler, they don't want anything to change. If you've changed from a plain box to a hooded one, moved the box to a new location, changed brands or type of filler, or have added a new twist (such as a deodorant), you need to change things back.
If you need to change something about your cat's litter-box setup, do it gradually. Move the box in tiny increments, or mix a new brand of filler with the old one. Even the gradual approach might not work, though, and you'll have to get things back the way they were.
2. Has anything changed about the household?
The addition of new pets or people or the loss of others may trigger anxiety in a cat, which may mean they'll forget their litter-box routines. While you can't throw your new husband out if you're a newlywed or send that new baby back to the hospital, you can work to ease your cat's transition to household changes.
Set up a safe room for your cat, a small, quiet area with all the essentials -- food, water, toys, scratching post and litter box. Remove anything from the room that might make a tempting alternative to using the box, such as houseplants with wide pots. Let your cat chill for a couple of weeks, and then gradually expand his territory.
3. Is my cat sick?
If nothing has changed with the litter box or the household, your cat may be sick. Any number of health problems can make it difficult for a cat to use the litter box, including diabetes and urinary-tract infections. Old age, obesity or other conditions that affect mobility may also be a problem, making it more difficult for a cat to get into a high-sided litter box, or to go up and down stairs to use one.
Your veterinarian will need to evaluate your cat's health -- a process that likely will involve the use of diagnostic tests -- and resolve any problems. Once that's done, you can work to retrain your cat to use the box.
4. Have I allowed my cat access to an area he might see as an alternative to a litter box?
Wide, low soil-filled pots for houseplants might seem like convenient extra bathrooms, especially if the plants have just gone in and the soil is loose and inviting. Houseplants and cats can live together peacefully. In the case of planters being used as a litter box, an attractive solution is to cover the soil with sharp-edged decorative rocks.
Areas where your cat has gone often retain odors that invite repeat business. Clean thoroughly and deeply with an enzymatic cleaner made for pet mess, and don't forget that cleaning it may require replacing carpet pads underneath a soiled spot.
5. Am I holding up my end of the deal?
You wouldn't want to use a dirty bathroom, and neither does your cat. If you let days pass before you attend to the box, don't blame him for choosing another potty spot. While some cats are relatively tolerant of lapses in cleanliness when it comes to your scooping schedule, others are not.
To keep from tempting your cat to go elsewhere, scoop daily -- twice daily is even better. Prices have gone down and selection has gone up on automatic litter boxes. If you work long days or are frequently gone on overnight trips, one of these devices might be the answer.
Making peace with visitors
Q: Would you pass along a suggestion about dogs and mail carriers?
My all-time favorite rescue dog, a cocker-Lab mix, had obviously been trained to attack any person in uniform. My all-time favorite mail-carrier took it upon himself to rectify that situation. Every day for months he would bring a dog biscuit, at first handing it over to me (of course we had to endure the top-of-the-register barking and the dog had to be physically restrained) and later directly to the dog.
It took awhile, but it worked! And oh, the peace it afforded. I used to put a dog biscuit in the mailbox for the regular mail carrier's day off. The others soon caught on. Later on, the biscuit became less important, and my dog was as happy to see the mail carrier as I was. -- M.V., via e-mail
A: I doubt your dog was trained to attack people in uniforms. More likely, she taught herself this unsafe and annoying behavior by observing that when she barked, the mail carrier left. She didn't understand that he was merely walking to the next house on the route and that her barking had nothing to do with it. Over time, this mistaken interpretation on the part of the dog can develop into a truly dangerous aggression toward mail carriers and other delivery people.
Your solution is a great one, if your mail carrier will participate. In fact, it's a solution recommended by pet behavior expert Dr. Rolan Tripp of the Web site AnimalBehavior.net. He suggests asking the mail carrier to drop a treat through the mail slot (if you have one) every day. Other solutions include moving the mail box off the porch and out of the dog's line of vision, or blocking the dog's access to the front window so he can't see what's going by.
No matter what, though, pet lovers must never take a chance when it comes to safety. Even good-natured dogs can become accidentally conditioned to hate delivery people, and these dogs must be kept secured in a place where they can't get out to threaten or bite a visitor.
Q: I am in the process of making my yard secure for my cats. I was going to put wire all around the top of my privacy fence, but the nylon mesh you wrote about sounds so much easier. I have taken in eight strays over the past three years and want to keep them safe. Can you provide more information? -- M.S., via e-mail
A: Every time I write about cat fencing, people want to know even more about it. Generally, the fencing extends above your regular fence line, using small posts and nylon mesh to keep your cats from escaping the yard. It's not foolproof, and it may not keep out a determined predator or keep in an especially determined cat. But it's a great alternative to simply letting a cat roam the neighborhood.
Do-it-yourself instructions can be found on the Web site of Alley Cat Allies (www.alleycat.org; search for "fence"). Companies that provide kits include:
-- Cat Fence-In (www.catfencein.com, 888-738-9099)
-- Affordable Cat Fence (www.catfence.com, 888-840-2287)
-- Purr … fect Fence (www.purrfectfence.com, 888-280-4066)
Another option to putting cat fencing in your yard is to modify an existing screened patio to be a fresh-air zone for an indoor cat. Many people have also built multi-story screened additions for their cats. On a decidedly smaller scale, there are soft-sided portable cat runs that can be attached to a window to allow a cat out to smell the breeze. Check with pet-supply retailers for a selection.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Inspiring books celebrate heroes
Timed to the anniversaries of two tragedies -- the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina's landfall on the Gulf Coast last year -- two new books take the time to look back and remember the animals.
Don't pick up either one of them without grabbing a box of tissues first.
Nona Kilgore Bauer's "Dog Heroes of September 11: A Tribute to America's Search and Rescue Dogs" (Kennel Club Books, $30) spotlights many of the dogs and handlers who worked in the rubble of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon immediately after the attacks, or in the Fresh Kills Landfill in the weeks that followed.
The work was intense and dangerous, for both dogs and handlers. The teams came in from all over the country (as they had after the Oklahoma City bombing) and worked to find survivors and, sadly, the remains of victims. The dogs of course cannot comprehend the word "hero" or understand that we would consider them as such. To them, the opportunity to work for the love of their handlers was what it was all about.
Nearly 300 dog-handler teams worked the disaster sites after the attacks, and this book features interviews with about a quarter of them. Pictures of the dogs now and as they were on the scene are eye-popping, taking us back to those horrible days in a heartbeat.
A portion of the sale proceeds will benefit the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (www.ndsdf.org) to help bring more dogs into training for future disasters.
Hurricane Katrina reminded everyone that although a man-made disaster can change the world, a natural disaster can be every bit as devastating. When the storm slammed into the coast of Louisiana and Mississippi last year, the stories of animals abandoned or stranded captured the world's attention. People were forced to leave their pets behind, most notably a child who (as reports had it) tearfully abandoned his dog Snowball as he was evacuated from the area.
As residents were forced to leave, experienced animal rescuers got to work. Among the national groups that sent staff and volunteers to hard-hit New Orleans was the Best Friends Animal Society of Kanab, Utah. Following every step of the rescuers was Best Friends' staff photographer Tony Snow.
Snow's gift for photography and love of animals comes through on every page of "Not Left Behind: Rescuing the Pets of New Orleans" (Yorkville Press, $20). The images are strong, and what's most notable about them are the eyes, the only way to have any idea what animals who cannot speak are thinking. The looks of terror and fear on so many give way to trust and hope, and finally -- as pets are reunited or adopted out -- to relaxed happiness. It's a great transition, well-documented.
All proceeds from the book go to Best Friends (www.bestfriends.org).
Birds need a vet at first sign of illness
A sick bird too often means a dead bird. Not because birds are fragile -- on the contrary, most bird species are quite hardy -- but because by the time their illness is noticed, birds are often very ill indeed and sometimes too far gone to be helped.
In the wild, a bird's best chance to survive is to hide illness. If you look sick in the wild, you'll attract the attention of a predator and will soon be someone's lunch.
Even without the threat of predation, pet birds can't help but behave as wild birds do and hide all signs of illness until they're too sick to manage it. That's why some birds who seem fine one day are found dead the next. They were likely ill for a long time, but they managed to hide the symptoms.
The best way to catch an illness before your bird gets too sick to be helped is to have your pet see a veterinarian regularly. Your bird will be better off with a board-certified avian specialist, if there's one available in your area, or with a veterinarian who is comfortable treating birds and who keeps up with the latest available health information on these pets.
An avian veterinarian will go over your bird carefully and will ask you questions meant to reveal any problems in your bird's health or behavior, and in how you care for your pet.
The veterinarian may suggest a couple of basic diagnostic tests. The idea is to correct any current problems and change anything that could become a risk in the long term, such as an improper diet.
Never try to treat your bird yourself. You may be misreading the symptoms and making matters worse. Time is of the essence: If your bird doesn't seem right, get him to the veterinarian.
(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.)
PETS BY THE NUMBERS
Why dogs see the vet
Skin allergies were the top medical condition that dog owners filed medical claims for in 2005 to Veterinary Pet Insurance Co. (petinsurance.com), according to a recent review of policyholder claims. The top 10 medical problems reported to the company, along with rankings from the previous year:
1. Skin allergies (2)
2. Ear infections (1)
3. Stomach upsets (3)
4. Bladder infections (5)
5. Benign tumors (4)
7. Sprains (7)
8. Eye infections (8)
Popular litter not a danger
One of the more persistent pet-related Internet rumors relates to cat-box filler -- specifically, that clumping litter kills cats. The idea is that cats may accidentally or intentionally eat some of the product and that it will form a deadly mass inside the animal.
The rumors can be traced back to an anecdotal report in a long-defunct magazine, but experts say there's no widespread problem with clumping cat-box litter. In fact, considering that many cats seem to prefer it, one can argue that clumping litter has kept many cats out of shelters and perhaps has saved their lives.
Since dogs will eat cat litter, however, it's a good idea to put the cat box where your dog can't get to it.
These days, nearly three-quarters of all cat lovers buy clumping cat litter for their pets, according to American Pet Products Manufacturers Association.
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 email@example.com. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.
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