Universal Press Syndicate
The No. 1 behavior problem reported to veterinarians when it comes to cats? Missing the litter box, by far.
But don't blame the cat.
If your cat is hit or miss where the litter box is concerned, chances are the choices you've made factor into the problem. After all, 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 sends countless cats outside or 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'll 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. (Multiple litter boxes are recommended for multicat households, since many cats simply will not share.)
-- 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 also has 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.
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 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.
Agility can be fun for dogs of all ages
Q: I have a question concerning my dog. She's a cattle dog mix, perfect in every way -- love at first sight at the shelter, even though we had wanted a younger dog. She's about 8 years old, they guessed, but very healthy and young-acting.
The only problem: We can't give her enough exercise. She'll play fetch forever, but it's not enough. We took her through obedience class (she rocked!), and the instructors suggested we take an agility class. Looks like fun, but at 8, is Tandy too old? I'd hate for her to get hurt. -- B.W., via e-mail
A: I have never in my life considered acting young to be a fault in an 8-year-old dog! Count your blessings, will you?
I'd take a slightly cautious approach to agility work for Tandy. Ask your veterinarian how he or she would assess the dog's fitness, and make sure she's not overweight so she doesn't stress her joints as she works.
When you start agility training, don't push too hard -- pay close attention and stop when you see your dog tiring. Work on 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 dog's joints.
If you both do really well, though, you might try some limited competition. Top agility dogs in top form compete well into their senior years, and you and your dog may well catch the agility bug.
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
Flap up for new door
Q: I recently installed a panel pet door in a sliding-glass door. My cat will not use it. Only once was I successful in tenderly pushing him through it so he could see how it works. Last night, I tried to coach him through it, but his mind was made up that he wasn't going anywhere near the door. I even placed some treats on the other side of the flap, and he still wouldn't budge.
I read that I should first try taping the flap up so he can see that it's an outlet to the patio and then, over time, let the flap down. Do you have any ideas? -- L.H., via e-mail
A: The easiest way for an animal to learn to use a pet door is to have another pet who's already using it. But since that's not an option for you, you'll now have to start over with the training.
Start by taping the flap securely out of the way, or by removing it completely for the time being. If you are going to tape it up, be sure you use enough tape to keep the flap from falling down. If your cat gets hit in the nose, the training will take even longer.
Next, every time your cat wants to go out, let yourself out the sliding-glass door and close it behind you. Then call your cat, while kneeling on the other side of the flapless cat door and coaxing him with praise and treats. Chances are your cat will look through the wide-open door and come right on through. Never open the sliding-glass door to let your cat out. From now on, go out without him and make the cat door the only way out.
After he's going in and out with confidence, set the flap halfway up so he can still see through opening. Once that's working, you can put the flap all the way down. -- Gina Spadafori
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Parrots like those who sound like them
-- Parrots are attracted to the sound of their own voice, or at least one similar. A study by the University of California, Irvine, found that female budgerigars prefer mates who sound like themselves. Although the parrots have an ability to imitate other voices, which is often used in the mating process where the male learns to sound like the female, the study shows that female parrots are most attracted to the male if he naturally sounds like her at their first meeting, before any imitation is done. The findings also highlighted the greater help males will give to nesting females if her sound is similar to his.
-- Boston Red Sox pitcher Jonathan Papelbon kept the ball he threw for the last out in the 2007 World Series. Unfortunately, reports Esquire magazine, his beloved French bulldog, Boss, got a hold of the ball and chewed it up.
-- A growing number of families are choosing unusual animals as pets, but some of these uncommon critters harbor illnesses that can be passed on to people. Turtles, chicks and mice may be carriers of bacteria and viruses such as salmonella and herpes, reports the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). "Nontraditional pets can introduce kids to new germs that their immune systems aren't prepared to fight," says Dr. Robert Frenck, a professor at Cincinnati Children's Hospital and a member of the AAP committee on infectious diseases. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Mikkel Becker Shannon
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books.
On PetConnection.com there's more information on pets and their care, reviews of products, books and "dog cars," and a monthly drawing for more than $1,000 in pet-care prizes. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper by sending e-mail to email@example.com or by visiting PetConnection.com.
Do you know when to head to the vet?
Knowing what's a true veterinary emergency and what's not can save you hundreds of dollars, since emergency clinics -- like human emergency care -- can be quite expensive.
It's always a good time to review when a pet needs to see a veterinarian. Anything is worth at least a phone call if you're not sure what's wrong. And some things require immediate attention by a veterinarian.
How to tell the difference? Here are some signs that should have you heading for a veterinarian, day or night:
-- Seizure, fainting or collapse.
-- Eye injury, no matter how mild.
-- Vomiting or diarrhea -- anything more than two or three times within an hour or so.
-- Allergic reactions, such as swelling around the face, or hives, most easily seen on the belly.
-- Any suspected poisoning, including antifreeze, rodent or snail bait, or human medication. Cats are especially sensitive to insecticides (such as flea-control medication for dogs) or any petroleum-based product.
-- Snake or venomous spider bites.
-- Thermal stress -- from being either too cold or too hot -- even if the pet seems to have recovered. (The internal story could be quite different.)
-- Any wound or laceration that's open and bleeding, or any animal bite.
-- Trauma, such as being hit by a car, even if the pet seems fine. (Again, the situation could be quite different on the inside.)
-- Any respiratory problem: chronic coughing, trouble breathing or near drowning.
-- Straining to urinate or defecate.
Although some other problems may not be life-threatening, they may be causing your pet pain and should be taken care of without delay. Signs of pain include panting, labored breathing, increased body temperature, lethargy, restlessness, crying out, aggression and loss of appetite. Some pets seek company when suffering, while others will withdraw.
When in doubt, err on the side of caution, always. Better to be dead wrong about a minor medical problem than to have a pet who's dead because you guessed wrong about a major one.
Call your veterinary clinic or hospital before you need help, and ask what arrangements the staff suggests for emergency or after-hours care. If your veterinarian refers clients to an emergency clinic after regular business hours, be sure you know which clinic it is, what the phone number is and how to get there. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Gina Spadafori
BY THE NUMBERS
It's all about the love
According to a survey by the American Pet Products Association, here are the top reasons why dog lovers enjoy having a canine companion (more than one response allowed):
Source of affection 89 percent
Feel safe in home 83 percent
Beneficial to health 78 percent
Helps me relax 77 percent
PETS ON THE WEB
Don't overlook rats when choosing a pet
Healthy, well-socialized rats can make lively, entertaining pets. And they're easy to train to do tricks.
Still, many people would never consider these as pets because rats have a bad reputation. But healthy pet rats are not street rats. With basic husbandry and an easy-clean housing setup, they are clean and friendly.
If you're open-minded enough to own a rat, check out the Rat and Mouse Club of America's Web site (www.rcma.org). The site packs in a great deal of good information, with plenty of reasons to keep a rat (or more than one, because they get lonely), as well as all the tips you need to care for these pets properly.
Rats are recommended for older children rather than preschoolers, and be sure as with all pets that children practice good hygiene habits with their pets, including frequent hand-washing. -- Gina Spadafori
Pet Connection is produced by a team of team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper, by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting PetConnection.com.