By Dr. Narda Robinson
If your cat's stressed out, there's a pretty good likelihood that you soon will be, too. That's because stress is a key factor in the development of health problems that lead to litter-box misses.
While that's not the only thing feline stress can cause or make worse, one can argue that what veterinarians call "inappropriate elimination" can be deadly. That's because many a frustrated cat-owner will give up on a cat who cannot be relied upon to hit the box. These cats often end up at the shelter, where their past puts a pall on their future.
Because behavioral problems are often really medical problems, such a cat needs the attention of a veterinarian. But reducing stress will help, even if there is a medical problem to be treated -- and especially if there isn't. Here are some possible stresses and solutions for cats:
-- Too many cats, too few boxes, not a clean restroom for miles. Tension and aggression can be a big factor in multiple animal households. It's important to ask if one cat is hogging the litter box, and ambushing the others. The litter boxes also must be clean, must be in private, quiet places and should be filled with an unscented product, which is what most cats prefer. Litter boxes need to be accessible, especially to older cats who may not move very well, or to cats who may be put off by lidded boxes, too little litter or litter that isn't to a cat's liking in any way. Back to multiples: at least one box per cat to avoid problems potentially caused by sharing.
-- Filling the dishes with more than good intentions. Cats don't like change, which is why abrupt changes in food, dish location or even feeding schedules can be stressful. Problems with food, such as allergies, can also cause stress, as can a diet with too little water in it. And here, too, privacy is an issue: As solitary hunters, cats prefer to eat more frequent, smaller meals in privacy. Even bowls can cause problems for some cats who won't drink water from a bowl used by other cats, one that's not full of clean, very fresh water or even one that's made of plastic, which may not smell right to some pets.
Talk to your veterinarian about the right food for your cat, and consider getting a pet water fountain for a constant supply of recirculated, filtered water.
-- Bored cats are stressed cats. Environmental enrichment is very important considering that many cats these days live completely indoors. Since cats love to be outside, consider adding a screened porch or cat-fencing to keep them in your yard safely. Your home can also be made more interesting with increased vertical space to explore, using cat towers. Cats also need places to be by themselves -- hiding spots to give them some space where they cannot be bothered by other members of the family, either pets or people. And don't forget toys and play time. Also offer greens: both grass shoots for eating, and catnip or dried valerian for rolling in and relaxing with after play.
-- Noisy homes aren't feline-friendly. Take a "sonic inventory" and reduce the noise levels. Loud TVs, video games or noisy family members can be too much for many cats. Plan some quiet time or give cats the ability to get away from the racket.
-- Massage is good for you both. Petting a cat lowers your stress levels as well as your cat's. Increase the two-way pleasure by indulging in massage and gentle brushing of your cat's lovely coat. For cats with pain, acupuncture and laser therapy may additionally help ease stress caused by discomfort.
-- For any kind of stress, see if the product Feliway will help. Feliway offers the comfort of feline facial pheromones, a smell cats naturally find reassuring and relaxing.
Your cat doesn't have to be sick or "misbehaving" to benefit from stress reduction, either. Consider it an investment in a higher quality of life for you both.
(Guest columnist Dr. Narda Robinson is director of the Center for Comparative and Integrative Pain Medicine at Colorado State University's College of Veterinary Medicine. She is a member of the PetConnection.com advisory team.)
Cat, dog intro needs to be slow
Q: My Maltese-poodle mix has spent the last year with my ex while I've worked to find housing that accepts a dog. My daughter wanted a kitten, which my apartment did accept, so we got one. Now the dog is going to go back and forth with my daughter, but she's worried the kitten will freak. What's the best way to handle this? -- Q.K.
A: You didn't mention if your dog has lived with a cat before and gotten along. If that's the case, the transition will likely be a smooth one. The kitten is still young enough to adapt without much fuss, and if the dog pays her no mind, you're home free. The back-and-forth will take some getting used to, but if it's a regular deal, everyone should be able to adjust.
Before the dog arrives, prepare the kitten by giving her a "dog-free" zone for her dishes and litter box. One good way to do this is by choosing a spare bedroom or bathroom and putting a baby gate across the doorway. The kitten will be able to come and go without any effort, but the dog won't be able to get past the barrier.
Make sure the kitten is comfortable with the new arrangement before springing the dog on her. The stress of a new dog and a new location for litter box and dishes could well be enough to push her into choosing her own potty sites.
Introduce the dog on a leash and watch the reactions. Don't force the issue -- let the kitten be hissy and retreat if she wishes. Curiosity is normal from the dog, but don't allow him to chase the cat, even in play. Redirect away from the kitten and give praise and treats for leaving the other animal alone. You may need to leave the leash on for a few days until everyone gets the "leave the cat alone" rule.
The situation should settle down in a couple of weeks, but if it doesn't, ask your veterinarian for a referral to a trainer or behaviorist. Get help sooner if the dog seems intent on hurting the cat. Considering that both animals are not that different in size, that could end up with both being hurt pretty badly, which will mean a trip to the veterinarian's and a set-back in blending the family. -- Gina Spadafori
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com.)
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" and "The Dr. Oz Show" 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 more. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting PetConnection.com.
Killing is no answer to feral cat problem
-- There's evidence that controlling populations of feral cats through non-lethal means is not only more effective, but also less expensive to taxpayers. The Best Friends Animal Society and PetSmart Charities released a study noting that maintaining cat colonies through volunteer-managed trap-neuter-release programs costs municipalities $9 billion annually, compared to a $16 billion annual cost to exterminate free-roaming cats, the latter a program that hasn't been proven to be effective when it comes to reducing numbers, since it doesn't stop cats from reproducing. Trap-neuter-release programs place adoptable cats and kittens in new homes and maintain the untamable cats as placeholders to prevent recolonization. The study notes that there are an estimated 87 million ownerless cats in the United States.
-- A British proposal to force all dog owners to carry insurance to cover the possibility that the animals might cause harm was dropped. Dog lovers said the plan presented an unnecessary and unfair cost considering that the vast majority of pets present little to no risk of harming anyone.
-- Cats and small dogs are particularly vulnerable to illness or death attributed to the use and misuse of flea-and-tick-control products, says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in releasing a report of consumer complaints about the products. The agency is developing stronger standards for testing of the products and may push for reformulation of some. Also in the works is a reconsideration of product labels to help prevent consumers from misapplying the insecticides -- using dog products on cats, for example. In 2008, the EPA received 44,263 reports of harmful reactions from topical products.
-- The major streets of Santa Cruz, Calif., have been off-limits to even leashed dogs since 1976, but that may be changing soon. The city's downtown merchants association voted overwhelmingly to recommend the ban be repealed, hoping to attract more tourists traveling with well-mannered pets. California dog-lovers looking for a weekend coastal getaway have long preferred nearby Carmel and Monterey, both of which are known for their dog-friendly amenities and attitudes. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Mikkel Becker Shannon
A blimpy bird needs vet help
Obesity is a problem in parrots, too. These birds need a veterinary check to rule out health problems and for advice to ease the weight off gradually.
Some of the signs of obesity in pet birds include:
-- The presence of rolls of fat around the abdomen and hip areas, along with cleavage on the abdomen or breast area.
-- Visible fat under the skin. The skin of most normal pet birds is typically very thin and quite transparent. When the skin is wetted with rubbing alcohol, you should be able to see dark pink or red muscle underneath. In overweight birds, you see yellowish fat instead.
-- Breathing difficulty, such as labored breathing, especially after physical exertion.
-- Heat intolerance, shown by excessive wing drooping or open-mouthed breathing in a hot environment.
-- Overgrown upper beaks. Some birds will grow their upper beaks excessively long if they have obesity and fatty liver disease problems. This is particularly true in Amazon parrots and budgies.
If you suspect your bird is fat -- and especially if you already know your bird is fat -- see your veterinarian right away for nutritional counseling and other ways to attack the problem. -- Dr. Marty Becker
PETS BY THE NUMBERS
Reptile owners: Smarter, richer?
A survey on pets, pet lovers and the pet-supply industry suggests that people who choose reptiles and amphibians as pets tend to be urban, affluent and better-educated, compared to the general population. The most popular pets among reptile owners (multiple answers allowed):
Turtle/tortoise 50 percent
Frog/toad 23 percent
Lizard 19 percent
Snake 18 percent
Iguana 12 percent
Other reptile 5 percent
Source: American Pet Products Association
Keep cats safe from falling
If you live anywhere above the ground floor, your cat could be injured falling out of a window. They're just not able to understand the risk, and sometimes jump after something interesting, such as a bird.
It's possible to give a cat fresh air safely, no matter what kind of housing you have. If you're in multifamily housing, you can't alter a fire escape because of safety issues, but you may be allowed to screen in a balcony to give your cat access to fresh air and a good view. If you're in a detached home, you can put in a more permanent structure, such as a screened-in multilevel cat playground.
While screens aren't completely safe and can pop out under pressure from a determined cat, they will keep most cats out of trouble most of the time. -- 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 email@example.com or by visiting PetConnection.com.