When the weather turns colder and houses close up for warmth, every little thing starts to annoy us. Like the smell of the litter box, or (worse) the smell of a cat who's not using the litter box at all.
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 litter box 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 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. (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 re-use 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.
Genetic link to chewing
when it comes to cats
Q: My cat chews on plastic garbage bags. She used to chew on sweaters as well, but has gotten over that. What causes this? Can I add something to her food to make her stop? -- via e-mail
A: Dogs will chew on almost anything, especially when they're puppies. Destructive chewing is a common behavior complaint made by people with dogs, but there's a similar problem in some cats, too.
It's called "wool sucking," because wool sweaters, blankets, and more seem to be the most attractive to cats who have this behavior. (As you've found out, some wool-sucking cats, in fact, prefer plastic materials, such as those found in a common plastic grocery bag.) The chewing isn't quite like a dog's totally destructive gnaw-it-up, either: Wool-sucking cats typically work the same spot on a piece of cloth, sucking and chewing on that one area and even returning to it if distracted.
Some have attributed this behavior to a kitten's being weaned too early, or to the taste of lanolin in wool cloth. In fact, the behavior most likely has a hereditary component, since it's most common in the so-called Oriental breeds such as Siamese or their mixes.
In some cases, more roughage in the diet (such a pureed pumpkin) can reduce a cat's desire to destroy wool clothing and other household items. The best advice, though, is to put away what you don't want the wool-sucker to destroy, and be sure your cat gets enough exercise -- the more interactive play the better -- to help reduce nervous energy.
As with any problem behavior, though, a thorough check for health problems is the first step toward resolution. If you have a wool-chewer, start with a call to your veterinarian. -- Dr. Marty Becker
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in short supply
-- The shortage of large-animal veterinarians has become a critical matter of concern for the health of animals and people alike. Nearly 30 percent of veterinarians working for the U.S. government, including those at the Food Safety and Inspection Service, are eligible to retire in three years, and few young veterinarians are interested in filling these positions. The American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that more than 1,300 counties nationwide are without a single farm vet. Veterinarians who tend to large animals typically earn less than their companion animal colleagues -- $57,745 on average per year compared to $64,744 -– and often face longer hours, less time off and more difficult working conditions.
-- Pacemaker implants are increasing in veterinary medicine. According to The Associated Press, the number of dogs receiving pacemakers has increased from 100 to 200 a year up to the current level of 300 to 500 per year, with about 200 veterinary cardiologists able to handle the procedure. Pacemakers find their way to pets when the makers of these medical devices get rid of units no longer considered suitable for people because the battery life has declined -- a problem less worrisome in pets, who have shorter life spans than people. New pacemakers cost $5,000 to $10,000, but the ones that are made available to veterinarians for implanting in dogs are usually sold for around $500.
-- Labradors trained in explosives detection are in high demand in Afghanistan, where U.S. Marines have asked for more than double the number of bomb-sniffing dogs they have now, to a total of 650. According to USA Today, as much as $34 million will be spent recruiting, training and caring for the dogs through 2012. Trainers look at around 400 prospects a year, select about half of those for training, and typically end up with 100 dogs to go through the entire training program to identify the elements of homemade bombs. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Mikkel Becker
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 many best-selling pet-care books. Dr. Becker can also be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker.