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By Gina Spadafori
Pet Columnist

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Illness, Changes can Trigger Litter Box Issues

When I adopted a second adult cat a few months ago, I knew I was at risk for having one cat or the other -- or both -- avoiding the litter box. And indeed, it wasn't long before I found that one of the cats was skipping the box.
While I was able work out the problem pretty quickly through trial and error, for a couple of weeks I knew I was in good company. That's because failure to use a litter box is the top behavior complaint of cat lovers, sending countless cats to shelters every year. But that doesn't have to be the sad outcome, if you're willing to work on the problem.
The first step in getting a cat to use the box is to make sure there's not a medical condition driving the behavior -- 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 to use 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 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. Having an additional litter box may help, too. In my case, the problem was a matter of two cats who didn't want to share (and really, who can blame them?). I followed the rule of thumb: One box per cat, plus one more. I'd always intended to ramp up to three boxes at the time I introduced the second cat, and if I had, I probably would never have had any issues.

  • 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 very large box with unscented clumping-style litter. You don't have to buy an "official" litter box, by the way; large, shallow storage containers and sweater boxes (lids off, of course) make great litter boxes.

  • Location. Your cat's box should be away from his food and water, in a place he can get to easily and feel safe. 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. With multiple cats, try to spread out the boxes so no cat feels his territory is overrun by the other cat.

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 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. - by Gina Spadafori
Tennis ball risks can be minimized
Q: I wish you would warn people about tennis balls. Yes, dogs love them, but they're not meant for dogs. I don't think they're safe, and I won't let my dogs have them. Can you spread the word? -- via Facebook
A: A world without tennis balls? Perish the thought! It's a good possibility that more tennis balls are used to exercise dogs than to play tennis. While most dogs "make do" with used balls that have lost their ideal tennis court bounce, other pets enjoy any number of tennis balls made especially for dogs, including balls of different sizes and colors, and even some with flavorings (mint seems to be a favorite -- with people, if not with dogs).
But yes, tennis balls do present a hazard that requires they be used only in supervised conditions. The problem is that dogs have strong jaws capable of compressing a tennis ball. If that compressed ball pops open in the back of the throat, it can cut off a dog's air supply. Over the years, I've gotten letters from countless readers who've lost dogs this way.
You don't have to throw away all your tennis balls, but you do need to use them in a way that reduces the risk of choking. Tennis balls should always be put out of reach after a game of fetch, and no dog should ever be allowed to use them as chew toys.
In supervised play, insist that dogs fetch, return and immediately release the ball -- no games of keep-away while the dog works the ball in her mouth. And keep only one ball in play at a time to minimize the risk of having your dog pick up more than one and getting the first ball lodged in the back in the throat.
Keep the game of fetch fast and lively to keep the focus on the chase and the next throw. A product I couldn't live without (with my weak throwing arm and strong retrievers) is the ChuckIt!, a tool that flings the ball much farther than most of us can throw. (Added bonus: The ChuckIt! also keeps dog slobber off your hands!)
Nothing in life is without risk, sadly, but there's no need to deny your dogs the joy and needed exercise that a tennis ball can provide. Just be sure to follow a few simple guidelines to keep playing safely. -- Gina Spadafori

Tell your dog to keep his tongue to himself

  • The idea that a dog's saliva has healing powers has been around at least since the ancient Greeks and Romans, whose physicians believed it to be an antidote for poisoning. Later, St. Roch was often pictured with a dog licking a sore, reflecting the belief that the patron saint of plague victims knew something about a cure and that his dog's saliva made him healthy. Modern medicine, no surprise, doesn't look kindly on such theories. Soap and water, a dab of topical antiseptic and a Band-Aid are much better treatments for any cut. Because no matter what you've heard, a dog's mouth really isn't cleaner than a human's. 

  • When it comes to stretching before any activity, no personal trainer or coach will ever be as committed to the idea as the average cat. When a cat wakes up, she carefully stretches every muscle to make sure her strong, supple body is ready for action. Typically, the stretching routine starts with a good arching of the back and a very, very big yawn. Next is a full-body stretch, right down to the tip of the tail. 

  • The Great Dane is the No. 1 breed at risk for a sudden and potentially deadly health problem commonly called "bloat" (known to veterinarians as gastric dilatation-volvulus, or GDV), according to a Purdue University study. Other large, deep-chested dogs are also at higher risk, although any breed or mix can bloat. When a dog bloats, his stomach expands and eventually twists, requiring surgical intervention. Male dogs are also twice as likely to bloat, and most dogs who bloat are between 7 and 12 years of age. When combined with other complications of bloat, it is a leading cause of death in dogs, second only to cancer. Knowing the signs of bloat -- frequent, unsuccessful attempts to vomit, general discomfort, anxiety and restlessness, "hunched up" appearance, enlarged, tight abdomen -- combined with early veterinary surgical intervention, is often a dog's only shot at surviving. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Gina Spadafori

Date Published: 4/8/2013 9:13:00 AM
Date Reviewed/Revised: 04/08/2013


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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 at

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