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Think like a cat — inside and outside the box

Sometimes you smell them before you see them. I'm talking about cats.

"Living in a house that smells like a feline latrine is something that most people will not tolerate for long," said Nicholas H. Dodman, a renowned animal behaviorist and veterinarian at the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton, Mass.

Cats that won't use litter boxes often end up in animal shelters.

"Some cats are a bit fussy and need to have their preferences catered to," said Dodman. "If you give them what they like, they will do what you want."

His bestselling books and witty, articulate slide presentations have landed him on many television programs.

On a big screen he flashed a picture of a big cat scrunched into a small dishpan. The cat left the pan without using it.

Then he showed a cat in a very big box with deep litter. It was one of those high-sided plastic storage boxes that people fill with Christmas ornaments and out-of-season clothes. A cat-sized hole had been cut into the side for easy access.

That cat lingered, scratching happily and burying its waste in the deep litter. The owner was happy, too, because the high sides kept litter from flying out onto the floor.

Some litter boxes have hoods to contain odors and litter, but cats don't like hoods, Dodman said. Here's his list of other things cats don't like:

• Scented litters. "Those are for people, not for cats."

• Citrus and lemon air fresheners.

• Plastic box liners. "Cats don't like to walk on" slippery surfaces.

• A shallow layer of litter.

• Litter boxes that are too dirty. They should be scooped twice a day.

• Boxes that smell like bleach, ammonia or other cleaning products.

Wash litter boxes every week or two by rinsing them thoroughly under running water.

If you put your nose close to the surface of the box, "you might smell a very faint odor of urine," Dodman said. "That's okay because it's like a light post that tells the cat 'the bathroom is here.' "

Domestic cats are descended from wild African cats that buried their urine and feces in sand, Dodman said. Given a choice, pet cats prefer litter with the fine texture of sand, rather than the coarse texture of clay.

Other owner mistakes include providing too few boxes and putting them in the wrong locations, he said. There should be one box for every cat — plus one more box. A one-cat household should have two boxes, a two-cat house should have three litter boxes and so on. Boxes should not be lined up next to each other. They should be spread throughout the house.

Some cats prefer boxes in private, out-of-the-way places, but Dodman frowns on putting boxes in basements. "They can be scary, spidery places, and the running washing machine will scare them."

In multiple-cat households, look out for the "bully cat" that makes it difficult for others to use the box.

When cat owners provide the right box with the right litter in the right location, "I have seen cats dive in with a look that says, 'Thank God. They have seen the light,' " he said.

Dodman recommends giving your cat a choice if you follow his suggestions. Keep the existing box in its current location with the same litter. If your cat's current litter box "is being used pretty well, keep using it."

"If you've done everything right" and still have problems, see your veterinarian, he said. Diabetes, urinary-tract infections and other health problems can cause cats to "go" outside the box. Stress can also cause litter box problems. Medications, including Prozac, can be very effective "cures," he said.

Think like a cat — inside and outside the box 01/10/11 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:54pm]

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