Dr. Becker

Has the new year brought a kitten or cat into your life for the first time? You probably know that cats are good about using a litter box -- that might even be what attracted you to one as a companion -- but did you know you can take steps to help prevent kittens and cats from thinking (or stinking) outside the box? The following tips will help to ensure that your cat remains satisfied with bathroom you provide.

Choose a box that's the right size. Small kittens need a litter box that's not so big that they can't climb into it and not so small that they don't have room to turn around and do some digging. Large kittens -- think Maine coons, Siamese or Siberians -- need larger boxes.

As your kitten matures, provide a larger box. A good rule of paw is that the litter box should be one-and-a-half times longer than the cat's body length. You don't want your cat to have to scrunch up to fit inside; if he does, he might choose to pee or poop next to the box instead of in it.

Prefer to start out with a full-size box? Place a step in front of it or cut an opening at one end so your kitten can easily enter and exit.

Covered or uncovered? You might prefer a covered box to hide the mess or smell or to keep your cat from kicking litter onto the floor, but cats often prefer an uncovered box so they can watch for the approach of potential threats -- your dog, for instance -- while they're squatting in a vulnerable position. The bonus of an uncovered box is that you can see immediately if it has been used and scoop it.

Which brings us to cleanliness. Cats don't want to use a dirty litter box any more than you want to use a portable toilet at a crowded music festival on a hot summer day. Scoop every time you see it has been used -- or at least morning and evening. Every two weeks, dump the litter, clean the box with warm water and unscented dishwashing soap, and replace with clean litter.

Type of litter is another matter of great importance to cats. Their preferences can be based on such factors as the way the litter feels beneath their paws, what the litter smells or doesn't smell like and the amount of litter in the box. Depending on what they are used to, cats may prefer traditional clay litter, soft clumping litter, litter crystals or pearls, or alternative litters made from wheat, pine, paper or corn. Offer some options, and pay attention to what they like best. If it doesn't seem to matter, go with what you like. If they declare a favorite, it's wise to stick with that.

Remember that cats typically prefer unscented litter, which doesn't offend their sensitive noses. Just because it smells good to you doesn't mean it will smell good to your cat.

Cats can be fussy about the amount of litter in the box. Start by filling it with about 2 inches, then adjust as needed. Some cats like it as deep as 4 inches, while others prefer the bare minimum. Just don't assume that a deeper bed of litter means you can scoop less often. Cats still want their toilet to be "flushed."

When it comes to litter boxes, location is as important to cats as it is in human real estate transactions. Cats don't want a litter box in the same area where they eat; they'd like privacy, please, when they use it; and they don't want to be rudely interrupted by the dryer buzzer or the garage door opening. Place it in a quiet area that's easily accessible and doesn't make the cat feel trapped.

By understanding your new kitten or cat's needs and offering choices, you'll both be happy.

** ** **

Q&A

Is my dog

obstructed?

Q: My Lab puppy is vomiting, he doesn't want to eat and he's not his usual active self. What could be going on?

A: Just the words "Lab puppy" offer a clue. As a veterinarian with more than 40 years' experience, I am still amazed at the variety of things dogs -- especially puppies and especially Labs -- will put into their mouths and swallow: dish towels, socks, rubber ducks, knives or wooden skewers. Young Labs are some of the worst offenders, but any dog is capable of eating something that results in an obstruction.

And an obstruction could certainly be your pup's problem. Foreign bodies, as nonfood objects are known, might pass through the gastrointestinal tract without you ever knowing the item was swallowed (unless you notice it when you pick up poop), but sometimes they get stuck -- and that's when the trouble starts.

Clues that a dog might have an obstruction include vomiting, regurgitation (when food comes right back up after your dog has eaten), appetite loss, lethargy or just seeming "off" (the veterinary term for this is ADR, or ain't doin' right). A dog who's gagging, coughing or pawing at the mouth or neck might have something stuck in the esophagus -- the tube that carries food to the stomach.

If your dog has a habit of eating things he shouldn't and shows any of these signs, it's a good idea to take him to the veterinarian to check for an obstruction.

Depending on the results of the exam and diagnostic tests and whether you know what the dog may have eaten, the vet may recommend a wait-and-see approach, giving pumpkin to see if that helps move the object along or immediate surgery. -- Dr. Marty Becker

Do you have a pet question? Send it to askpetconnection@gmail.com or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.

** ** **

THE BUZZ

Dogs offer clues

to dementia

-- Researchers at Cornell Veterinary Biobank, the University of Washington and the University of Arizona, working with the Dog Aging Project, are seeking answers to canine cognitive dementia, a condition similar to Alzheimer's disease in humans. The goal of the large-scale research study is to compare CCD and Alzheimer's to see if they are triggered by the same genetic and environmental factors, writes Sherrie Negrea in an article published last month in Cornell Chronicle. Researchers will analyze biological samples from hundreds of dogs to identify biomarkers for CCD. The samples will be banked for future research. Learning the causes of CCD in dogs can help to advance what is known about Alzheimer's in humans. You can find more about CCD here: fearfreehappyhomes.com/anxiety-often-accompanies-cognitive-dysfunction.

-- American Eskimo dogs, nicknamed the Dog Beautiful for their fluffy white coat, aren't from the Great White North at all, but were developed from various spitz breeds by German immigrants to be farm dogs. They come in three sizes -- toy, miniature and standard -- and are known for being clever, active and mischievous. Don't get one if lots of barking and shedding will bother you, but do get one if you would enjoy living with an adventurous, comical dog who responds well to positive-reinforcement training. Eskies do best in homes with older children and typically live 12 to 15 years.

-- Why, in a room full of people, will a cat invariably make a beeline for the one person in the room who doesn't like or is allergic to cats? Cats find eye contact from strangers intimidating, so they seek out the people who aren't looking at them. Among cats, that's polite behavior. And what cat could imagine that the person isn't looking because they don't want the cat near them? It's just a little bit of cross-species miscommunication. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

ABOUT PET CONNECTION

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker, founder of the Fear Free organization and author of many best-selling pet care books, and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. Joining them is behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.

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