By Morieka Johnson, Mother Nature Network
Dogs may be man's best friend, but more cats spend their days frolicking away in U.S. households. The American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that there are 81.7 million cats compared with 72 million dogs in the U.S. Regardless of species, pet owners know that time together isn't all kisses and cuddles. On his weekly radio show, certified cat and dog behavior consultant Steve Dale helps pet owners tackle issues that lead many to consider relinquishing their animals. Most problems can be resolved with a little expert advice, he says. But pet owners typically put off getting help and the issue simply magnifies.
"I get the call or the email saying, 'The cat missed his litter box for two years and they are at the end of their rope,'" he says. "Or the spouse is mad and they are given a deadline of two days, even though it's been going on for two years. Don't wait, don't wait, don't wait."
In honor of National Pet Wellness Month, we offer tips to tackle common cat behavior problems before they reach catastrophic proportions.
Problem No. 1: Improper bathroom habits
Start with a veterinary appointment to rule out health issues, Dale says, adding that cats do a great job masking illness.
"Even people who think they know their cats really well can be fooled because cats are so innately clever at hiding anything that might suggest they are not feeling well," he says. "A cat who urinates or defecates outside the litter box can have anything from osteoarthritis to hyperthyroidism to diabetes to early kidney disease."
Rule out environmental issues: When it comes to litter boxes, Dale tells cat lovers to focus on location, location, location. That perfect spot can vary from home to home. In some cases, the problem could be as simple as cleaning the box more frequently.
"I don't like a dirty toilet," he says. "Nor do they."
At Ormewood Animal Hospital in Atlanta, Dr. Annie Price begins her examinations with questions about the litter box. It helps to determine whether the litter box is somewhere quiet or near a washing machine with a lot of noise. "Is it on a floor where [cats] live, or a floor they don't go on often?" she asks.
Price also focuses on a cat's behavior inside the litter box. Some cats jump out of boxes quickly because they don't like how the kitty litter feels. In those cases, switching from clay to pine can help. She adds that covered boxes may cause cats to feel threatened, particularly in multiple-cat households.
"When you are in the litter box using the bathroom, you really don't want to get stalked; that's private time," she says. "I get a huge history of what's going on. Then I find out what they are urinating on."
Schedule a veterinary exam. Your cat will thank you - eventually. Underlying health issues may cause painful urination that cats mistakenly associate with their litter box, leading them to seek new, less painful places to do their business, Price says. Dale also notes that older pets can develop cognitive dysfunction syndrome, similar to Alzheimer's in people. The condition causes them to forget basic habits they mastered long ago. A vet is your best line of defense to determine what's going on, yet many cat lovers skip this step.
"Cats are like the Rodney Dangerfield of pets," Dale says. "Cats don't see the vet nearly often enough. The average cat sees the vet less than half as often, and half never see the vet in a year."
Price says medical issues are the cause for 60 to 70 percent of her cases involving litter box accidents. A thorough exam allows veterinarians to rule out the presence of crystals, unusual glucose levels, infections or kidney problems that could trigger inappropriate bathroom habits. Cats won't pee in a cup on command, so she uses a process called sterile cystocentesis to obtain a urine sample and identify issues such as bladder infections, which often affect young- to middle-aged neutered male cats.
Try a diet change: Some pets - cats and dogs - are prone to developing crystals that can feel like microscopic shards of glass scraping the urethra and bladder. In those cases, Price recommends a prescription diet that can help dissolve those crystals and bring pets relief.
Call for reinforcements: Sometimes you have to get crafty. When one finicky cat kept urinating on the carpet, Price says that a behaviorist placed carpet swatches inside the litter box, gradually adding kitty litter until the problem subsided.
Get a bigger litter box: Today's cat carries a little more junk in the trunk, making it difficult for some to enter and exit standard litter boxes. Dale recommends using plastic storage containers, which are larger and easier to adjust.
"With older cats, you can cut them down even more so they don't have to walk over the side," he says. "Just make sure the edges aren't sharp."
Problem No. 2: Obesity
Veterinarians classify 55 percent of their feline patients as overweight or obese, according to a study by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. Take proactive measures to protect your cat from the risk of arthritis, diabetes and other health issues.
"Prevention is much easier to accomplish than treatment, so consult your veterinarian about the right diet and exercise regimen for your pet," says Dr. Barry Kellogg, senior veterinary adviser for Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association.
Take a second look at your cat's waistline: It can be difficult to separate fact from fiction and admit that Fluffy isn't really, well, fluffy. When in doubt, ask the vet for guidance. Price says that she spends a good part of her day explaining to clients that their pets are overweight. The Obesity Prevention Association offers tools to assess your cat's weight, including a detailed illustration that shows characteristics of fat felines.
"Just like with people, it doesn't happen overnight," Dale says. "Our image of weight has been skewed. What's normal for a cat in the 1950s may not be normal today in 2012."
Monitor eating habits: Feeding cats people food - whether it's a nibble of cheese or a slice of turkey - can add tons of extra calories to their diet and extra pounds to a small frame. Dale and Price warn against free feeding (leaving food out all day), particularly in multiple-cat households.
"You pour more [kibble] in so cat B gets more, and cat A grows," says Dale, who recommends separate feeding areas. "Cats can easily train us to keep filling that food dish, and that isn't a good way to feed our cats."
Avoid adjusting kibble intake too much: Crash diets don't work for people or cats, Price warns. Sharp decreases in food intake can damage a cat's liver. Start by opting for light versions of your cat's favorite kibble. Use label instructions as a guideline. If you notice weight gain, increase activities or gradually reduce the amount. Leaving bowls of kibble out all day is like keeping a bowl of potato chips on your desk. The temptation to overeat can be difficult for even the most finicky cats.
Kick-start that prey drive: While indoor cats have a longer life span, they also tend to be more sedentary, Dale says. Trigger your cat's prey drive by hiding 10 to 15 percent of its kibble in treat puzzles or toys. In houses with stairs, he suggests placing some food downstairs so cats have to navigate "speed bumps." It also helps to pull out the feather toys or laser pointers and enjoy a little playtime each day.
Monitor a cat's appetite after its spay/neuter: Price has noticed a change in metabolism among recently spayed or neutered cats. Dale also notes that a cat's appetite increases within 48 hours of the procedure. Combine appetite changes with a decrease in activity level and you get a recipe for additional pounds. He notes that pet food companies such as Royal Canin have launched formulas specifically made for cats that have been spayed or neutered.
"It's a unique kibble shape that takes longer to chew," he says, noting studies that indicate people tend to feel full when they take more time to eat. "The shape is also healthy for their teeth and there are weight control properties in the diet as well."
Problem No. 3: Aggression toward humans
While aggression is a cause for concern, Dale says the behavior can be fixed. Patience is key.
Get socialized: Just as puppies attend obedience classes, Dale is a proponent of kitten classes and has developed acurriculum for feline students. The sessions allow cat owners to master caregiving essentials such as understanding body language, providing dental care and grooming. Cats also benefit from interacting with other cats, tolerating a mock veterinary exam and traveling in carriers.
"Cats and kittens can learn as much as dogs or puppies can," Dale says. "What's more important is that the bond will be enhanced between the owner and, in this case, the kitten or cat."
• How to get that cat to the vet
• Greener kitty litter options
• Why does my cat bite when I pet her?
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