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Pet products don’t always solve problems

  • New York Times News Service
  • Published Friday, Sep. 13, 2013, at 12 a.m.

Back in March, I wrote about a wily raccoon that kept sneaking into our house through a swinging cat door.

We thought we had solved the problem by installing a new door that opens by radio frequency emitted from the tags on our cats’ collars. The only problem was that the cats hated the noise the door made and refused to use it.

We hoped they’d get used to it.

But six months later, Archie and Lily still view it with the same petrified stare as they did in the beginning.

That made me wonder about other pet problems and the products that owners buy to solve them.

There’s a caveat. What works for one pet may prove disastrous for another: different pets, different temperaments and different owners. Nonetheless, it can be useful to hear what some animal behavior experts and longtime pet owners suggest – or don’t – and why.

After all, Americans spent $53.3 billion on pet products last year, more than $12 billion of that for supplies and over-the-counter medicine, according to the American Pet Products Association.

First, what about sprays that are supposed to stop your cat from scratching your furniture? I’ve bought several bottles of different brands and spritzed them on the arms of the living room chairs. The cats walk up, sniff and then proceed to shred the chair as usual.

“I haven’t had much luck with sprays,” said Stephen Zawistowski, a science adviser to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He suggested putting double-sided tape, aluminum foil or Bubble Wrap on the places the cats like to scratch, while offering them an alternative scratching post nearby.

That strategy has worked for me. I put catnip on a flat, corrugated cardboard box, and the cats claw away.

Other sprays that promise to get rid of urine smells rarely do. Almost everyone I spoke to, including a friend who is down to five cats from eight, said none of them seemed to truly work.

The idea behind all these products, such as the most common, Nature’s Miracle, is not only to dispel the unpleasant odor for humans, but to discourage the pets from urinating in the same spot again.

“I no longer buy any of them,” my friend said. “I mix together half vinegar and half water with three to four drops of Dawn liquid dishwashing detergent and use it.” It seems to work, she said, even though it sometimes makes her house smell like salad dressing.

Automatic litter boxes don’t seem to have a lot of fans. They work this way: Sometime after the cat has done its business, a rake runs through the litter and deposits the excrement into a bag.

Besides being expensive – $100 and up – Zawistowski said that if the automatic cleaner started while the cats were in the box, it could frighten them so much they would avoid it altogether. If you own multiple cats, one can jump in after the first and “you have to make sure it doesn’t operate while the second cat is in the box,” he said.

Now on to dogs. One common product – retractable leashes – provoked the ire of several experts.

They don’t offer much control over a dog’s movements, said Michael Shikashio, president of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, a trade organization. “They can also be hazardous to both the dog and human, as the line can injure either party when the dog moves at high speed away from its handler and the line gets caught on a leg or fingers,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Harnesses designed to keep dogs from jumping aren’t a great idea either, he added.

“In my experience, I have yet to have a client tell me this type of harness works to prevent jumping,” Shikashio said. “I would also be concerned about how the harness would affect the dog’s physical structure over time and prolonged usage.”

People often use harnesses on big dogs to stop them from pulling, Zawistowski said, but that has the opposite effect.

“That’s why we put harnesses on sled dogs, because it distributes their weight and makes it easier for them to pull,” he said. Devices that fit over the dog’s head and muzzle, like a bridle on a horse, are much more effective, he added.

Now here’s a product that has received mixed reviews, but when it works it seems to really work. Nina Easton, a longtime dog and cat owner, was worried when her 13-year-old cocker spaniel, Sammy, developed an anxiety disorder a few years ago. After spending hundreds of dollars on tests and trying everything from over-the-counter calming pills to Prozac, she was told about the ThunderShirt.

Aimed at calming dogs during thunderstorms, it looks like a small blanket fastened with Velcro and is supposed to relax an animal, like swaddling a baby.

“For $40, we’ve reduced the problem about 75 percent,” Easton said.

On the other hand, JoAnna Haugen, who responded to a query I put out online about pet products, said the ThunderShirt made her dog crazy.

“The vet suggested it, and said it might calm her down,” Haugen said. “We tried it on half a dozen times and she started having accidents around the house. It panicked her.”

On a lighter note, there are a lot of pet products out there that, while thought to be harmless, are just plain weird. Michele C. Hollow, who writes the blog Pet News and Views, named a few: collars made of rabbit or fox fur, dye for pet fur, perfume for dogs, collars that light up when your cat purrs and a pet highchair.

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