Q: At least one of our cats has been going in the large potted plants in our family room. Fortunately, no one is eliminating elsewhere outside their litter boxes. How can we stop our cats from using our large planters as their litter boxes?
A: You'll need to take two steps to solve this problem. First, make your cats' litter boxes so appealing that the cats prefer them. Next, modify the planters so they are less attractive to your cats.
To accomplish step one, keep in mind the cardinal rules of litter boxes. Have at least one box more than the number of cats in the family. Place the boxes in quiet areas where the cats won't be disturbed, with at least one box on each floor of your home.
Offer a variety of litter box styles, some open and others covered for privacy. The boxes should be large but easy for elderly cats to step into.
One of my favorites is an inexpensive plastic cement mixing tray from a home improvement store. Another option is an even larger plastic box designed to store clothing under the bed.
Research shows that cats prefer soft, unscented, clumping litter. Provide two varieties so your cats have choices.
Scoop the boxes at least once daily, and empty and scrub the boxes regularly.
Step two is to make the planters uninviting. Since cats like soft litter or dirt, cover the soil in your pots with large, decorative river stones. If that doesn't work, cover the pots temporarily with aluminum foil.
If necessary, set up a pet repellent system such as SSSCat, which couples a motion detector with a hissing noisemaker.
If these ideas don't work, you'll need to identify the culprit(s) by setting up a motion-activated video camera or video baby monitor.
Or, you can grate crayons of different colors, mix them with canned cat food and feed a different color to each cat. You'll soon know who's using the potted plants.
Once you determine the guilty cat(s), make an appointment with your veterinarian.
Q: Should I have my mixed-breed dog's DNA tested? I'm pretty sure by looking at Lucy that I know her breed ancestry.
A: You may be correct about Lucy's breeding, but research shows that when veterinarians, shelter professionals and other dog experts are asked to identify a mutt's predominant breed, they are wrong 90% of the time.
It's fun to know your dog's breed composition, even if only to answer friends' questions accurately.
But DNA testing is important for medical reasons as well. Most canine DNA testing companies identify not only the dog's breeds but also many gene mutations that increase the risk of certain diseases and drug sensitivities.
For example, the MDR1 gene, or multidrug resistance gene, affects how a dog metabolizes common medications, anesthetics and chemotherapeutics. If Lucy is known to carry a mutated MDR1 gene, your veterinarian can choose alternative drugs and dosages to minimize side effects.
Recognizing whether Lucy carries other mutated genes allows you and your veterinarian to plan strategies to prevent those diseases or detect them early. This avoids prolonged, expensive workups and identifies diseases when treatment is most effective.
Lee Pickett, VMD, practices companion animal medicine in North Carolina. Contact her at