Dear Dr. Fox:

My boyfriend and I adopted a 11 / 2-year-old cat. She’s our princess, and we try to make her as comfortable as possible, because she’s alone all day in our one-bedroom apartment.

We bought her shelving to perch on, two scratching posts (one vertical, one horizontal), numerous toys, cat grass and a water fountain. She’s a loving, friendly, healthy cat. One thing, though, is unsettling: We can’t seem to redirect her scratching.

We put double-sided tape on the couch and mattress, and she doesn’t scratch there now. However, she doesn’t appear to use her scratching posts, either. I know scratching is necessary for cats to mark their territory and stretch.

What can I do to teach her that she is allowed to scratch appropriate items to her heart’s desire, but not other things?

V.S., the District

DF: Cats generally avoid using scratch posts that are not secure. A post or board that wobbles when they are reaching up and clawing can spook them. Some posts are simply too short for the cats to enjoy a full stretch before they start clawing. Providing a good, solid scratch post is the first step.

Rubbing dried catnip into the material on the post might make it more attractive to your cat. Be sure the material is not cheap, looped carpeting that snares the cat’s claws. Most cats seem to like a short-cut pile or sisal woven twine or even a sturdy log with natural bark. Our two cats enjoy the sturdy, veterinarian-designed PurrFect Post, available at www.

Some cats are “copycats,” so get down on your knees in front of your cat and claw the post with your fingers. Then place her front paws against the post and alternately move them up and down so that she gets the idea. Several repetitions of this should do the trick. Keep a squirt gun filled with water to spritz her when you catch her clawing things she shouldn’t.

Geriatric care needed

Dear Dr. Fox:

Our 17-year-old Maltese is failing. He has limited vision and hearing, and his hind legs and hips are weak.

We feed him your home recipe, but lately he can’t seem to keep it down, and his stools are loose. We took him to a vet, who suggested a bitter-tasting medicine to stop the nausea. We’re hesitant to give him any more drugs. A previous drug for incontinence made him very sick.

We know he is probably in or near his last days. We want him to be comfortable. He has very few teeth left, so food choices are limited.

J.P., Alexandria

DF: Phenylpropanolamine, the commonly prescribed medicine for incontinence, can make some dogs restless and cause palpitations and panting. If your dog is on this, I would stop the medication and get him used to wearing a disposable baby diaper or doggy pad. Put a larger pad where he lies down.

My 17-year-old dog has had episodes of gastric upset and nausea. She responds well to a day of boiled white rice water (essentially “mini-fasting”) and then two to three days of boiled white rice with a bit of cottage cheese or scrambled egg and Gerber baby food (turkey, chicken or beef). She is then given her regular food, and she regains her normal appetite and vitality.

Digestive enzymes and probiotics might be beneficial for older dogs that periodically go off their food. The number one reason for this is kidney failure, for which there are beneficial medications and supplements your veterinarian can prescribe.

I always advise a veterinary checkup at such times in an animal’s life. A routine veterinary examination every six months is an integral part of geriatric care. This includes fine-tuning your pet’s diet; evaluating fluid intake and hydration; and checking urea, phosphate and potassium levels, as well as levels of cardinal indices of metabolism. This helps in maximizing comfort and deciding when it is time to let the animal go and administer euthanasia.

Many older animals, like humans, show muscle wasting that is not entirely because of reduced activity but protein loss with impaired kidney function. This calls for the inclusion of high-quality protein in the diet rather than following the old protocol of providing less protein when kidney function is poor.

Too many pills?

Dear Dr. Fox:

We have a border collie mix. She’s about 15 months old, was spayed at 6 months and seems to be in good health. We feed her Halo dry food and one cup cooked food, as per your recipe, along with chondroitin and glucosamine supplements.

A few weeks ago, we noticed that she started having “accidents.” She has been housebroken for a long time. After checking her urine, the vet decided it must be urinary incontinence from being spayed.

Our veterinarian put her on two phenylpropanolamine pills a day. According to the vet, she will have to take them for the rest of her life. Also, she has always had very strong urine and has destroyed the grass in our back yard. So she is also taking Nutri-Vet Grass Guard Max pills.

I think we are overloading this poor dog with pills and would like to know whether there is a better way. She gets lots of exercise, is a very sweet dog and doesn’t seem to have an ounce of extra fat on her.

K.A., St. Peters, Mo.

DF: Your dog is young and, if she is being provided with good nutrition, does not need the chondroitin and glucosamine supplements.

Being so young, she is prone to develop cystitis. If your veterinarian did not check her urine for bacterial infection and simply attributed her incontinence to being spayed, I would consult another veterinarian.

It is true that because of the hormonal deficiencies caused by spaying, some dogs have poor urinary sphincter control. This is the risk-benefit trade-off with having a dog spayed. Other notable benefits include reduced incidences of cancer and uterine infection (pyometra).

Because urine tests might not reveal that the dog has mild cystitis, I would treat her for that possibility for a few days to see whether she improves, and then put her on the anti-incontinence medication prescribed by your veterinarian, if she needs it.

Take her off the purported grass-protecting pills. Give her a teaspoon of cider vinegar or two tablespoons of unsweetened cranberry juice concentrate or tomato juice mixed in with her food daily. Also take her off the phenylpropanolamine, which often has mild to severe adverse side effects on some dogs, and see whether she improves.

If there is no cystitis and the incontinence persists, diethylstilbestrol (DES) is an alternative medication that is effective and is needed only periodically. It is one that you should discuss with your veterinarian. This hormone replacement treatment, used for a few days, can have beneficial effects that last for months without repeated treatment.

Although DES is not without risk, especially with long-term use, it is the best choice for dogs that have adverse reactions to phenylpropanolamine. In some instances dogs will vomit, develop high blood pressure, pant, become lethargic, show tremors or twitching and require hospitalization, often because of drug overdose. This can be avoided by stopping the medication as soon as adverse signs are evident.

Michael W. Fox, author of a newsletter and books on animal care, welfare and rights, is a veterinarian with doctoral degrees in medicine and animal behavior. Write to him at United Feature Syndicate, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, Mo. 64106.

2011 United Feature Syndicate