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Service dogs have a job to do, so don't distract them  

If you are unsure about an interaction, ask

If you are unsure about an interaction, ask the service dog's owner or handler for permission to pet the dog. Credit: Dreamstime

Q Often when I am shopping or visiting a park, I encounter service dogs and pets on leashes. I know I should not engage with a service dog unless the owner encourages contact. Often, though, I come upon pets that want contact and interact with me.

My question is, how should I approach pets and service animals in these situations?

— Pete

A As you point out, people shouldn't interact or distract service animals while they are working, because the distraction could cause them to miss something they need to do. Take, for example, bomb-sniffing dogs at the airport. While there are times when the officers in the airport might allow some interaction as part of airport goodwill, airport patrons should not engage the dogs, make any kissy noises or do anything to distract them from what they are doing, which is keeping us safe.

This goes for any service animal helping people. If you are unsure about an interaction, just ask the dog's owner or handler for permission to pet the dog.

As for someone's leashed pet, the same basic protocols apply. Even if a dog is head butting you to pet him, ask the owner or handler for permission to pet their dog first. There may be an instance where a dog owner might need to give you some information prior to engaging the dog such as, "He's got an earache on the left side, so stick to this right side when petting him."

Thanks for the question.

Q We've had our indoor cat for four years and she has always used a covered litter box with no problem. Recently, she has been pooping around the litter box instead of in it. She seems to want the cover off, but she really never had a problem until now. We don't want to switch to uncovered because she kicks litter all over.

We've tried putting a cat-attracting additive in the litter, but it didn't make any difference. Can we do something to get her back to pooping in her box?

— Linda, Mineola

A Litter box problems are a cat's way of saying something is wrong. The problem is, wrong could mean many things to a cat. From her not liking the placement of the box anymore because suddenly there's a lack of privacy to not liking the depth of the litter, the scent of the litter or the frequency for which the litter is cleaned. Some cleaning products can cause litterbox issues too. (Never clean a litterbox with citrus-scented products.)

Because of the newness of the problem, however, I recommend getting her checked by a vet to make sure she is not constipated. Even if her stools are not rock hard, she could be having some abdominal discomfort or even anal itching, which can change a cat's litterbox habits in a heartbeat.

When cats are constipated or having trouble pooping, they sometimes go from pooping in the box to needing to stand on the edge of the box to make things happen. If there's a covered box and she can't do that, she may opt for near the box instead. If it's near the box, at least you know she is trying.

Take her to the vet to make sure things are working fine on that end. Continue using the cat litter attractant. And, take the lid off the litterbox for a few days to see if she starts to use it.

Q I have been feeding some feral cats and kittens who have been old enough to run around and eat on their own since late June. Can I stop feeding them without doing them any harm?

— Joan, New York

A These cats have relied on you for food, so if you stop feeding them, they will need to find a new food source. They may expand their territory and become more visible in the neighborhood as they search for food or may get sick and weak when there is no fresh water or nutrition to be found.

If you can't afford to feed them anymore, find a humane society or food pantry for some cat food or ask your neighbors to help with the feeding, so this doesn't all fall on you. If you can't feed them for any other reason — and your neighbors won't help — call a local feral cat group to see if they can send out an appeal for a volunteer to take over feeding (and fixing) these cats. (Kitten can get pregnant by four months.)

Cathy M. Rosenthal is a longtime animal advocate, author, columnist and pet expert who has more than 25 years in the animal welfare field. Send your pet questions, stories and tips to Please include your name, city, and state. You can follow her @cathymrosenthal.

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