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HOT CAT IN THE SUMMERTIME

Kitties generally don't relish the heat, but if you have a few tricks, or toys, up your sleeve, you can keep your cat engaged, playful and healthy.

Each year, when summer settles down for its usual long, hot haul, my cat starts sleeping more than usual.

"How can you tell?" quips my husband.

Cat devotees know the answer. When you love your cat to excess, so much that you're fascinated watching him wash his face for the six-hundredth time, you notice every subtle change in habit or mood.

When my cat, McGee, starts stretching out those 16 daily dozing hours to 17 and beyond, it would be easy to disregard his need for physical activity altogether. After all, as you cat fanatics also know, the hours a cat is alert and frisky are pretty much the hours most human beings are sleeping.

But if I forgo kitty play sessions until the autumn, McGee will become not only reproachful and whiny, but 3 pounds overweight. And when your fighting weight is 11 pounds, even the best grooming job can't disguise those extras.

So how do I keep McGee active when he's weary with what he perceives as truly the dog days of the year? I break out the toys.

These don't have to be brand-new, fancy, cat-specific toys. Sometimes flinging a piece of cloth up over McGee's head is all it takes to get him chasing and pouncing like a kitten. Another trick I've discovered is to toss a few Ping-Pong balls in an empty bathtub and show him how easy it is to get them knocking wildly around.

Of course nothing beats a toy scented or filled with catnip. Watching McGee lose all traces of his usual self-consciousness by throwing himself onto a little burlap bag of catnip and rubbing his face into it over and over is pretty fun for me, too.

The key to keeping a smart cat engaged is novelty. If I bring out the same foam ball or feather-on-a-string two days in a row, McGee practically rolls his eyes before slouching off for his favorite napping spot on the rocking chair cushion.

Keeping things fresh, fortunately, doesn't necessarily mean providing an endless parade of flashy new toys. It means hiding them. Out of sight, out of mind. I've learned it takes less than two weeks for McGee to lose all memory of a toy that he hunted or chased for nearly half an hour with determination. When I fish out the hidden treasure after the requisite period, he literally jumps in the air.

Occasionally, I must admit, I feel like indulging my cat, and nothing thrills McGee more than those interchangeable stick toys that come with different lures for a cat to stalk and scurry after. Those, by definition, meet the novelty requirement, too.

You may not always be able to tease your cat into a play session, but trying to keep your cat as active as possible is the best prescription for good health all summer long.