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THE COLD-WEATHER CAT

When Jack Frost begins nipping at your nose, it's time to give thought to creature comforts - or the comfort of your creatures. Although your cat is often low-maintenance by nature, during the cold, winter months, you'll need to help her make some changes.

Letting your pet come inside at her own discretion is one of the most important aspects of winter cat care. For cold regions of the country, try installing a pet door with draft protection, a feature in which a "double door" forces the outer door to close before the inner door opens, trapping cold air before it enters the house. This leaves your pet with all her options and cuts wear and tear on your wallet as well as the environment.

Making it Comfy

Inside, there's nothing better than a cozy bed to defy the elements. But that doesn't mean your cat won't want to stretch her paws and play even if she can't go out. To keep her fit and happy, choose from a variety of playhouses. Covered with soft carpet, ideal for climbing and claw sharpening, they range from simple A-frame styles to elaborate carpet-covered trees, perches or houses. If you're adventurous, you can make a veritable cat city. But you'll also want to keep her active by providing toys to satisfy her curiosity and need to hunt.

Jingling balls, feathers, velvet-soft catnip toys, ball mazes and other favorites can keep her active for hours. Leave toys throughout the house, or play with them with her. Shining a flashlight on the floor will keep her amused as she chases it from wall to wall. Cat versions even come complete with images of mice to ward off the indoor blues.

Winterizing the Litter Box

Whenever your cat remains indoors, the litter box assumes more importance. Try getting it away from drafty areas, such as doors or windows. If you start to notice litter box behavior problems as the temperature drops, uncomfortable drafts could be a possible explanation. But since cats are creatures of routine, your cat may be inclined to use her old spot out of habit. Make any location changes gradually.

A draft-proof litter box may be a better solution, and there are many kinds available. (Some will even scoop the litter for you!) Changing to a different box can cause behavioral problems in an older cat. Try placing the old box inside the new box and letting her make the transition over time. Experiment with various types of boxes and litter to see which she prefers.

Most cats take winter in stride, but don't be surprised if you find your pet friskier as the cold sets in. Encourage playfulness by relieving some of your holiday stress with a rousing game of cat and mouse or a cuddle on the couch. After all, when the winter winds howl outside, there's nothing more soothing to either of you than the sound of her purring in your arms.