Selling Diagnostic Litter
Retailers can help customers monitor their cats’ health
By Elisa Jordan
According to Veterinary Pet Insurance in Brea, Calif., the No. 1 claim filed in 2005 and 2006 for cats was for urinary tract infections. Diabetes, kidney failure and ear infections follow. With millions of American cats at risk for urinary tract infection, it was only a matter of time before manufacturers began creating litters that could detect signs of illness.
“It’s hard to do,” says John York, president of Health Meter Cat Litter in Mira Mar Beach, Fla. “It took a lot of research and development, time and expense, to develop something that would do this.”
Now that companies have made diagnostic litters available, many cat owners and retailers are open to the idea.
“We’ve been carrying [diagnostic litter] for a good two years now,” says Sandy Schultz, store manager of Bark N Purr in Austin, Texas. “We recommend it to every customer whose cat has frequent urinary tract problems. One of our staff had a cat with this issue and he said it worked like a champ.”
But because it’s new technology and touches on a serious health concern, many people either don’t know about it or do but want more information.
“We haven’t really had many questions about those litters,” says Susan Southwick, co-owner of Animal Spirit in Cambridge, Mass. “We can always order stuff like that if customers are interested but I think people are probably skeptical. Perhaps we need to be more educated on if it actually works.”
Diagnostic litters are evenly coated in a pH detector. If there is a change in the cat’s pH, the litter changes color, indicating the cat should visit the veterinarian for a diagnosis.
“Cats can be treated very easily if you get to the veterinarian as soon as you get a reading,” says Ralph. J. Speckel, president and chief executive officer of Pet Ecology Brands Inc. in Dallas.
Despite the term “diagnostic litter,” York says the product is meant to alert a cat owner of a possible health condition, not diagnose at home.
Breaking It Down
So what does a change in pH mean and how does it affect a cat’s urinary and bladder health?
“Picture a scale 0 to 14, let’s just say,” says Tim Barber, chief operating officer and director of research and development for Camarillo, Calif.-based Performance Plus Laboratories, maker of Super Absorbent Ultralite Cat Litter. “When the pH is neutral, that means it’s perfectly normal; there’s no acid in it and there’s no alkaline. You’re at 7.0 on the pH scale. That’s perfect. Everything above that, whether it’s 7.1 to 14 is called ‘base,’ which means it has a lot of alkaline in it. Everything below 7.0, going down to 0, is acidic. Both ends of the spectrum affect cats.”
When a cat’s urine becomes base, struvite crystals can develop. When the pH drops, it can produce oxalate crystals. Ninety percent of stones found in cats are struvite, says Jennifer Rotruck, D.V.M., owner of the House Call Vet in Destin, Fla. And it’s part of a larger issue.
“There’s something called FLUTD, which stands for feline lower urinary tract disease,” she says. “That basically includes three main conditions cats get in their bladders, one of which is bladder infections. The other is bladder stones and crystals. And then the other one, which is actually one of the most common ones—it actually goes by several names—is sterile cystitis. They are all part of the FLUTD, and they all show the exact same signs at home.”
Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease (FLUTD) is an all-encompassing term to describe the different diseases cats get in the bladder: infections, stones or crystals, and sterile cystitis (also called idiopathic cystitis or interstitial cystitis). Some causes for all three conditions may include genetic predisposition, poor diet, anatomic abnormalities, not enough moisture or water and presence of other diseases, such as kidney failure or diabetes. Physical symptoms for all three are the same: blood in urine, frequent visits to the litter box or squatting, crying or howling in the box.
Bladder infections are most common in cats over 10 years old. Infections are caused by bacteria from the back end that work their way up into the bladder.
Sterile cystitis is most common in cats younger than 10 years old. Sterile cystitis is a painful inflammation of the bladder. Causes are unknown but stress or changes in a cat’s life can contribute.
Crystals and stones are second to either bladder infections or sterile cystitis. They can come in many shapes, sizes and textures. They may look like anything from a pebble to shards of glass to sea urchins (sharp, pointy protrusions). Ninety percent of stones and crystals are struvite, which occur when a cat’s pH is high. The other 10 percent are oxalate, which develop when the pH is low.
Only veterinarians should make a diagnosis and determine treatment. Veterinarians should supervise all aspects of treatment, including any procedures, medication and diet. An early diagnosis may mean the difference between medication and surgery.
Because FLUTD causes extreme pain in cats, they may start to cry or relieve themselves outside their litter boxes after associating it with pain. Other symptoms may include excessive thirst, blood in the urine, over-cleaning the genital area, and frequent urination attempts without much production. Cats can show one or many of these signs. If left untreated, it can be fatal. Males are especially vulnerable to urethra blockage.
“Once a cat gets [an infection], there’s a 30 percent chance that it’s going to get another one,” Speckel says. “You really have to monitor urinary tract infections and that’s what this does.”
Dr. Rotruck says she encourages people to use diagnostic litters with cats that have had bladder problems in the past and with older cats.
“I recommend it for any cat because you just never know when they’re going to pop up with a problem,” she says.
She also points out that when owners go on vacation, pet sitters can check the box. If there’s a problem, cats don’t have to wait for the owners to come home.
Before Signs Show
One advantage of diagnostic litter is its ability to detect health concerns before cats show physical, painful signs.
“Cats hide their illnesses,” York says. “Usually by the time they’re showing they’re sick, it’s either going to be very expensive or it’s going to be too late to save that cat’s life.”
“Everybody thinks that if blood is present there’s an infection,” he says. “It’s not always blood. One of the first things you’ll notice is change in the pH.”
Manufacturers recommend that cats use the diagnostic litter every day, just as they would any other litter and not just if the owner suspects a problem. The point is to detect signs of illness early and before owners think there’s cause for concern. Because of this, manufacturers say they have addressed all the qualities owners look for in cat litter, such as moisture absorption and odor control.
“The most important thing about using it every day is that you’re looking for a trend,” York says. “If you see it every day and there’s no change, your cat’s healthy. If a few years later you see a blue color one day, which is what happened to us, take your cat to the vet.”
For best results, manufacturers say, it’s important that diagnostics stand alone in the box. It’s OK to mix litters while transitioning from one to another, but consumers should know it’s a possibility that a diagnostic litter may react to another litter or litter additives, such as odor-control agents.
To draw attention to diagnostic litters, retailers can set up a display section with litters that benefit feline health. Or they can simply set up a health display, which can open up a discussion with potential customers. <HOME>
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