Dan's Data letters #195Publication date: Jan-2008.
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.
Just make Teddy do it
We own two cats. They make our house jolly and merry. And smelly. And I'm getting a bit sick of coming home ("Honey, I'm home! Here to keep you safe from the Communist threat!") to the smell of cat faeces.
I was thinking of training them to crap in the In-Sink-Erator, but this may have its own unintended consequences. (Hint: hilarity ensues!)
While 19th Century England used its greatest minds to solve the problems of the day (How did we get here? Where did the dinosaur bones come from? Is there more to food than gruel?), 21st Century America now leads the charge, applying all of its ingenuity to develop...
Yes, the world's most advanced automatic litter tray. There are, seriously, others - but this one is special. Unlike other automatic litter trays, some of which are cat-strangling robots, this one is plumbed in.
The cat... soils... the beads, the cat steps out, the machine sifts through the beads to find the dirty ones, washes them, and sends the awful watery mess down the drain. And then it dries the beads, in a manner not at all terrifying to cats, so that they're safe to use again.
Getting to the point: I want one. No, I need one. But they're from the US, and expect to see a rather measly 110V at a rather excessive 60Hz. Here in Tasmania, like the rest of Australia, we use 230V at 50Hz.
Now, I know I could use a step-down transformer to feed this thing the voltage that it needs. But given that it runs on motors and other frequency-dependent things, will the 60/50Hz thing be a problem? If so, is there any way around this?
Of course, if the whole unit ran on DC I wouldn't be surprised, but it's hard to tell from the Web site, and the emailed response I got from the company was less than helpful. I know that if there were an external plugpack required this would mildly increase the likelihood that the thing works on DC, but the online manual (PDF) shows that the power cord is integrated (i.e., no external plug pack).
Oh, and I have also scoured the forums of Automatic Litterbox Central. I feel so ashamed.
Tom (probably not this Tom)
We've got three cats, only one of which goes outside at all. Result: Poo in the house.
We use that Natty Cat lucerne (and, more recently, pine sawdust) litter, which smells sort of Easter Show-ish when wet, and is (in modest quantities) safely flushable. Though I have, of course, more than once been elbow-deep in cat poo soup manually clearing the toilet elbow when I shovelled too much in there.
(The Natty Cat stuff can also just be shovelled onto your garden.)
Our house has one nice bathroom and one old ratty one, so the litter trays go in the old ratty one. My office is next door to that bathroom, so I'm the one who gets to know when the trays need emptying, but it's still a pretty workable proposition.
I, like you, have been intrigued by the concept of the automatic litter box. But all of them, including the CatGenie, have their problems - I presume you've already read this.
(And then there's this Penny Arcade commentary.)
The CatGenie has a rather alarming lip around the litter and a small-ish tray area (it really does look a bit cramped), so I wouldn't be surprised if many cats refused to use it altogether, when they've got the simpler option of just taking a leak behind the bath. Or they could poo in the CatGenie and wee somewhere else.
Assuming the thing turns out to be compatible with your cats, though, it ought to be no big deal getting it to run in Australia.
As you say, the entire CatGenie site is utterly determined to never show you how the damn thing plugs into the wall. But whether it plugs in directly or has a separate AC adapter, there's a decent chance in this day and age that it's got a switchmode power supply in it, which won't care at all about the input frequency (or waveform, for that matter). It may even be natively world-compatible, and only need a plug adapter, not a step-down converter.
If it's got a boring old linear power supply than that supply will run hotter from 50Hz than from 60Hz. Since it's got a pretty short duty cycle and is apparently only a 20 watt device at most, though, I'd expect both the transformer and the motor(s) to be OK. A step-down transformer with about a 50VA rating should be more than enough.
If the CatGenie uses an old-style mains frequency timer system (like old electric clocks), the frequency change will make each part of the cleaning cycle run 1.2 times as long. That shouldn't be a problem either.
I note that the "Washable Granules" the CatGenie uses are supposed to be biodegradable, yet they don't fall apart when the gadget washes them or when a cat pees on them. So I guess they're made out of one of those slowly biodegradable plastics. You could therefore probably replace them with other biodegradable plastic of the same dimensions, rather than buy expensive replacements from overseas. I'd be amused if biodegradable Airsoft balls turned out to work.
After this page went up, a reader wrote to recommend the Omega Paw RA15 and RA20, which sound like Transformers but are actually inexpensive manual self-cleaning litter boxes. The "Roll'n Clean" system they use automatically sieves lumps (you have to use clumping litter) out of the litter when you roll the box around onto its top and then back down again; the clumps end up in a drawer for relatively easy removal.
I get the impression that you're something of an expert on domestic felines. I'm not (due to allergies in the household) so while I was bathing my dog, I got to wondering: how does a person wash a cat? Is it even necessary, since they tend to be very clean all by themselves? What if a cat comes in from the rain covered in mud (I'm sure some do)?
Cats seem to be inherently aquaphobic which suggests that even getting a cat *near* water for the purposes of washing would be difficult...or even dangerous.
These web sites give some humorous insights into the process:
But, I'd like to hear from a real cat owner. Your thoughts?
I don't know about the "expert" thing, but I haven't set any cats on fire by mistake yet. (That's right, only ever on purpose.)
So - how do you wash a cat?
Some cats actually do like water - the Turkish Van breed, for instance, is famous for that, and random individual cats of other breeds are fine with water as well. In that case, a warm bath that doesn't involve anything nasty going in their eyes shouldn't be a big deal. You can kind of trick other cats into tolerating bathing if the water's warm, too, but I wouldn't bet on it being easy. And most cats like even the sneakiest kind of bathing about as much as you'd expect. A leather apron and full-length welding gauntlets are advisable equipment.
But no, bathing cats is not normally necessary. If a cat's gotten filthy somehow (like the fell-in-a-mud-puddle example you suggest), or has something nasty on them that you don't want them to lick off, then an ordinary bath is worthwhile. Likewise, there are medicated baths for skin complaints and fleas and ringworm and so on (though when our #2 cat had ringworm we just used cream on his bald bits).
Flea baths, powders and collars (which never achieved much) are largely things of the past now, with the arrival of DMSO-solvent-based flea treatments that you apply between the shoulder blades of cats and dogs. Those are very easy to apply, and make the animal basically fleaproof for months.
I dare say show cats get bathed, as well. But ordinary moggies with an ordinary life can quite easily live that whole life without needing even one bath.
Some people who're allergic to their cats bathe them to keep dander and shedding levels down. This strikes me as a leading indicator that you've chosen the wrong darn pet. If you're mildly allergic to cats - I am - just take antihistamines now and then. If that's not enough and you simply must have a cat, the Devon and Cornish Rex breeds are low on fuzz and great fun to be around, and the even weirder Sphynx is practically hypoallergenic.
(Some cats, by the way, will let you vacuum loose hair and dirt off them. I had one like that years ago; the little lunatic just laid there purring even if I was feeding his tail down the tube. The odds of any random cat putting up with this are, of course, extremely slim.)
There was a good Ask Metafilter about this, including a number of sneaky strategies, the other day.
I'm trying to modify a "water fountain for cats" to sterilize the water with UV LEDs. What wavelength should I be looking for?
Google says about 280 nanometer light is the way to go, but I can't even find any for sale at that wavelength. The prices I do see on UV LEDs seem to jump dramatically once you get lower than ~370nm.
Is there a cheaper way to do this, or should I just take the damn thing apart and scrub it out like normal people do? I don't mind spending a couple bucks if I can make it actually work, but one of those $200 pre-made wand-style UV sterilizers, like this "Purelight UV Sterilizing Wand" (whose "light expectancy" (sic) is 15,000 hours, so I presume it's using LEDs), just seems too easy.
No commercial LED is any use for germicidal purposes. They all output near-UV, way up in the harmless high UVA range; 280nm is between the sunburning UVB and the really ferocious, fortunately-stopped-by-the-atmosphere UVC.
(I wrote more about UV in this old review.)
There are two common kinds of UV LED; the pale-white-looking ones that're genuine near UV, and the very-purple-looking ones that have a bit of near UV and a lot of visible violet. Neither type is anywhere near the hard UV wavelengths you need for killing germs (and causing cancers). Neither do disco-type fluorescent black lights; those emit a fair bit of violet and a decent amount of near-UV, but (fortunately for nightclub patrons and luminous-Jimi-Hendrix-poster owners) they emit pretty much nothing else.
210nm LEDs have been demonstrated in the lab, but don't hold your breath for anything like that on the retail shelves for a while yet, if ever. LED light output depends on the particular quantum behaviour of the materials that can be used to make the things (white LEDs cheat with a blue die and a phosphor layer on top), so it's quite possible that no 280nm-ish LED material will ever exist.
What you need is a proper germicidal lamp, either one of the fluorescent-tube-without-phosphor types, or one of the short-arc ones. An old aquarium steriliser or EPROM eraser would do the trick on a budget, I think.
I don't think there are any "ghetto" alternatives, here. Halogen lamps with no glass shield emit significant UV, but they waste a lot of power, and one close enough to the water to kill bugs would probably kill them in a more direct way by making the water very hot. An ozone or saltwater chlorine generator could also be used to sterilise the water, but the result would probably not be considered drinkable by most pets.
The "Purelight" wand you mention looks to me as if it's got a tube-type germicidal lamp in it, not LEDs. The claims they make for it seem somewhat overblown, too. I don't know about the lifespan - I wouldn't be surprised if they were just making it up, or had slipped a decimal point on the spec sheet; a basic UV tube really could last a rather long time if it didn't leak, though. The sterilisation claims, however, are definitely overdone.
That lamp might well kill 99.9 per cent of the tiny livestock that're exposed to its light, but if you're waving it around over your couch, carpet, mattress or whatever, the bacteria and dust mites that're shaded from the light by upholstery fibres will be A-OK, and they will migrate to the denuded surface in hours, if not minutes.
Spritzing vodka on your couch would probably be quite a lot more effective, not to mention create vapours that reduced your irrational concerns about contamination. If you've got a reasonably functional immune system, sterilisation of things on which you intend to sit is unlikely to be necessary.
(A significant amount of "pasteurised" foods, by the way, are today sterilised not by raising them to a high temperature according to Louis Pasteur's original process, but by exposing them to strong UV light. This only works for liquids like milk, which can be stirred around so the entire volume encounters the light. You can't sterilise an apple that way.)
Now that I think of it, a good old fashioned arc lamp emits tons of ultraviolet light. Welding arcs are downright famous for giving people hideous sunburn on exposed skin, and corneal scalds (if viewed without proper protection) that only become apparent the next day, and are quite horrible (but temporary) when they do. Apparently they feel like having sand in your eyes, for days on end.
An arc light is, of course, not terribly practical for pet-bowl sterilisation - danger, power consumption, neighbours banging on your door about total destruction of TV and radio reception, et cetera. But I feel duty bound to mention it, seeing as it's a quite low tech way of making very broadband electromagnetic radiation, should you desire to add some of that to your life.
I'm about to find myself searching the market for a new kitten. Is there a particular brand you'd recommend? As we all know, computers can't function properly without adequate insulation, and I find that felines are ideal for the purpose.
However, there are such a bewildering variety available that I don't know where to start. Abysinnian, Bengal, Russian Blue, it goes on. Needless to say, I don't want one that's going to end up pining for the fjords.
Are your cats indoor-only? I've been told that's the way to go, but I'm not 100% convinced, even though I can appreciate the benefits of safety etc. I'm worried about "Fingers" getting bored while I'm at work. Perhaps two is the answer.
Also, I've read that you're supposed to feed them boiled chicken necks and larks' spleens and other such exotica, which fills me with dread.
Anyway, all help you can offer in this most perplexing of decisions...
I've always just had moggies - the feline equivalent of a mongrel - who have always turned out well. If you adopt an adult cat then you may get a quite unsatisfying pet - if it's been mistreated or poorly socialised, it may behave like the classic only-turns-up-to-eat cat that scratches you if you try to pat it and leaves you wondering exactly why you got the creature in the first place.
But if you get 'em young and give them lots of human contact, or they're adults that've been brought up that way already, then there's every chance that J. Random Domestic Shorthair (or Longhair, if you like) will be as fine a cat as you could want.
People who spend considerably more to get themselves a pedigreed cat, and aren't doing it because they want to try to win ribbons and/or set themselves up as a breeder, may be doing it because they just want a particular style of animal. Big fluffy white thing, flat-faced funny-looking thing, strange bald thing, whatever.
Often, though, people buy a distinct breed of cat because they want the particular personality that breed is very likely to have. Moggies may want to spend all day on your lap, or may want to be near you but not on you, or may pretty much do their own thing all day. They may purr a lot or a little, they may miaow like rusty gates or be almost silent. They may be friendly with people and animals they've not met before, or aloof, or terrified, or violent. Their upbringing affects different aspects of their behaviour to differing degrees, but genetics is important too. And moggie genetics is, by definition, pretty much random.
Like I said, that's usually perfectly fine. If you don't mind rolling the dice about the exact kind of cat you're going to end up with, then a moggie's the way to go. And adopting one from a shelter will not only save you money, but may also save the animal's life - though kittens and puppies are pretty safe at most shelters; it's adult cats and dogs that almost always remain unadopted long enough to be put down.
Moggies are also less likely to unexpectedly cost you big bucks for veterinary treatment of some ghastly inherited ailment. Good breeders minimise health problems in purebred cats and dogs, but random hybrids invariably draw fewer tickets in the congenital-illness lottery.
If you want a particular set of personality characteristics, though, a pedigreed cat (or, of course, dog; there's a lot more room in the dog genome for strain variation, hence the much wider variety of dog breeds) will be likely to give them to you.
Pedigreed cats tend to be generally more affectionate than the average moggie, but there's plenty more variation in personality and other traits between the breeds. Which beastie you might most like to live with depends on your own taste; there's nothing for it but to do some research.
Personally, if I were getting a purebred cat, I'd quite like a Devon Rex, not because they look so weird (if you think the adults look like aliens, wait until you see the kittens...) but because they have a more dog-like involvement in what their humans are doing.
Regarding the indoor-only issue: We've got one cat who goes out for less than an hour every evening (he's always, strangely enough, whinging to go out before the last of the birds depart the feeder on the deck and we open the door, but he never actually stays out very long), and two who're indoor-only. Mickey got to wander around in the enclosed outdoor areas of our old flat, and so got the taste for fresh air; the other two have never been let out (well, not intentionally...), and seem perfectly happy indoors.
Tom, my previous cat who now lives with my mother, is allowed out - but since he used to weigh ten kilos and now has arthritis, he seldom ventures far from the doormat. He somehow managed to catch a mouse, maybe once a year, when he was younger; my theory is that they saw how fat he was, assumed that that was because he was the best hunter in history, and didn't even bother running, on the grounds that they'd only die tired. Tom presents zero risk to all other animals with a spinal cord, and very little to the rest of them. He once wandered inside with a snail trail all the way across him.
If you raise cats as indoor animals, it's usually fine, and you won't be responsible for any dead native wildlife, if such exists in your neighbourhood. Indoor cats are also statistically likely to live longer and cost you less in vet bills and anxiety. Cats that're let out are very likely to, at some point in their life, disappear for some time.
You'd think they'd get bored, but that really seems to seldom be an issue for cats. Cats do not get bored like dogs or humans do. I wouldn't like to shut a cat up all the time in a tiny bedsit apartment, but if they've got several snoozing spots and a few windows to look out of, I reckon that's good enough. And if they've got another cat or two to annoy when the people aren't around, they're even more likely to be fine.
Regarding strange and exotic food - feed your cat chicken bits and other stuff if you like, but it's no big deal. There are "raw food" activists, particularly among dog owners, who insist on odd selections of food meant to accurately represent what the animals would eat in the wild. But small cats in the wild eat a lot of carrion, and I don't see anybody aging meat on their front porch to fill that need.
(OK, "Jellymeat" cat food is pretty close, but I'm damned if I'll feed any cat of mine that crap.)
It has also been observed that to truly feed small cats their natural diet, you'd need to get hold of a lot of moths and little lizards.
Get quality dry food and a selection of wet food that you can spoon out without gagging (an all-fish wet food diet, with dry food snacks, is fine), and try to get your cat to eat lots of little meals every day rather than one or two big ones. Cats that graze all day are less likely to suffer urinary blockages, which are a big dangerous problem for a lot of male cats - essentially, they strain to wee for 36 hours, and then they drop dead. Tom ended up having his urethra rearranged to fix that; fortunately, he hasn't been able to see that area for some years, so the "feminisation" has not traumatised him.
Urinary blockage is also a moderate problem for female cats. I think the major cause of blockages in the past was the high salt levels that used to be common in commercial dry foods; my vet tells me they've fixed that now, so the problem's much rarer and the "feminisation" operation is now virtually unknown.
I've also discovered that big tins of tuna for humans are considerably cheaper per gram that little tins of tuna for cats, especially if you buy the big tins on special. Human-tuna may be short of taurine and therefore unsuitable for use as the only thing you feed a cat, but all of ours seem A-OK eating it plus ordinary commercial cat biscuits. I look forward to letting a passer-by see me put a spoon of fish in the cat plate, followed by a spoon of fish in my mouth.
Oh, and if you want easy, non-disgusting nutritious cat treats, I've found a big bag of cheap frozen prawns works well!