This is why we can’t have nice things.
I repeat that phrase when the dog chews up my favorite eyeliner pencil or the cat scratches up the new duvet cover.
Though pet owners have probably been saying this since the dawn of dog domestication, the truth is that pet owners can have nice things. We just need to know how to keep our stuff safe while ensuring that our pets still get the enrichment they deserve.
As the pets writer for Wirecutter, a New York Times company that reviews and recommends products, I’ve learned a lot about pet supplies and animal behavior. There’s a ton of gear out there that keeps our pets from scratching, marking, or chewing on the wrong things. Yet deterrents alone won’t keep your belongings in like-new condition. You also need to guide your pet’s instinctual behaviors toward constructive outlets, like pet-friendly toys, and reinforce their good manners so they don’t revert to their troublesome ways. Here’s how.
Set them up for success
If I forget to close the bathroom door before I leave for work, I’ll come home to find my dog Sutton sitting on the tile floor, shredding a roll of toilet paper. Catching my dog in the act is one way to save my stuff from total annihilation, but I’m not always around to stop her.
It’s easier to keep my dog from trashing the place if I set her up for success from the start. First, I create roadblocks by stashing the toilet paper in a secure cabinet. Then I redirect her chewing impulses to a constructive outlet by leaving a chew stick on her bed before I head out the door.
The roadblock makes it harder for a pet to perform an unwanted behavior, and the enrichment activity allows them to safely act on their animal instincts. Regular exercise is a great form of enrichment that’s free. It’s also a bonding opportunity, and it will tire them out so they’re less likely to act out when you’re away.
If you want to up the fun factor, consider a monthly pet subscription box, which provides an assortment of toys and treats that are attractive to most pets. My pet-owning colleagues and I spent an entire summer testing 73 different kits, and we like the Meowbox for cats and the PupJoy Box for dogs for the quality and value of their gear and their flexible shipping options.
Keep cats from tearing up your stuff
“Stit, stit, stit, scratch” is a familiar tune in my home. It’s an overture that sounds whenever my cat Tanzie drags her nails down the frame of my sofa or bed. The instinct is understandable, because cats scratch to relieve stress, mark their territory, sharpen their claws, and as a form of play.
To keep my cat from scratching the furniture, I deploy Pioneer Pet’s “Sticky Paws” furniture strips. The long pieces of double-sided tape are more durable and wider than the kind you buy from Staples, and they cling securely to surfaces and don’t leave a residue behind when removed. I stick them to the side of the sofa, on the edges of curtains, or on baseboards to keep bad scratching habits at bay.
Then I direct my cat’s scratching impulses to a cat scratcher placed near her favorite scratching spots. I’ve tested dozens of cat scratchers with the help of 74 cats and kittens at a local rescue group, and these are my favorite scratching posts.
Prevent pets from peeing on everything
Pets sometimes pee where they’re not meant to — whether it’s because of poor training, a behavioral problem, or just an accident. And in a household full of stuff, it can be challenging to find just where the stench originates. Directing that behavior onto pet-friendly alternatives and reinforcing your pet’s good behavior with treats or praise will help your belongings stay pee-free.
Pads like the Iris Neat ‘n Dry aid in housebreaking dogs who think everything in sight is a tree, and they work well for elderly dogs who need a designated place to go indoors. The pads absorb liquids quickly, turning urine into a gel, so your dog won’t track pee-soaked paws through your home. Sutton learned the difference between a training pad and the rug at lightning speed whenever I fed her a pea-sized serving of cheese each time she used the pads or peed outdoors.
Cats who sneak behind the sofa to urinate can be dissuaded if you place a strip of aluminum foil back there (because they hate unfamiliar textures). But if they continue to relieve themselves nearby, they’re probably protesting a change in their environment — like if you switched to a scented cat litter or a smaller, hooded litter box for human convenience. Reverting back to your cat’s bathroom preferences may be a quick, inexpensive fix — as is scooping the litter box daily or having enough litter boxes in a multi-cat home. The A.S.P.C.A. offers a thorough explanation on litter box issues.
Other times, marking behavior can be a sign of a bigger concern, such as stress or pain. Synthetic pheromone sprays and diffusers can reduce territorial marking and alleviate newfound stress, say, if you’ve recently moved or added a new pet to the home. Wirecutter likes Feliway products for cats and Adaptil products for dogs.
But if your pet howls when they’re marking, or you see blood in their urine, it’s best to get them to the vet to rule out a urinary tract infection or other medical concerns.
Stop them from chewing on your things
Puppies and kittens are both prone to snacking on unattended, tasty-looking USB-C charging cables, and those resulting frayed cords may damage your equipment with improper power flow, are fire hazards, and can cause electrocution. Keep your home-office buddy safe by wrangling tangled-up cords with reusable cable ties, cable sleeves, and a power strip hider. Then lift them out of paw’s reach and secure them with a wall hook or tape them to the underside of your desk.
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Cats and dogs who love to chew on furniture legs, door frames, or houseplants may be deterred by a foul-tasting spray like Grannick’s Bitter Apple. I’ve had mixed results with the nontoxic concoction over the years, but some Wirecutter employees swear by it. (If your pet is particularly prone to gnawing on plants, be sure to consult the ASPCA’s list of harmful plants.)
You can stop cats from hopping on countertops and stealing food if you regularly clean surfaces with a citrus-scented cleaning spray, because the scent repels most cats. (Keep in mind that household cleaners are toxic to pets, so keep cleaners out of their reach.) Or cover the counters in a texture that’s alien to them, like aluminum foil or cardboard coated in double-sided sticky tape. Then place a counter-height cat tree nearby so your cat can still pretend like they’re lounging on Pride Rock. Slather the tree in some Yeowww Catnip or leave treats on it. After a few days, your cat will love the new perch and won’t give that kitchen countertop a second glance.
Pets who rummage through the garbage can often be thwarted by a lidded trash can. The best small-space trash can I’ve found is the Simplehuman 10-Liter Profile Step Can. The lid stays secure, and the bin never tips over, even after you slam the foot pedal. It’s also the only compact, lidded trash can that my small dog can’t open on her own. For bigger rooms, Wirecutter’s recommendations for kitchen trash cans are just as good. And if you overstuff the trash basin until the lid won’t shut, there’s a simple hack to keep it secure: a short bungee cord wrapped across the top.
Finally, make sure your pets have access to things they can chew on, and rotate use of those items to keep pets engaged. Think treat-filled rubber chew toys (like Kongs stuffed with peanut butter), treat-dispensing balls, and durable squeaker toys for dogs, and crinkle balls and chirping toys for cats.
Look beyond the pet gear
It’s enticing to buy new gear for your pet in the hope of quickly fixing the problem, but it’s not the right solution for every pet or household. Destructive behavior in a pet occurs for many reasons — everything from a lack of exercise and pure boredom to territorial aggression and separation anxiety.
I’ve written about how to find an accredited dog trainer and when it’s the right time to seek a professional’s help (hint: the sooner, the better). Consulting an expert ensures that you’re not mistaking a serious behavioral or medical issue as animal silliness, and that you’re tackling your pet’s destructive tendencies head-on.
What to Buy is a new series in collaboration with Wirecutter, the New York Times Company that reviews products. Want buying advice from the experts, or need help picking out the right thing for the right job? Email Smarter Living Editor Alan Henry at email@example.com and we’ll look into it for you!
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A version of this article appears at Wirecutter.com.