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Originally published Thursday, July 19, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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Pet-proofing your home

The Pragmatist: Experts offer advice to pet owners on how to protect the house from looking and smelling like a zoo.

The New York Times

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I have friends who pretend to have allergies so they can avoid getting pets for their children, which I find shameful on many levels. Chiefly, I'm offended that these "friends" failed to share the ruse with me until our cat was already out of the bag — along with two dogs, several fish and a gecko.

All of them have taught my family valuable lessons about enriching the lives of others. And by others, I mean pet-supply industry shareholders.

While we love our pets, more or less, my wife and I would like to do a better job balancing their physical health with our financial health. So I called several experts looking for tips on how to walk that line with Luna (the big good dog), Pippi (the little annoying dog), Kukio (the high-maintenance cat), Yoshi (the inscrutable gecko) and the countless fish that occupy our algae tank.

My panel of experts included Dr. Bruce Kornreich, associate director for education and outreach at Cornell University's Feline Health Center; Spike Carlsen, an author and former executive editor of the home-improvement magazine the Family Handyman; Amy Britton, owner of Artisan Kitchens, a design firm on Cape Cod, Mass.; and Cesar Millan, the dog behavior specialist and publisher of the website Cesar's Way.

Their counsel: A few fairly inexpensive home modifications, at the proper time, can help pet owners save money, keep animals healthy and make the house smell and look a lot less like a zoo.

Fortunately, most of those modifications can be done indoors. Unfortunately, many of them involve crawling around the primary battleground between pet and owner: the floor.

I grew up in a house where a certain corner of rug triggered my dog's bladder, no matter how much time he spent roaming outdoors. Steam-cleaning didn't solve the problem or reduce the stench, nor did any number of sprays.

A dog diaper might have helped. Or taxidermy.

For a home with puppies or kittens, my panelists suggested swapping carpet for hardwood flooring, or tile with dark grout that won't show stains. Avoid natural stone tile, Britton said, because it can stain unless very well sealed.

In my home, almost all the floors are wood or ceramic tile, so we suffered little during our animals' early years. But those slippery surfaces could pose problems later in the animals' lives if they develop joint issues, Kornreich said, so he suggested putting down runners on rainy days for aging pets.

As an alternative, Britton recommended carpet tiles like those produced by Flor.

"If one tile is soiled and it becomes a problem," she said, "you can take it up and put a new one down."

That sounded good to me, so I tried Flor's House Pet tiles ($14 for a roughly 20-inch square), which are made of a washable polyester. To install, you place sticky circles at the intersection of four tiles. In roughly 90 minutes, I had carpeted a 77-square-foot room.

But the House Pet tiles look better suited to an office than to a home, and the fibers feel scratchier than those of other Flor tiles. Since the tiles can be removed without harming the floor, I may stow them until my pets get older. In the meantime, when they have accidents, I double down on cleanup, with a cleanser (Crypton Mess Eliminator, $10 for 32 ounces) and a deodorizer (Crypton Disinfectant and Deodorizer, $10 for 32 ounces).

Another hedge against incontinence are dog and cat doors, known among the raccoon community as the Best Inventions Ever. (Search online for "raccoon" and "dog door" for home-invasion highlights.)

To be fair, they work fine for people who remember to lock them, and certain models like the Ideal Pet Products Ruff Weather Pet Door ($120 for medium-size pets) can control the flow of traffic in and out of the home.

The owner of my local pet store installed one on her garage door, turning the carport into a mudroom of sorts. I would have jumped at that idea, if not for the fact that we have no fence outside our garage. Our only viable dog-door option is the front entryway, which is aesthetically out of the question.

Putting small portals on our interior doors, though, made sense. An energy auditor last year suggested we put a cat door on the unfinished side of our basement, where we keep the litter box. That way, we wouldn't be heating an otherwise unused room by leaving the door open.

Installation is fairly easy if you have a jigsaw (Ryobi 4.8-amp jigsaw, $40). The PetSafe cat door ($17 for small cats) includes a template for tracing the outline of the hole onto the door. Carlsen suggested scoring the outline with a utility knife and sawing along the inside of those marks to prevent splintering.

As he noted, "Any time you cut into a door, there's an opportunity for wanting to buy a new door."

But his scoring idea worked nicely, and the entire job took 20 minutes.

If you're handy enough with basic carpentry to build a box, you can save hundreds of dollars on items commonly found in pet supply stores. As Carlsen pointed out, fish owners can easily build an aquarium stand, for instance.

"Just be sure to overbuild rather than underbuild it," he said. "I've used 6-by-6's and 4-by-4's for the frame, and nothing moves."

Neither he nor his fellow panelists had any suggestions for gecko owners. We (and by that, I mean my wife) tried building a big cage with screening and thin wood railing. But after Yoshi's fourth escape, we broke down and spent $100 on a cage.

Ramps are among the easier do-it-yourself projects, and Kornreich and Millan recommended them for aging pets.

I found a handful of useful YouTube demonstrations on building pet ramps, then stumbled onto a project with more money-saving potential: a cat condo with a scratching post, to keep Kukio from tearing up our couches.

A few years ago, we wasted $40 on a post that looked as if it took about five minutes and $5 to build; the cat would have nothing to do with it. We also tried claw covers, plastic sleeves that you glue onto each of the cat's front paws. Yes, we actually did this. They worked until she figured out how to pry them off.

So why not shoot the moon with a luxurious cat condo?

I drove to Home Depot and spent $15 on remnant carpet, scrap wood and a 4-by-4-foot post that an employee cut to spec. My plan was to build a cube and cut a portal hole with my jigsaw, then cover it with carpet and perch it on the post.

Lastly, I would wind the post with sisal rope and pray for Kukio's soul that she used it.

The project was not exactly a home run, thanks to several boneheaded errors. The biggest was carpeting the cube after I built it, instead of stapling the material to each panel before assembling. I also had the wrong staples for the job (too long) and the wrong screws (too thick).

After two more trips to the hardware store, I cobbled the thing together and beheld my masterpiece.

It looked like a 9-year-old's school project.

I dumped a handful of catnip (Yeowww! brand, $2.80 for a 2.5-ounce package) into the thing and set the cat down near the entrance. She sniffed once and sprinted away. I also tried a scratching board (Catit Style Bench, $7.50), which she ignored as well.

Of course, if your cat tears up the furniture, simpler options exist. Cat-repellent sprays work for some people (Keep Off! cat and kitten repellent, $7.50 for a 6-ounce can), but when I sprayed a piece of area rug that Kukio uses as a scratching pad, she sat right in the center of the spot and glared at me.

Double-sided tape applied to the couch (Scotch brand, $2.50 for 6.9 yards) repelled Kukio more effectively, but it was only slightly more attractive than a ripped couch.

For dogs that damage couches, a cover (Crypton's Throver, $100) works nicely to protect spots that your dog frequents when you're not home.

Fortunately, some pet modifications can enhance the look of a room, Britton said. She suggested cutting holes in a low shelf of an open cabinet and placing pet food bowls in them, to save kitchen space and hide food spills. A similar approach can be employed using a an old dresser.

Such modifications can also help a large dog's health, Millan said, as they reduce stress on its neck and slow its eating pace. (Bowl stands are another option; the ones made by Contempo are $15.)

For older dogs with failing joints or vision, Millan suggested a somewhat radical approach: clearing a room on the ground floor of the house and putting a dog bed on the floor not far from the door (Crypton bumper bed, $124 for large dogs).

"Otherwise they know they can't make it outside in time, and they feel really bad about themselves," he said. "I'll miss him sleeping with me, but it's not about me at that point. It's what's best for him."

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