Cat Tree
Despite the fact that I no longer practice veterinary medicine full time, I regularly see patients at two hospitals near my home in north Idaho. I love being a veterinarian and think it’s important to "keep it real," particularly since I spend most of my time talking to the media about quality veterinary care. Whenever I do practice, I see people and their beloved cats, and I see the worry on their faces. They’re worried about their pets, of course, but they’re also concerned about their pocketbooks. I know that even those pet owners who don’t ask it directly are wondering the same thing about any recommendation I or any veterinarian makes for improving the health of their cat, especially during the recession we’ve all been struggling through.

They want to know: Is this really worth the money?

When it comes to your cat, how do you know when to splurge and when to save? Are there alternatives to high-end options that are at least as good at a fraction of the cost? My answer: Sometimes yes, sometimes no; it depends on what we’re talking about. Here’s a quick rundown of basics for your cat and when you can — and cannot — cut corners.


Many pet owners wonder if their cat needs “organic,” “natural” or even “kosher” food. The answer: probably not. At least to me. But if those attributes are important to you, those options are out there. As a veterinarian, the words I look for are ”complete and balanced.” And then I look for high-quality ingredients, primarily meat with a name, such as “turkey.”

When I’m dealing with a pet owner, I talk about what’s going on inside a cat, not just appearances on the outside (although they count, too). Think about your car: The clear coat may be shiny, with no rust to be seen, but you have to hook up the engine to a computer and run a diagnostic check to know if the car is truly in good condition. The same is true with your cat: Regular wellness checks, with routine diagnostics, are essential to knowing what your cat’s true health status is and what food is best for him. Whether you shop at a pet-supply store or a grocery store, your veterinarian can recommend a product in your price range with high-quality ingredients.

Verdict: Worth spending more for better-quality ingredients. Discuss with your veterinarian!


Feline behaviorists have studied this thoroughly, and the cats themselves have spoken: Unscented clumping litter is what cats tend to prefer, and when you fill boxes with it (and keep those litterboxes clean!), you’re less likely to spend money cleaning cat mess off your carpets — or replacing ruined floor coverings. (Now that’s expensive!) If you want some odor control, choose a clumping litter with a touch of charcoal. Scents you may like — lavender, citrus, etc. — may send your cat to potty elsewhere, and those “amenities” often add to the price. Save money by buying in bulk and stocking up during sales. Purchasing store-branded clumping litter is an option, but beware: Some cats are very picky indeed and will abandon the box if you don’t fill it with a preferred brand. As for expensive litters made from exotic ingredients? Not worth it in my book.

Verdict: Worth spending more for plain clumping litter, but you don’t have to splurge on scented products and alternative ingredients.


We veterinarians see so many overweight and obese pets that it just makes us unhappy. You may be surprised that toys are one of the absolute best ways to fight the flab on your feline. Instead of putting that kibble in a bowl, make your cat work for his meals by using food puzzles. There are many of these on the market now, and they’re durable and not terribly expensive. You put the kibble (or treats) in these toys, and your cat has to use his body and his brain to get the food out.

Once you have a couple of these toys (rotating toys keeps them fresh and exciting), you can improvise on the rest at low or even no cost. Cats love all kinds of freebies, including paper bags (cut through any handles to prevent mishaps), the cores of toilet paper, wine corks and even homemade “fishing poles” for interactive play. For very little money, you can grow your own catnip, cut pieces off the plant as needed and rub on or stuff it into existing toys to make them “new” again.

Verdict: Worth the money for two or three food puzzle toys. The rest of your cat’s toys can be low- or no-cost.


Scratching is natural, normal and very satisfying to a cat, so it’s essential to provide a way for your cat to scratch. Need I remind you that the most expensive place a cat can scratch is the corner of your couch? Your cat simply must have alternatives, but you don’t need to splurge on them. You can find “scratch trays” for horizontal scratching (many cats prefer it) that are made of corrugated cardboard and are relatively inexpensive. Door hangers are bargains, too, and can be found with cardboard or sisal surfaces.

Scratching posts are a good investment in protecting your furniture, and you may be able to find one at a garage sale for next to nothing. You can wrap cheap sisal rope tightly around new or used posts to make them last longer, but be sure that any post you buy is tall enough to give your cat a good scratch — and stable enough not to fall over on your pet. Finally, don’t overlook what’s around you: Logs or limbs from trees with loose bark can be partially wrapped with sisal to make nearly free scratching logs. To increase interest, rub some of that fresh catnip you’re growing on them.

Verdict: Not worth the splurge for higher-end products when there are so many satisfying options that are cheaper, do-it-yourself or even free.

Cat Trees and Perches

If you already have toys and scratchers, cat trees and perches can be considered optional — except that cats truly love them. “Going vertical” increases your cat’s territory, and let’s face it: There’s no house that truly offers enough space for an indoor cat. Multilevel cat trees with places to perch, spots to scratch (again, add sisal rope yourself) and areas to hide are truly important to your cat — and that’s especially true in multicat households. Cats love to get high, and I’m not just talking about catnip!

Getting “above the fray” makes cats feel safe and calm, and there are options at a range of price points. I’ve been very impressed with the sophisticated cat trees I’ve seen in recent years at the pet-industry trade shows; many of them would fit handsomely into any decor. But if you’re pinching pennies, you’ll need to pass on designer options. This is another area where secondhand and do-it-yourself solutions can really save you some money.

Verdict: Not worth it for high-end design unless that’s important to you. Look for sales or purchase secondhand.

Bottom line? Look after your cat’s health and happiness, but choose less expensive options when you can. Most important of all: Do not even think of saving money by skipping those wellness exams. You truly can save money (not to mention eliminate suffering) by catching disease early. So see your veterinarian!

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