Mr. Brooks on Ivy, Ants, and Cat Behavior

Our resident know-it-all answers questions plaguing homeowners.

Our resident know-it-all settles
your most puzzling domestic conundrums.

Illustration by Jack Gallagher

Q:I want to grow an ivy on my house (it’s brick), but people say it can damage the exterior. Is that true?

Loretta Fielder, Carrollton

Mr. Brooks: Others always seem to know better, don’t they? Most of the time, they’re misinformed, but in this case, you’d be wise to heed their advice. Many types of ivy anchor themselves to your brick, wood, or vinyl exterior by pushing, prying, and forcing root stems into nooks and crannies. Some of them, faster-growing Boston ivy, for example, are a little more friendly to a surface—using “suction pods” to attach themselves to almost anything. But even these types are messy and leave a residue. Even worse, vines act as a freeway into accessible areas of your home for ants and other pests. I’m with you—I think ivies look great. But put them on a fence or trellis, not on your house.


Whether you’re trying to sneak in undetected at four in the morning or just hate annoying sounds, a squeaky floorboard is a pain. And if you’re like me—you know, lazy and not handy—the idea of pulling up a floorboard and resetting it is not all that appealing. For a temporary fix, toss a little talcum powder between the problem board and its neighbor. It should delay getting your hands dirty.

Q:In early summer, after a heavy rain, our kitchen filled with what looked like flying ants. We killed them all, but I’m worried that they’re still in the house. Should I call a pest control service?

Jennifer Williams, Richardson

Mr. Brooks: Here’s the thing about so many types of insects: For every one you see, there are five or more that you don’t. From your description, I can’t be sure what type of insect you have. If you can see independent body segments (that have the appearance of multiple hourglass waists) you probably have a type of ant that comes out after a heavy rain. Termites, which also swarm in spring and early summer, usually appear in larger numbers. Unless they are carpenter ants, which can also cause damage, they are likely to be less of a problem than termites. Either way, I’d have someone come take a look at your home. If you have a specimen, save it for the pest control people, and let them know exactly when and where you saw it appear.

Q: My cat has started to use our potted plants as his personal litter box. How do I stop this immediately?

Diane Bishop, Dallas

Mr. Brooks: Aren’t pets great? You feed them, you pamper them, you let them have run of the house. And to thank you, they set up shop in your ficus tree? It won’t do. Having said that, it’s probably not the cat’s fault that he finds your houseplants so appealing. He may have a health issue. If so, scolding him will just make him more anxious about the problem. First step? Get him to the vet. “Any time a cat doesn’t use its litter box, you should have a urinalysis done along with a fecal and anal gland exam,” says Diane Arrington, founder and director of PetPerfect Academy, a behavior and training facility for cats and dogs in Dallas. “Ninety-eight percent of the time, when a cat won’t use its box it’s due to a medical issue such as a urinary tract infection.”

Get your kitty checked out if she won’t use the litter box.

photography by Tony Campbell

So, as Arrington says, get Whiskers to the vet—stat. If everything checks out, you’ll have to go to plan B. That means a little creativity on your part. First, Arrington advises that you cover the soil of the plant your cat finds appealing with foil. Be sure to treat the foil with a scent deterrent—eucalyptus oil and Vic’s VapoRub both work well. It may take up to a month—some cats are hardheaded, you know—but your cat should eventually lose track of his scent in the soil, which is what keeps him coming back for more. Don’t be surprised, though, if your critter digs through the foil and back into the soil at first, Arrington warns (that hardheaded issue, again).

As for the common assumption that the misbehaving is due to a dirty litter box, Arrington says that’s not likely the case. Sure, if you never clean the box, your cat is eventually going to tell you how unhappy he is about it, and not in a nice way, if you catch my drift. But keeping a box too clean might actually cause the problem, too. “If a box is too clean,” Arrington says, “your cat may begin to expect it to always be completely free of waste. When that happens, he may not use it if it isn’t totally clean.” In short: Keep it clean, but not Hilton clean!

Having a domestic dispute with your home or garden? Don’t know where to turn? Just ask Mr. Brooks – [email protected].


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