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How to Keep Your Pet Safe

Protecting our pets

Does your pet aspire to work in the areas of gardening, electrical work, stuffed animal surgery, or even hazardous waste disposal? Given the opportunity, many pets engage in activities that are downright dangerous. As their owners, it is our responsibility to maintain the safety of these zany, ambitious pets.

pets at the fridge

There are three important ways to increase the safety of our pets. The first is to manage the environment so that pets have no access to dangerous situations. The second is to modify our own behavior, and the behavior of all household members, to make life safer for pets. The third is to modify a pet's behavior so that it does not engage in dangerous activities. Generally speaking, a combination of all three approaches will result in the best overall outcome.

To look at some examples of danger and consider the risks that may be present for a pet, we need to understand risk assessment. Risk is the combination of hazard and exposure. Hazard relates to the potential for a bad thing to happen. A busy road or a bottle of antifreeze each has a high degree of hazard, since either could cause death. Exposure relates to the potential for a pet to come into contact with the hazard. In the case of the antifreeze, the exposure potential is nonexistent if the antifreeze is kept on a high shelf in the garage and the pet has no access to the garage. Although the hazard potential is very high, the risk is low because there is no chance of exposure.

In the busy road example, the exposure potential is very high if the pet is a dog or cat allowed to roam free. The risk of death or serious injury would then be high as well. If the dog is locked in a secure kennel and the cat is never allowed out, then the exposure potential is much lower, and so is the risk.

You can conduct your own risk assessment for the pets in your care by considering the various potential hazards in all the areas your pet may frequent.

Hazard evaluation

As their owners, it is our responsibility to maintain the safety of these zany, ambitious pets.

Take a walk through your house and yard, visiting all the areas your pets may go. Look carefully for potential hazards and write them all down. Things to consider include electrical wires, poisons, human and veterinary medications, cleaning agents, choking hazards, entanglement hazards, other pets, stray or wild animals, drowning hazards, sharp objects, hot surfaces, locations where a pet could fall, items that could fall on a pet, and dangerous objects that a pet could chew or swallow.

You will need to get down onto the ground at pet eye level to really see if there is anything that could be enticing, but dangerous, to a pet. Visit the animal poison control center at the ASPCA website (www.aspca.com) for extensive lists of plants, common household substances, and animals that can be poisonous to your pet.

There are hazards that are relevant to some pets and not to others. For example, if you leave your adult Great Dane in the bathroom while you go out, he is unlikely to drown in the toilet. Your ferret, on the other hand, is almost certainly going to check out the toilet and could possibly drown.

Be sure to consider potential hazards that a pet may encounter while out and about, too. These could include hazards that relate to trips with you in the car or on a walk, or hazards that may be relevant if a pet manages to escape.

Exposure evaluation

Once you have identified the various hazards, consider the possible scenarios where your pet could be exposed. Consider not just everyday situations, but also potential actions of the pet, other pets in the household, and other people in the household, especially children. Children are notorious for leaving doors and cupboards open and for leaving open any kind of container.

One pet owner heard strange noises in the kitchen at night and when she investigated, the cat was on the counter tossing cookies to the dog. It's a good thing it wasn't fine Belgian chocolate! I once had two dogs that worked in tandem to access the toilet bowl for drinking. The Newf could open the bathroom door and the Border collie could lift the toilet lid so that they could both get a drink. This is not a big deal in my house, unless you mind stepping in cold puddles first thing in the morning. However, this behavior could lead to toxic exposure if a toilet-drinking dog happened to visit another location where there was sanitizer in the water. "Mom, the dog drank blue water and now he is throwing up."

There are hazards that are relevant to some pets and not to others.

Different animals have different built-in behaviors that could make them more or less likely to be exposed to certain hazards. For example, electrical wires are practically irresistible to rabbits, mice, and rats, are of significant interest to ferrets, kittens, and puppies, and are generally of little interest to adult dogs and cats. A swimming pool is much more likely to tempt a Labrador puppy (he will fall in for sure) than an adult cat. If your male dog has not been neutered, prances around with his tail in the air, and is pushy with other dogs, he is likely to put himself in a dangerous situation with similarly inclined male dogs. A submissive dog may never be the target of aggressive action from other dogs.

Consider the natural behaviors and individual idiosyncrasies and characteristics of each pet when evaluating the likelihood of exposure to the various hazards you identify.

Now that you know the possible hazards and the associated exposure potential for each, you are ready to reduce or eliminate risks to your pet. Let's examine each of the three ways of managing risk and increasing safety that were described above.

Manage the environment

In many cases, managing the environment is probably the easiest way to reduce or eliminate risks. If you identify lawn chemicals as a potential hazard, you can completely eliminate exposure on your property simply by not using them. (Visit www.wildflowerfarm.com to find out how to grow a grass lawn and lawn alternatives without any chemicals.) On walks, do you pass an aggressive dog, one that is contained by an electric or invisible fence? Change your route to avoid this hazard altogether.

Is your puppy chewing everything in sight? Provide suitable chew toys, stuffed bones (the sterilized kind you can buy at the pet store—never give the dog cooked bones), or Kong toys filled with yummy treats. Supervise the puppy at all times and confine him to a crate or other safe enclosed space with his toys and chewies if you can't supervise. Be sure anything you give him to chew is not a choking hazard.

Consider the natural behaviors and individual idiosyncrasies and characteristics of each pet.

Prevent rabbits from chewing wires by encasing the wires in heavy plastic tubes, or allow the rabbits freedom only in wire-free areas. Some pets can be discouraged from chewing by spraying potential chewing targets with bitter apple or other distasteful but non-toxic products available at most pet stores.

Are you afraid of losing your ferret behind the couch? Provide runways made from Sonotubes behind furniture. Sonotubes are large tubes used for casting cement; get them at the hardware store and have them cut to length.

Eliminate choking or strangulation risks by making sure your dog's collar is snug but not tight, and removing the collar when the dog is in his cage. Some people never leave their dogs unsupervised while wearing a collar. Other collar safety hints include:

  • If you use any type of training collar or a loose-fitting collar for walks or training, be sure to remove it when the walk or training session is over.
  • Learn to use any training collar or harness properly to prevent injury or escape.
  • Breakaway collars are available to prevent a dog from being strangled if he gets caught, but these are suitable only for very well-trained dogs that would never pull hard on the collar during a walk.
  • Cat collars with elastic inserts are designed to come off if the cat becomes entangled.
  • Collars with battery powered lights are available for visibility at night.

Prevent poisoning by removing toxic plants from your home and garden. Keep cleaning agents and other toxins in locked cupboards or out of reach. Store pharmaceuticals out of reach; read labels and follow your veterinarian's instructions carefully if your pet needs treatment. Dispose of unfinished medications. Do not give any medications without checking with your vet, even if it seems like the same medical problem as last time. Never give your pet human medicine unless your vet prescribes it; some medications are safe for humans, but not for pets. Be wary of so-called "natural" or "organic" medicines. Natural and organic do not necessarily imply safe and effective. Always check with your vet before treating your pet.

Note that many of these guidelines can apply to families with children, too. Keep all living and vulnerable creatures safe and healthy!

Modify human behavior

There are some hazards that cannot be controlled. Reducing risks from these hazards means changing pet or human behavior to prevent or reduce exposure. It is often easier to modify human than pet behavior (unless you have toddlers or teenagers), so we will talk about that first.

It is often easier to modify human than pet behavior, unless you have toddlers or teenagers!

Leaving crate, cage, or kennel doors open, or not closing them properly, results in escape and exposure to all kinds of hazards. Teach everyone in your household how to use all latches and how to double check that latches are closed. Post a reminder—and be sure to notice and say thank you when the pets are properly confined. Use a lock or child-proof closure if you have young children who like to open cages. Everyone in your home should be taught how to pick up and handle pets properly, too.

Measure out a pet's food in the morning and dole out meals from this amount during the day, so that overzealous feeders don't give the animals too much food or too many unhealthy treats. Communicate within the family and assign roles to avoid overfeeding. Animals are very, very good at figuring out what behaviors result in food. Cats and Labradors, in particular, are capable of Oscar-worthy "I'm starving to death" performances that sometimes win them an extra meal from an unwitting family member.

Be aware of your pet's needs. Pay attention to changes in behavior and to signs of stress such as pacing, lethargy, frequent grooming, excessive panting, yawning, or tongue flicks. These behaviors may signify illness or injury. Maybe the pavement is too hot for your dog's paws, or your cat has a bite wound under all that hair?

Ensure that pets always have access to fresh water and protection from excessive heat and cold. Dogs die every year in parked cars while their owners "just run into the store for a moment." The heat in a parked car on a warm, sunny day can reach deadly levels in minutes, even with the windows cracked open. Leave your pets at home if you need to shop.

Modify animal behavior

It is not possible to control or manage every possible hazard or exposure. Grandma could spill a bottle of heart medication and the dog could gobble it up in an instant. A toddler with a dark chocolate bar could make a puppy seriously ill. And Aunt Martha could arrive unannounced and open the door, releasing the dog to chase the cat across the street in front of a bus!

Teaching your dog simple skills such as "come," "leave it," or "sit and wait" before going through the outside door could save your pet's life. There are many articles posted on this site that can help you teach these essential skills to your dog. Cats, rabbits, and ferrets can also be taught to come when called, using the same methods. The clicker can be an essential tool for teaching non-canine pets. Visit www.clickerbunny.com for information about training rabbits, ferrets, and other small pets, and for links to specialty sites about small pets.

Pet safety combines common sense, observational skills, management, and behavior modification—for both people and pets.

The whole package

Pet safety combines common sense, observational skills, management, and behavior modification—for both people and pets. It's not possible to cover every possible hazard to every type of pet, but this article strives to give you a framework for evaluating risk and reducing it.

Search the Internet to find specialty websites for your type of pet and you will find impressive lists of possible hazards there. The ASPCA (www.aspca.com) and the Humane Society of the US (www.hsus.org) give safety tips and explanations on topics such as dogs riding in the back of pick-up trucks, pet food safety, and more. Search on the word "safety" at these sites to get specific information.

With detailed observation and careful consideration of the behavioral characteristics of the pets and humans in your household, you can identify and reduce many risks and increase overall safety for your pets. Even pets that can't help but choose dangerous daily work or recreation can be protected, preserving your time for fun and companionship together.

While you're thinking about keeping your animal safe, this is a great time to focus on keeping your family safe around animals. The board game Doggone Crazy! helps children and families learn about dog communication, dog behavior, dog safety for children, and how to prevent a dog bite. Through fun activities, photographs of real dogs and puppies, and question cards, Doggone Crazy! promotes education and child safety.

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