It's a New Year's tradition around my home, one that has outlived a generation of dogs, but it still works to help ensure the safety of the animals I live with now.
No, not resolutions, although I always make those too, vowing, among other things, to exercise the dogs more, take more time for their training, and do more for the animals who are not as lucky as mine are.
The tradition I'm talking about is far easier to accomplish: I call the dogs over and check their necks.
I always do my "neck checks" around the first of the year. It's easy to remember that way, especially for me, a person who has a hard time remembering much of anything when it comes to appointments: heartworm and flea medications on the first of the month, neck checks the first of the year, annual exams and vaccinations the first of July. Any variation and I'm hopelessly lost.
Call your dog over and play along. I'll walk you through it. It's easy. We're looking for wear and fit, and legibility on the tags.
Consider the collar first. A properly fitted collar is important, but so, too, is the right type. For dogs, a buckled or snap-together collar made of leather or nylon webbing is the best choice, and the proper fit is comfortably close, but not too snug.
Make sure your dog's not wearing a "choke" collar. These are for training and walking only, and pose a severe hazard if left on an unsupervised dog. Choke collars can catch on objects and even the teeth of other dogs in play. In such cases, the dog's natural instinct to pull away can lead to his death as the chain pulls tight. If your dog is wearing such a collar, take it off now and consider yourself lucky as you head to the pet-supply store for a buckle or snap-on replacement.
If you have the right kind of collar on your dog, look at the holes and the fasteners. The collar is weakest at these spots, so if you see signs of excessive wear or strain you'll need to replace the collar soon. I've had only one collar break on me, and it could have been a disaster. Andy flew after a squirrel, and the broken collar allowed him to chase it right into a busy street -- empty at that moment, thank heavens. He treed the squirrel and bounced back happily when I called him. We were lucky, I know, and I've never let a collar get that worn since then.
As for those tags, they need checking, too. A license is fine, but since many lost pets are picked up by people in the neighborhood, it's a good idea to supplement the license with an ID tag that has a couple of phone numbers -- yours and the number of a friend or relative. Check to make sure the information is current and legible, and if not, order a new one. I never put the pet's name or my address on the tags. Instead, my dogs' tags say "REWARD!" with a collection of phone numbers. I want to get the point across that I want my pets back quickly.
Last year, I also added the tags of a pet-retrieval service called 1-800-HELP-4-PETS after they helped a friend get back his lost dogs. The service is available 24 hours a day, and can also authorize veterinary care with your credit card if your pet is injured and you cannot be found. The service is $40 for the first year and $20 per year after that. (More information is available by calling the 1-800 number.)
How did I fare with our neck checks this year? Not too badly. The collars are in fine shape, but Benjamin's missing his ID tag. I'll be ordering one this weekend.
Don't delay in fixing any problems you find with your pet's neck check. Problems with collars and tags are easy to fix, and they are the cheapest insurance you can buy against loss or accidents.
A final note: A microchip is another form of identification well worth considering. The tiny transponder, about the size of a grain of rice, is inserted by a veterinarian over the shoulder blades of dogs and cats and serves as a permanent identification that cannot be slipped off or removed. If you have a microchip implanted in your pet, it's not possible to check for the chip as part of your New Year's neck check. But do make a mental note to ask your veterinarian to scan for it the next time your pet visits. Most veterinarians have hand-held devices that can detect the presence of a chip, and can determine if it has stayed put in a spot where it can be found by shelter-workers, should your pet ever stray.
PETS ON THE WEB
I laughed when I got a note from a reader asking me if I knew where to find fabric with a Welsh corgi design for a gift she was hoping to make. What was so funny? I'm a home economics failure who hasn't progressed much beyond reapplying buttons -- and I knew the answer off the top of my head! The explanation? My friend Reina, quiltmaker extraordinaire, had one day shown me the Hot Diggity Dog Web site (www.hotdiggitydog.com), which sells fabric in more than 120 dog-breed designs, plus designs with cats and a handful of others critters such as llamas, wolves and tigers. The company also sells completed products made of the fabric, including quilts and throw pillows. The Oceanside, Calif., company can also be reached by phone (800-780-3136).
Annual physicals are even more important as a pet ages, and they need to be more extensive than when the animal was younger. Your veterinarian may suggest blood and urine tests, for example, to determine what's normal for your pet, so that subsequent changes in test values are more apparent -- and problems can be caught and treated early. These "well-pet" appointments are also a good time to address your concerns about your pet's aging, and the health and behavioral challenges that result. While the decisions on what, if any, treatments to pursue are yours alone to make, encourage your veterinarian to discuss freely any problems that are discovered and all the available options for care.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: My cousin sent me something that's been apparently going around concerning what to do if your dog eats something sharp, such as glass Christmas tree ornaments. The instructions say to keep cotton balls in the cupboard and half-and-half in the freezer. If your pup gets into anything, thaw the half-and-half, dip the cotton into it and feed it to the dog. This is supposed to collect all shards and allow them to pass safely through. Is this legit? Is it safe? -- G.F., via the Internet.
A: The Veterinarian Information Network's Dr. Roger Gfeller, a board-certified specialist in emergency and critical care, says this trick has been around for years and it does work, to a degree. I showed him the document and asked what he thought.
"The cotton trick is a good one that has been passed down through the ages," he says. "Does it really improve the chances that the foreign material will pass without harm? No one has done the study to know, but it has been shown that the cotton does wrap around sewing needles, fishhooks, etc."
Gfeller, who practices in Fresno, Calif., cautions against putting too much faith in the procedure and adds a further refinement of his own. "I'm not certain I would use the statement, 'Even the teeniest shards of glass will be caught and wrapped in the cotton fibers, and the cotton will protect the intestines from damage by the glass,' as this is a bit too close to a guarantee. I also would not use such a high-fat "dip" as the half-and-half. This is not good for dogs or people. I'd stick to chicken broth or some other lower-fat substance."
For my own pets, I wouldn't be too keen on using a home remedy for something as potentially deadly as glass in the intestine -- I'd want to be working with my veterinarian from the very beginning. And that brings up a good point: Do you know what to do in an emergency? Give your veterinarian a call now and find out if the hospital is available for after-hours help. If not, locate the nearest emergency clinic and keep the number handy. You never know when you'll need it.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies" and "Cats for Dummies," and is the editorial director of the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or e-mail to Write2Gina(at)aol.com.
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