As New Year's resolutions go, the neck check for your pets is easy. It won't even take all of a commercial break from watching football games to complete, and you'll be getting your pet off to a safe start in the new year.
So what's the "neck check"? It's an annual tradition in my house (and in this column). It's painless way to ensure that a basic safety measure is in place for your pet: well-fitting collars and up-to-date tags.
First, check the collar. Is your dog wearing a "choke" collar? If so, take it off right now and give thanks that your pup is still alive. No dog should ever wear such a collar except under direct supervision. Every year hundreds of dogs are killed struggling to free themselves from a caught choke collar. Their natural instinct to pull away only makes matters worse -- as the collar pulls tighter and tighter, the more the animal struggles. There have even been cases of dogs killed when their choke collars got caught in the teeth of other dogs in play.
For everyday wear, a buckled or snap-together collar is the only way to go.
Even if you have a safe collar on your pet, give it a good look. Is it frayed or worn out? A well-worn collar could give way when you least expect it, letting your pet escape into a dangerous or even deadly situation. Make sure the collar fits properly. Check by seeing how many fingers you can slip between your pet's neck and his collar. Two is about right, although one will do for toy dogs, and three may be needed for largest ones.
If you discover the collar is worn or doesn't fit properly, make a note to get it replaced right away. The selection of collars these days is truly amazing, with all kinds of colors, patterns and materials to complement your pet's natural good looks. For most dogs a flat collar will work well. But if your dog has a ruff, consider a rolled collar to keep the neck hair from being broken.
Did the collar check out? Good! Now about those tags. Implanted microchips are wonderful (all my pets are chipped), but they won't ever replace tags. Make sure your pet has both a valid license and an ID tag with your phone number on it. The tag with your phone number is very important, since few animal-control agencies are equipped to locate pet-owner phone numbers 24 hours a day.
Look at the ID tag. How accurate is the information? Did you move or change your phone number in the last few months? It's easy to forget that any such change needs to be noted on your pet's ID tag.
I've had people argue that theirs is a "backyard" dog or a "house" cat, not likely to escape and therefore not in need of either a tag or a license. To my mind, an ID tag -- at $3 to $5 -- is the best way to protect your pet from a blown-down fence or a door left ajar.
Many people don't like to collar their cats, fearing that their pet will get hung up when jumping. Shelter workers counter that they put to sleep thousands of unclaimed cats -- many of whom are clearly someone's pet -- but they've never seen a cat skeleton hanging by a collar in a tree. Cat collars feature a built-in safety feature: a piece of elastic that will let your cat wriggle free if he gets hung up.
Don't let the days pass by. Collar and tag all your pets. It's one of the best New Year's resolutions you can make where your pets are concerned.
PETS ON THE WEB
The GuideStar Web site (www.guidestar.org) bills itself as "The Donor's Guide to the Charitable Universe." And though it's not everything you could hope for, it's certainly a great start. A project of the nonprofit organization Philanthropic Research Inc., GuideStar lists financial and program information on 620,000 charitable groups, including hundreds of those working with animals. Of course, there are thousands of animal-related charities large and small that are not represented here, but the site is growing and well worth keeping your eye on. Click on "Become a Confident Donor" from the front screen to access articles on how to judge a charity.
Looking for a quick breath-freshener for the dog who has eaten something you wish he hadn't? Try a few slices of fresh apple. Most dogs love the sweetness and crispness of apples, especially if you're sharing your apple with your pup. And the fruit does a pretty good job of eliminating doggy breath, albeit temporarily. Of course, if your dog (or cat) has an ongoing problem with bad breath, you need to visit the vet. Cover-ups are no substitute for healthy teeth and gums.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: We have a blue-and-gold macaw that needs to be transported from our previous home on the West Coast to a new home in Florida. How should we handle this? - P.M., via the Internet
A: I asked my "Birds For Dummies" co-author, Dr. Brian L. Speer, to take on this one.
Speer says whether you're going by car or by plane, the first thing you'll need is a good carrier. He recommends altering a dog carrier for the job. Choose one of those made of high-impact plastic and designed for air travel, and make it bird-friendly by fitting it with a perch so your bird is off the floor and able to sit facing the door. For a macaw, the size for a small to medium dog -- not a tiny dog -- will do.
Before any trip you'll need to make sure your bird's wings are clipped and that he's in good health. For air travel, you'll need a health certificate from a veterinarian.
Road trips are fun, says Speer, who used to drive to work every day with his blue-and-gold macaw, Toby. At rest stops, give your bird a chance to get out and stretch his wings. To keep your bird well-hydrated, keep him well-stocked in fruits that have a lot of moisture, such as oranges and apples.
If you decide to go by air, your macaw will be riding in a pressurized cargo hold. Try to book a direct flight if possible, and try to avoid peak travel times. Your airline will have other requirements. Some are federally mandated; others vary from carrier to carrier. Plan to get to the airport early to make everything go smoothly.
As with travel by car, make sure your bird has fruit to keep him hydrated on the journey. Because of the value of a large parrot such as yours, Speer recommends wiring the crate doors shut to thwart would-be birdnappers.
Q: Our dear old cat Puck died a few months ago. We decided the house was too empty without a cat, so we adopted one from the shelter. Slapshot, as we named him, is a friendly orange tabby, and he is adjusting fine except for one thing: He wants to go outside. Puck spent his whole life inside, and we want Slapshot to be an indoor kitty, too. We live on a busy street and it's just too dangerous. But Slapshot has other ideas. He rushes to the door and cries. He has been neutered, by the way, so it's not that. What can we do? -- C.P., via e-mail
A: It is possible to wean a cat from the desire to roam, but it isn't always easy.
The change requires resolve on your part and a determination to provide your new companion with everything he needs to be happy indoors: good food, fresh water, a clean litter box, a scratching post, toys and, most important, your companionship.
Cats are highly territorial; you're going to hear from your cat about any decision to reduce his potential territory. Your cat will be astonished at your stupidity at first: "Hey, you! I can't believe you're so dumb that you forgot how to open the door!" Later, he'll be increasingly annoyed at your failure to serve: "The door! The door! Pay attention! I want something."
Whatever you do, don't give in. If you allow the insistent meows and pointed stares to wear you down to the point of opening the door, you've taught your cat a lesson you'd rather he didn't know: "All I need to do is put up a fuss and I get what I want." If you try to keep him inside again, he's going to be even more obnoxious.
Be patient but firm. Dissuade him from the door with a shot from a spray bottle and keep him occupied with games and attention. If he likes catnip, get a fresh supply to rub on his toys and scratching post.
If you're firm in your resolve, your cat will eventually settle into his new indoor routines in a few weeks.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to writetogina(at)spadafori.com.
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