It's a New Year's tradition around my home, one that has outlived a handful of pets, but it still works to ensure the safety of the animals who share their lives with me now.
Yes, dear readers, it's time for the annual New Year's neck check. I started pushing for this tradition more than a decade ago, and I still believe it's as important as ever. Like checking your smoke detector batteries twice a year when the time changes, checking your pet's collar and tags annually will ensure that an important safety measure is in place should you and your pet ever need it.
Why New Year's? Because it's easy to remember, and besides, what else are you going to do besides eat, drink and watch football?
Start your neck check with a look at your pet's 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 they pose a life-threatening hazard if left on an unsupervised dog. Cats should be wearing a collar with an elastic section that will allow your pet to wriggle free if he gets caught on something.
If you do have the right kind of collar on your pet, take a minute to 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.
If the collar passes muster, it's time to look at the tags. A license is great, 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, make a note to order a new tag right away.
My pets also carry tags from a company I really like, 1-800-HELP4PETS. The service, which costs $25 per year, is available 24 hours a day to help reunite you with a lost pet. It can also authorize veterinary care if your lost pet is injured and you cannot be immediately located. (More information is available by calling the 1-800 number, or by visiting www.help4pets.com on the Web.)
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 collars and tags 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, or in the breast of birds, 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.
Remember, though, that a microchip doesn't take the place of ID tags. They complement each other, and even if your pet is chipped, he should still wear tags.
PETS ON THE WEB
Is it too soon to start planning your summer vacation? Never! If you want to go someplace where you won't have to leave your pets behind, you'll want to check out a couple of Web sites to help you plan a pet-friendly trip.
Both the Travel Pets (www.travelpets.com) and Pets Welcome (www.petswelcome.com) sites offer advice on going here and there safely with your pet, as well as listings of pet-friendly lodgings worldwide. Whether you're looking to head to a posh city hotel, beach resort or rustic mountain campground, you'll find the information you need to take along your pet.
A good way to evaluate the health of a bird is to pay attention to what your pet leaves at the bottom of the cage. Birds produce feces with three components: The stool, which is semisolid and dark in color; the urates, which are a loose, whitish solid; and urine, which is nearly a clear liquid. Get to know how your bird's wastes look normally, as well as the usual variations -- some foods can change the color of the stools, or increase the amount of urine. Once you know what's typical for your bird, you can spot abnormalities that might be the early indication of a serious illness developing.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: We lost two of our three cats to antifreeze poisoning. Our car was leaking fluid onto the driveway, and we didn't realize the cats had gotten into the stuff until they were sick. The veterinarian did what she could, but in the end, the youngest one made it, but the older two did not. We are left with broken hearts and a huge veterinary bill.
Do you think we can sue the antifreeze company for the veterinary bills? We didn't know that antifreeze was poisonous, or we would have been more careful. How can they be allowed to put a product like this on the market? -- D.C., via e-mail
A: I'm so sorry for your loss. As you've found out the hard way, it doesn't take much antifreeze to kill a cat. An animal can get a deadly dose just by walking through a puddle and licking his paws clean afterward.
I'm not an attorney, so I certainly can't speak as to what grounds you have for bringing a suit against the manufacturer of the antifreeze that was in your car. But I do know that we often must use products that are dangerous and that sometimes pets -- or people -- are accidentally harmed as a result. The responsibility largely falls to us to use dangerous products in as safe a manner as possible.
There is a less dangerous antifreeze on the market, made with propylene glycol instead of the ethylene glycol in the traditional product. You can check for it at your auto-supply store. But even if you buy the safer product, there's no guarantee your neighbors will, leaving open the possibility that your pet might get poisoned next door.
Really, the best you can do is to educate yourself as to the dangers your family (two-legged and four-legged both) faces, and then do what you can to prevent disaster. The world is a dangerous place, after all, and all the lawsuits in the world won't change that.
The best strategy would be to keep your cats indoors and your dogs leashed when off your property. And be sure in the area you can control -- your own driveway and garage -- you clean any coolant spills promptly.
Q: Would you please settle an argument I'm having with my husband? Our kids have a pair of pet rabbits. I say it's fine to put their waste into the compost pile. My husband says I shouldn't. Who's right? -- O.W., via e-mail
A: You are. It's perfectly OK to add the rabbit droppings to your compost pile. If you go to a garden center, you'll pay good money for the composted waste of herbivores. The decomposed droppings of these nonmeat-eating animals safely add nutrients to the soil.
What about dogs and cats? The droppings of carnivores carry disease and parasites that can be transmitted to humans, so these wastes should not be put into the compost pile.
You can decompose the waste of dogs and cats using contraptions designed for that purpose, but the process is for your convenience and for reducing the amount of waste bound for the landfill -- not to produce fertilizer for your garden.
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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