Cat lovers are notoriously resistant to putting collars and IDs on their pets. Some get tired of replacing the collars their cats keep slipping out of, while others are convinced their roaming darlings will get snagged and hang themselves.
Both groups are taking chances with the lives of their pets. Cat collars and tags are inexpensive insurance against loss. And as for the danger of being collared, humane officials insist your cat is more at risk for being lost and never returned than being hanged by a collar.
So play it safe: If you let your cat roam, give him a good shot at getting a ticket home with a collar and an ID. Even if the worst happens, and someone hits your cat or finds him dead -- sadly common occurrences with a free-roaming pet -- a tag at least gives you a chance that you won't have to keep wondering whether your pet is ever coming home. It's a small consolation, but knowing what happened to your pet beats spending months wondering.
Cat collars are made of lightweight material and are designed with enough give to enable your cat to wriggle free should the collar ever catch on something. Don't get a puppy collar by mistake. Dog collars are meant to prevent escapes, and cat collars are made to enable them. The fit should be snug but not uncomfortably so -- you should be able to slide your little finger underneath. (The fit on a dog's collar should be looser, since they aren't equipped with an elastic panel.)
After you get the right collar, get a tag. ID tags come in metal or high-impact plastic in a variety of colors and shapes (I'm personally fond of red hearts for my pets). Because cat tags are small, don't bother putting your cat's name on it. She's not going to answer to it anyway. Instead, use the space to put phone numbers so that whoever finds your cat can locate you, or a friend, neighbor or relative -- day or night. If you're concerned about dangling tags, look for those that attach flat to the collar.
Although it's not a substitute for a collar and tags, you ought to also consider getting your pet microchipped. The microchip is permanent identification no bigger than a grain of rice, which a veterinarian imbeds under the skin over your pet's shoulder blades by using a large needle. (But don't worry: One yowl is about all you'll hear, and then the job's done!)
If you go the microchip route, be sure to register your pet with a service such as AKC Companion Animal Recovery (800-252-7894), which offers 24-hour match-up service 365 days a year. The one-time cost to register is $12.50, and although the service was set up in conjunction with one chip manufacturer, you can register whatever brand of chip is being offered in your area (and any kind of pet is eligible, even though the service is run by the nation's dominant registry for purebred dogs). If a shelter with a chip scanner ends up with your pet, the service releases your number so you can be reunited with your cat quickly.
Many lost pets are not found by shelters but by neighbors. And neighbors don't have microchip scanners in their collection of home appliances. Which is why, although chips are wonderful for permanent ID, it's also important to keep your roaming cat collared and tagged.
PETS ON THE WEB
When I was growing up, I wanted to be a veterinarian. By the time I got to high school, it became clear that I'd be better off as a writer -- I just wasn't well-suited for a career involving so much math and science. For those who haven't given up on a dream of becoming a veterinarian, the Web site of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (www.aavmc.org) is a must-see visit on the Internet. The site offers advice on preparing for veterinary school, statistics on how many applicants to veterinarian programs get accepted (about a third) and forecasts on career potential for new grads.
The bed of a pickup truck in the sun is as hot as a griddle, and feels about as comfortable for the dog whose feet are touching that hot metal. Riding without restraints in the back of a truck is never safe, and it's often uncomfortable for dogs and is illegal in some states. The best situation for the comfort and safety of your dog is to bring him into the cab of the truck, or leave him at home.
If you must transport your pet in the back of a pickup, do it in an airline shipping crate, properly secured to the bed. A crate will keep the animal from jumping or being thrown from the truck, and will provide shade and cooler footing until you get where you're going. Remember, though, that a crate isn't much protection against the baking sun and should not be used to hold your dog once you've reached your destination.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: Recently, someone brought me a budgie who had flown into their back yard. She was coaxed down from a high branch with food and captured. Now she is with me. I ran a newspaper ad for three days without any replies. The sad part is her owners apparently just let her fly. Her wings were not clipped, which allowed her to go anywhere. There's no way to know where she came from, how far she had flown, or how long she had been in the wild.
My veterinarian said that there is a population of escaped pet birds in our area. I find this appalling. How callous can people be to deliberately release their pets into the wild? I don't have much sympathy either for folks who fail to keep wings trimmed and then their birds accidentally escape. Would you mention that people need to keep the wings of their pet birds trimmed and not let birds fly free? -- G.M., via e-mail
A: In many parts of the country, colonies of former pet birds survive and even thrive in their new habitats. Although warm places such as South Florida and Southern California are most hospitable to newly wild birds, parrots have been known to survive even in places as bitterly cold as Illinois and New York.
Although some birds will make the transition to feral living, many will not. And those who do will sometimes displace native birds, causing damage to the natural ecosystem. Both situations are compelling reasons to make sure a pet bird remains in captivity -- and that means keeping wings trimmed.
Wing trims also protect birds in the home. My "Birds For Dummies" co-author, avian veterinarian Dr. Brian Speer, reports treating a constant flow of pet birds who have been injured after flying into ceiling fans, sliding glass doors or even pots of boiling water on the stove.
So, yes, it's very important to keep wings trimmed. Furthermore, an improper trim can be physically and emotionally damaging. So it's important to learn from someone who knows proper technique, such as an avian veterinarian or experienced bird groomer.
Q: We have a new kitten, and she runs behind our vehicles as we are backing up. We have not hit her yet, but at this rate it seems inevitable. Do you have any suggestions on how to prevent this? -- T.P., via e-mail
A: Have you considered making her an indoor cat? Cars aren't the only hazards your pet will face if she continues to roam free. She's also at risk from dogs (or coyotes, in some areas), cat-hating neighbors, spilled chemicals such as antifreeze and more.
I recently visited friends in another state. I see them about once a year, and every time I visit, it seems as if there is a death in their free-roaming cat family. The calamities that befall these pets are typical: In the last three years, one was killed by a neighbor's dog, one was hit and killed by a car and the third just disappeared.
My friends and I agree to disagree on the subject of letting their cats roam -- they believe cats have to be "free." I can't help but feel even more sad when the loss of each wonderful pet was entirely preventable, especially knowing as I do that cats can be perfectly content as indoor pets.
A short life and tragic end are the fate of too many free-roaming cats. If you want to keep your pet safe, keep her inside.
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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