Experts say it's a good idea to check the batteries in your smoke detector twice a year, when setting the clock forward or back. I'd like to see the new year trigger another safety check -- this one geared to our pets. Interested? It'll just take a minute -- all you have to do is see what's around your pet's neck.
First, check the collar. Is your dog wearing a "choke" collar? If so, take it off right now and give thanks that he's 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 caught in the teeth of other dogs in play.
For everyday wear, a buckled 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. If it looks weak or worn, replace it right away.
Check to make sure the collar fits properly. That puppy collar you bought at age 9 months may be too snug now if your pet's full-grown. Check the fit by seeing how many fingers you can slip between your pet's neck and collar -- two is about right, although one will do for toy dogs and three may be needed for large ones.
Too loose a collar is a cause for concern, too. What good are tags if the collar falls off? And what good is a leash if your dog can slip the collar?
Now about those tags -- Make sure your pet has both a valid license and an identification 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 took care of a friend's dog over the holidays and was surprised to find the only thing he had on his collar was an expired license tag from a city and state he hadn't lived in for more than a year!
Even if someone had found him wandering and made the 3,000-mile phone call, the folks in the dog's old town have no way of knowing where his owner lives now. (Both my friend's sweet dog and her charming old cat have new tags on the way now.)
I've had people argue that theirs is a "backyard dog," not likely to escape and so not in need of either an identification 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 gate left ajar.
And as far as a license goes, that "unnecessary expense" is the difference between your dog being put down or sold to research as a stray within hours of being picked up, or held an extra day or two as an "owned" animal, depending on the animal-control ordinances in your area.
That extra time may mean the difference between getting your pet back and never seeing him again.
So license your pet, and if you need to order a new ID tag, consider omitting your pet's name and your address, in case the people who "find" him are pet thieves who wouldn't mind some repeat business. My pets carry both licenses and ID tags that say "Reward!," followed by three phone numbers, including area codes. No name, no address, but enough phone numbers to reach someone at any given moment.
Many people don't like to collar their cats, fearing that their pet will get hung up somewhere with too rigid a collar or will lose too many of the "escapable" kind. If that's one of your concerns, why not start making your own inexpensive cat collars?
All you need is to order some cloth labels (the kind sewn into children's clothing) and pick up a length of 3/8 -inch-wide elastic (both are available at fabric stores).
Measure for a snug fit, sew the ends together and the label on and you've got a cheap collar that's perfectly safe and easy to replace should your cat give it the slip.
Spadafori is a newspaper reporter and an animal obedience trainer in Sacramento, Calif. Questions about pets may be sent to her c/o At Home, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md., 21278