Spilled medicine

Few things are sadder in medicine — either human or animal — than a patient sickened or even killed by something that could have easily been prevented. In my more than three decades in practice — I’m “veteran veterinarian,” as I always say — I’ve seen many preventable catastrophes. They break my heart, every one of them. Sometimes I can save a pet, sometimes I can’t. But when the day is done, I always find myself wishing the pet’s owner had known enough to keep the animal out of harm’s way.

Accidents Happen Even When You’re Careful

While I love to see pets and their owners, I’d rather see them in wellness exams. That’s when I can celebrate what a pet’s owner is doing right and help with suggestions for what will keep that pet in top form. Make sure that you only see your vet for nonemergency visits by minimizing your pet’s risks. With a little care, it’s easy to prevent many pet catastrophes. Here are five common pet disasters and how to avoid them.

Poisoning: Accidental poisonings are one of the most common tragedies that strike pets. The number of poisonous substances your pet can get into may surprise you. One of the most common is medications, both human and veterinary, over-the-counter and prescription. My colleague Dr. Steve Hansen of the ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center often shares a story about how long it took his dog to get pill-size candies out of a childproof prescription container: We’re talking seconds, not minutes. Make sure all medications are behind doors or in drawers, and remind house guests to secure their medications, too.

The danger doesn’t end there. Pets can be poisoned by any number of foods, plants, cleaning products and insecticides. Learn what’s dangerous, and if you can’t completely eliminate it from your house and yard, secure it properly.

Car accident: It only takes a second for your pet to be hit by a car. You can find yourself in this situation by thinking your dog is under control off-leash when he is not. Don’t take chances, even if you’re sure your dog is trained to be perfectly responsive to voice commands. All it takes is one darting squirrel to engage your dog’s ever-present prey drive. Use a leash, and this is one awful memory you can skip.

What if your pet is hit but seems unhurt? Every veterinarian can tell you about pets who seemed fine after the accident but died overnight of internal injuries. If your pet is hit by a car, don’t delay: Get to a vet immediately.

Lost and never found: Cats with access to the outdoors are at the greatest risk of wandering away permanently, of course. But dogs, too, can escape and not make it home. There are all sorts of opportunities for your dog to get out of your yard: A child leaves the gate open, or a fence blows down when you’re not home, or a loose board gives way when your dog pushes on it, or your dog likes to dig. Whatever the situation, if your dog gets out, he may not come back.

A microchip and a collar with an ID tag, both with current contact information, are a must for dogs and cats, even those you think will never be outside on their own. Keep cats happy inside with an enriched environment, ideally with access to a secured outdoor area. Keep dogs safe with spring-latched gates that automatically close and secure fences. For cats and dogs, neutering adult pets eliminates some of the temptation to roam.

Heatstroke: Cats seem to have more sense than dogs do when it comes to staying cool. Or maybe being cool. Dogs have an inefficient cooling system that’s primarily about panting. And a dog will keep doing whatever fun thing he’s doing, especially if you’re encouraging him, no matter how hot he gets. It doesn’t take much for a dog to get into the trouble zone, and overheating kills easily.

Be aware of heat always. Don’t leave your dog in the car, even on a day that’s merely “warm” — 70 degrees and up. Curtail activity during the hottest part of the day, remember that humidity makes it harder for a dog to keep cool and always, always provide your dog with fresh drinking water. Dogs with short noses and those who are elderly or obese are at the greatest risk for heatstroke. Know what to do if your dog shows signs of overheating and get to the veterinarian quickly.

Fights and bites: Bites and scratches hurt, and they can mean major medical trauma and even death for your pet. While you can’t be 100 percent sure that your pet won’t be attacked or involved in a fight, you can minimize the chances of it happening. Cats with unlimited access to the outdoors are often in fights, with nasty abscesses frequently the result; keep your cat safe by providing her with a secure outdoor area close to your house.

Many dog fights can be prevented if people learn to recognize the body language leading up to the scrap and separate the animals before the disagreement escalates. If you frequent a dog park, follow the rules, especially if you have a small dog. Many off-leash dog parks have separate areas for small dogs because of the potential for large dogs to see smaller ones as prey. If pet owners aren’t following the rules or if you feel unsafe, take your dog and leave immediately.

Prevent What You Can — and Be Prepared for the Worst

The final part of prevention is being prepared. That means making your pet part of your family’s disaster plans, and it means knowing what to do if you’re looking at a veterinary emergency. I will add one more thing: Consider pet health insurance to cover unexpected costs. This is just one more way to be ready for the worst.

Even if you know what to do and have insurance, the best accident or illness is the one your pet avoids. Take a look around your house, your yard and your neighborhood and recognize the hazards. It’s worth the small amount of time you’ll invest in keeping your pet from harm.