Dog loose in car

When I’m in an exam room, I make it my business not just to diagnose the pet whose life is in my hands, but also to listen to his owner. While I never, ever pull back from offering what I see as the best path forward for the pet in front of me, I am well aware that many people can’t do everything I recommend.

What I do is help pet owners prioritize, working out a plan to bring their pets' health up to par as time and budgets allow. But so often I find myself wishing that I could have helped someone before there was a medical issue. Prevention really is the key to good health, and it’s the one thing in every pet owner’s control.

Following a list of pet care basics is important, but sometimes, knowing what not to do is even more useful. I've listed my five most useful "don'ts" — they're all free and can potentially save you money, and improve your dog's health, in the long run.

Save Your Dog’s Life in Five Easy Steps

Do not allow your dog to be fat. I realize you hear this all the time, but there’s a reason why we veterinarians will not let this issue go. Every day we see dogs in constant pain, and owners who write this off as being a normal part of getting older. It’s not. The pain of arthritis starts earlier and is more severe in overweight dogs. I'm not saying this to make you feel guilty: It’s well established by research. Yes, we have marvelous medications that can ease an arthritic dog's pain. But if you keep your dog's weight at or slightly below ideal, he may not need them for years. That means when we say “a little padding on the ribs” we mean “very little padding, indeed.” And a tuck-in behind the rib cage — a real, honest-to-heavens waist. If you do nothing else on this list but prevent your dog from being overweight, you may have helped him to a longer, happier, more active life.

Do not take your dog for a ride in the car without securing him. A loose dog can be a distraction to a driver, and in an accident, the dog can become a projectile, injuring himself or others in the car, possibly seriously. There are plenty of canine restraint products on the market, but many won’t protect you or your dog much. In the end, I still prefer a crate for safe canine travel. Choose one made of hard, high-impact plastic and secure it to the frame of the vehicle in as near the middle of the “crumple zone” as possible.

Do not let your dog off leash in open areas. Very few dogs heel reliably off lead, and just as few — if not fewer — have a foolproof emergency recall. If you’re walking your dog along the road or letting him be off leash with you in your front yard, you are potentially one squirrel away from what may be the most tragic notation in veterinary medicine: “HBC,” which stands for “hit by car.” While it’s possible to teach a dog to come when called under nearly any circumstances, it’s unlikely that most dog owners will do so. That’s OK; that’s why there are leashes. If your dog won’t walk on leash without pulling, get a trainer’s help. It's better than having your dog get hit by a car.

Do not let your dog play with young children without proper supervision. I’m borrowing this one from my daughter, Vetstreet training expert Mikkel Becker. Every day you read about a dog who has bitten or killed a child, and in many of these cases, adult supervision would have prevented a tragedy. You know what else you see every day? Proud parents posting “cute” pictures of children interacting in potentially dangerous ways with dogs. Mikkel has put a collection of them on one of her Pinterest boards. For people who can read canine body language, these images are alarming. The dogs are stressed, anxious and ready to snap — figuratively and literally. Really, simple supervision isn’t enough. In order to prevent an injury, you must actively prevent your child from mauling, riding and pulling on your dog, even if he has been very tolerant in the past.

Do not give “people meds” to your dog without checking with your veterinarian first. My Vetstreet colleague Dr. Patty Khuly has written about dog-safe medications and how to use them. But many other common over-the-counter medications are just not safe for your dog. How do you know the difference? Check with your veterinarian, even if you’ve used an over-the-counter med on your pet before — there may be drug interactions you’re not fully aware of, for example. It's always better to be safe than sorry. (Note: I personally do not recommend aspirin at all because of its potential to produce stomach ulcers, but I realize it’s widely recommended by many good veterinarians, including Dr. Khuly, who advises its use, with caution.)

It’s a Matter of Common Sense, Really

These five “don’t ever dos” aren’t the only ones I can offer, but I think paying attention to them will go a long, long way to giving you the power to keep your dog as healthy as you can. Following these guidelines, as well as working with your veterinarian on wellness care, including comprehensive regular wellness exams, will help you give your pet a better and probably longer life. 

To be honest, there’s nothing that would make me happier than that.