High-Rise Apartments
It happens every spring: Apartment dwellers open the windows to let in some fresh air, and the next thing you know, we're hearing about cats falling — or even jumping — out of those high-rise windows. It's not the cat's fault — chances are, there’s a bird on the rail and he leaps for it. Or he's just sort of careless while catching some sun. Surprisingly, many of these cats survive the falls, a phenomenon called “high-rise syndrome.” Credit their ability to rotate into a perfect landing position while falling.

But even if your cat does land on his feet, that doesn't mean there won't be broken bones and even more serious injuries. So wouldn’t it be smarter not to fall at all? To the human mind, certainly. But that’s just not the way the feline mind works.

Modern Life Doesn’t Compute

"When cats evolved, there were no high-rise buildings. There were trees," says my colleague, Dr. Louise Murray of the ASPCA's Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital in New York City. "Their instincts work against them now. They have a strong instinct to go after any moving object. When they fall … a cat could grab the bark of a tree and save himself, but he can't grab concrete and metal with claws."

That’s why it’s essential that we look out for our pets, including making sure cats who live the high life don’t get a chance to take a tumble. Our pets often follow their strong instincts, and that can lead them into trouble if we don’t protect them from what their instincts weren’t designed to cope with: modern life.

Man-Made Dangers

Often, animals wind up at the vet's office with a condition we veterinarians refer to as “HBC”: Hit By Car. Although the trend toward indoor cats and stronger leash laws mean we see fewer pets injured or killed on the roadways, there are still far too many who lose their lives this way. While some dogs are still allowed to chase cars — a very dangerous pastime — most pets who are hit just don’t realize the speed and the danger of a vehicle on the road.

Wouldn’t it make sense to stay out of the way? And don't dogs have plenty of sense? When I see people walking their dogs off-leash near busy roadways, I know that’s what they’re thinking. Their dog hasn’t left their side before, so he must understand the risk of the roadway, right?

Wrong. Something that hasn’t happened before can't be counted as something that just won't happen; it's more likely to be something that hasn’t happened yet. Even a well-trained dog can be one chased squirrel away from being struck by a car. Again, the instincts engage before anything else, and if a squirrel pops out under your dog’s nose, he could be dead before you can react. Don’t take a chance: Leash him.

What about free-roaming cats? While it’s true that many cats seem to be pretty savvy about traffic, I wouldn’t put a lot of faith in their judgment. One miscalculation — or a moment of distraction while running from or running after something — and it’s lights out for Kitty. You don’t expect a child to be naturally traffic savvy, do you? Don’t expect it from your pet, either.

More Risky Business

As a veterinarian, I can tell you that pets just aren’t capable of making judgment calls on any number of things that can hurt or kill them. Here are some more that you need to make sure to protect your pet from.

  • Sugar-free candies and gums: The sugar substitute Xylitol can kill your dog. Make sure you put any candies and gums sweetened with the substance out of reach — and make sure any guests to your home do, too. Your dog can’t read the label, and he wouldn’t see the problem if he could. If it tastes good, he’ll eat it — and sometimes even if it doesn’t, as in the case of prescription medication.
  • Fatty foods: Fat is appealing because it’s a good source of energy, and it tastes great. Dogs and cats love fat, but their instincts can guide them to harm again, possibly triggering pancreatitis. The fattiest bits of your meals are not suitable for your pet’s bowl, so make sure you put them in the trash. Use a covered bin if you need to, or put the can behind a pantry door.
  • Wild animals: That hunting instinct that triggers a cat to jump off a high-rise or a dog to chase a car can also drive repeated and ill-advised tangles with wildlife. Rabies is always a risk, of course, but so is getting skunked, hit by porcupine quills or killed by coyotes. And while cats generally have enough sense to avoid snakes, many dogs don’t.

Even the smartest pet isn’t equipped to make judgment calls when it comes to avoiding hazards that seem obvious to us. It’s always up to us to protect them!