Dog Wanting to Steal Food

Each fall, Veterinary Pet Insurance gives out the Hambone Award to a dog who has gotten himself into some kind of unbelievable trouble. The Hambone Award was named in honor of a VPI-insured dog who was discovered inside his family’s refrigerator along with a hambone — as in what was left of the ham when he was through with it. The dog escaped with a mild case of hypothermia and maybe an upset tummy.

Just like all the winners of the Hambone Award, that first dog was lucky. As chief veterinary officer at the nation’s oldest and largest pet health insurance company, I see claims every day for the veterinary expenses of pets whose endings aren’t as happy.

This year’s Hambone winner, Winnie the Pooch, ate a 2-pound bag of frozen onion rings. The owners, not realizing that onions present a serious risk to dogs and cats — they can trigger hemolytic anemia, a condition that can be fatal if too many red blood cells are damaged — figured their dog would just have a tummy ache. Fortunately, they were right.

Insurance companies know all about risks and how to weigh them. If more pet parents did, we’d see fewer nominees for our Hambone Award. And you know what? We could live with that.

How to Keep Your Pet From Being a Hambone Nominee

Each Hambone winner is awarded a VPI-funded grant of $10,000, provided by the Veterinary Care Foundation, to help pets whose parents can’t afford care. While I’m sure you would be happy to help other pet parents in need, I’m just as sure you’d rather your pet’s problem not be the reason you were able to do so. I’d like to share five tips for keeping your pet out of the ER, based on an overview of all our Hambone nominees over the years.

Know what’s toxic and how much. You can easily find information on this online, both here on Vetstreet and on the website of the ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center. In VPI’s Pet Health Zone, we show the top claims for accidental poisoning, with the accidental ingestion of medication (human and pet, prescription and over-the-counter both) at the top of the list.

Close the door (the drawer, the window, the trash can lid…). Once you know your relative risks, you can be better prepared for them, and that can be as simple as keeping things closed. Hambone nominees have eaten everything from diapers to bread dough. Our motto is if it’s small enough to get jaws around, bite a piece off or swallow, there’s a pet willing to try. Don’t give them the chance: Make sure problem items are safely put away. Keeping doors, drawers and lids closed will also help prevent pets from getting into trouble in another way: They’ll be less likely to climb into something dangerous, as with this year’s runner-up, a cat who survived a cycle in the washing machine.

Be extra vigilant when routines change. We do see some claims that seem to cluster around the holidays, and in part that’s because holidays often represent a break in routine, travel or the introduction of people who aren’t as pet-savvy, like your relatives. Remind them of pet-safe practices such as making sure not to leave medication on counters or nightstands. Holiday candies? Don’t leave those dishes where pets can reach them.

Never underestimate the trouble a youngster can get into. Do you look back at your teen years and wonder how you survived them? "Teen" pets are also at higher risk. We are often appropriately vigilant about young puppies and kittens, but sometimes we let our guard down when our pets enter their “teenage” period. Just because your dog or cat looks grown-up doesn’t mean he or she is. Plan accordingly.

Fences, leashes and training can be a pet’s best friends. Counter-cruising may be amusingly annoying, unless your dog eats 2 pounds of onion rings or enough bread dough to risk his life. If your dog chases squirrels, that may be “what dogs do” — assuming he isn’t hit by a car doing it — but there’s always the possibility your dog will brawl with a buck, as did another of our Hambone nominees. Fencing to keep pets from roaming or to keep them away from hazards such as a swimming pool can be life-saving. Training them to leave things on the counter alone or to come when called can also save lives. Cover all your bets with training, and keep your dog safely on leash or in a securely fenced yard.

In the end, it’s all about relative risk. The more you know, the safer your pet will be. Doubly so if you act on your knowledge to prevent medical emergencies. And while both your veterinarian and those of us in the pet health insurance industry appreciate your business, we’d much rather be in the business of helping you keep your pet healthy.

There’s no way to protect your pet from everything, but if you work just on these five areas, you’ll be protecting yours from a lot of risky business.