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Hidden Household Hazards


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Pets look at the world from a completely different perspective than their humans. Lacking the ability to reason out their actions—and designed with the ability to leap, spin, wiggle and chew their way into all manner of situations that would not occur to most of us—dogs, cats, and even birds sometimes find themselves facing danger in the most ordinary places! This article will explore a few potential threats to your pet that you might not have considered. And perhaps it will even help you look at the world through your pet’s eyes for just a few minutes.

It’s well known that pets see the world as a dining hall and a playground. With no hands, they use their mouths and noses to sample novel things they encounter. Their natural curiosity leads them to explore and investigate, but their inability to reason and anticipate consequences gets them into some unexpected places. Unfortunately, we humans have created an environment of hazards and threats that we naturally avoid because we understand them. Your pet does not.

Picture, for example, the cat owner happily lounging in his recliner, watching TV or enjoying a nap. Kitty, who is a little restless, decides to explore the space beneath the chair—just the sort of small, dark space that cats are attracted to. Her owner stirs, reaches for the lever to straighten the chair … Kitty is caught in the mechanism or between the footrest and the chair side.

A major category of household hazards can loosely be called “stuff pets get into,” which also includes “stuff that gets into pets!”

Cats are also drawn to high places. They are infamous for getting themselves stranded in trees and on power poles, roofs, etc. But even inside the home, this hankering to see the world from above can get them into trouble. Put something “out of reach” and, for some cats, you’ve issued a challenge! My own cats have demonstrated an amazing ability to reach the most elevated spots. They’ve discovered how to access a small storage space above a closet by hopping onto a desk, then a bookcase, balancing across the top of a partially opened door and, from there, accurately leaping into the space several feet away.

Tops of refrigerators are especially attractive to cats. And their feet are adept at opening cabinets and drawers. Give them a curtain and they’ll use it to access the curtain rod, and from there may clamber onto the tops of sheer-walled furniture, where you’ve placed fragile ornaments, pictures in glass-fronted frames, etc. They of course don’t place much value on such items and seem to enjoy pushing them off the edge, where they may shatter, creating a broken glass hazard that they, another pet, or even you may step on.

A little less scary, but still a problem: cats often climb onto ledges, including shower enclosures, which they can easily fall from. Even if they land uninjured, they can be trapped in a shower until someone finds and rescues them.

Don’t have cats? Plenty of dogs have been known to counter-surf, knock things over, and walk on broken glass, too! In fact, dogs have been known to sail through plate-glass windows and sliding doors after rabbits and squirrels or when frightened, such as during thunderstorms. Dogs and cats alike are prone to run past humans to get outside if panicked, and often find themselves lost and frightened once they stop running.

Outside hazards are well recognized for free-roaming pets. But many people allow their pets onto balconies of upstairs rooms or apartments, even hotel rooms, thinking that they’ll be safe because it’s “too high” for them to get down. Elevation does not create safety! Overall, pets do not seem to have a good sense of distance. Cats, in particular, become mesmerized when they’re staring down from high places (particularly at night) and may jump, or they tend to rest along the rail and can easily fall. “High-rise syndrome”—seen mainly in cities—is so dubbed because cats seem compelled to leap (or fall) off balconies. So if you have a balcony, think twice about allowing your pet unsupervised access!

A major category of household hazards can loosely be called “stuff pets get into,” which also includes “stuff that gets into pets!” You might expect that dogs are more prone than cats to eat things that aren’t food, but that’s only somewhat true. Cats and dogs tend to be attracted to different items, with a lot of overlap.

Recurring themes in cat eating or chewing on non-food items include:

Electric cords: The texture is very appealing to both dogs and cats, no matter the age. This can be frustrating when they chew up the phone cord or eat your new iPod charging cable. But it can also be deadly if the cord is plugged into the wall, or if they decide to swallow a long piece of cable! Electric cord injuries include not only the risk of electrocution but can also severe burns in the mouth and a poorly understood type of delayed lung disease that can be hard to figure out if you don’t know your pet has chewed a cord.

Hair ties and rubber: This is a recurring theme—cats love to eat elastic hair ties. In fact, cats have been known to swallow a whole bag of the things! In a similar vein, ribbon, thread, rubber bands and other long stringy things pose an attractive hazard for cats. Unfortunately, the only way they are coming back out is surgery.

I’ve also removed a large wad of wool carpet from the stomach of a Yorkie, and most of a lariat rope from a Pointer, who apparently thought these were good snacks. Dogs will readily swallow anything that has touched food (including knives, wooden skewers, string, butcher paper, plastic wrappers and more). And because the dogs usually know they aren’t supposed to have it, they tend to swallow things whole, where they can cause choking, perforations, burns or obstruction. Many of these won’t show up on an X-ray and could be deadly if you don’t specifically mention them to your vet.

Speaking of things that touch food, more than one dog has suffocated after getting its head stuck in an empty milk carton or plastic bag. Never leave these dangerous items out where any pet can get to them.

Certain house plants can also pose a threat. Many are irritating or even poisonous, so do a little Internet search before you bring home that potted sago palm, for example. Even silk plants can be a problem—a feline patient of mine once spent a week vomiting intermittently and was almost taken to surgery before finally passing a long silk “branch.” Ironically, poinsettia, which gets a lot of bad press around the holidays, is only a mild irritant.

Even dog toys aren’t always safe! The most common way dogs break teeth is chewing on items that were sold for that purpose—hard nylon “bones” are a major culprit, as are cow hooves, antlers, and bones, as well as rocks they pick up at home. And when a big dog grabs a toy meant for a small dog, it can pose a choking hazard or intestinal foreign body if swallowed.

Finally, anything poisonous to other animals—i.e., “pest deterrent” targeting rodents, snails, insects, etc.—is also poisonous to a pet. Because most are sweet-tasting to increase their appeal to the target species, dogs will readily eat many toxic compounds. Cats are unlikely to eat such things, but if it’s spilled or scattered, they may walk through it then feel compelled to lick the residue off their feet. Because they are more sensitive to most chemicals than other animals, even this small amount could be deadly for a cat.

So how can you protect your pet from these “hidden” household hazards? The truth is, it’s impossible to think of everything. I’ve known dogs to break legs falling off the couch or playing in their own back yards. All we can do is to look at the world from the pet’s point of view and be careful with anything they might find appealing. I hope this article also serves as a good reminder that life is fleeting, pets can be silly, and we need to appreciate them and the love they give us, every day.

Lillian Roberts, DVM, is the owner of Country Club Animal Clinic, which is located at 36869 Cook Street in Palm Desert. 760-776-7555 countryclubdvm.com

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Lillian Roberts, DVM
Lillian Roberts, DVM
Dr. Lillian Roberts graduated from the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine in 1987. After a pioneering private-practice internship in California’s Bay Area, she moved to the Coachella Valley. Here she spent several years at the Animal Emergency Clinic — culminating in the publication in 1998 of a book, EMERGENCY VET: TRUE STORIES FROM THE ANIMAL ER. Dr. Roberts opened Country Club Animal Clinic in 1996, providing personalized service to pet owners in the growing Coachella Valley. Built mostly by word-of-mouth, the practice continues to serve discriminating pet owners at its convenient new facility opened in 2008. After more than 25 years of practice, Dr. Roberts still loves what she does — and it shows! “Whether it’s a wellness visit or a challenging medical or surgical case, I take real pleasure in making every client experience a positive one,” she says. “I look forward to interacting with my patients and consider many of their owners to be personal friends.” When not providing excellent veterinary care, Dr. Roberts enjoys world travel, hiking, cycling and kayaking, as well as wildlife and nature photography. She is the author of four books, including the Andi Pauling veterinarian mystery series, serves on the boards of Loving All Animals and the Palms To Pines Rotary chapter, is past president of the Desert Camera Club and supports numerous animal-related and other charities.


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