5 tips to keep pets safe in the city

Follow these six tips to keep your companion out of harm’s way in the big city!

City environments can be fun for animals. There’s plenty to see, other animals to meet, and endless streets, parks and gardens to explore. But the congestion of city life can present hazards, some of which may not even occur to you. Here’s a few to keep in mind.

1. High rise syndrome

Falls from high rise buildings have become so commonplace they’ve been given a name: high rise syndrome. Each year, hundreds of cats and small dogs end up at emergency clinics after falling from an apartment balcony, window or rooftop garden. Most don’t intentionally jump, but instead lose their balance when concentrating on a bird or other distraction. These falls are often serious, but preventable. Many animal falls happen despite the family’s good intentions. “People don’t often realize how strong cats are,” says veterinarian Dr. Christina Chambreau. “They can use their head and shoulders to push open a window you might have left open just a crack.”

Screens alone will not always prevent a fall. Safeguard your windows by installing childproof locks that prevent windows from being pushed open more than a few inches. Another option is to reinforce windows with bars.

Balconies are a great way to allow your companion to enjoy the outdoors, but most cats and small dogs can easily it through the railings. “The balcony should be completely screened in, top to bottom,” suggests Dr. Chambreau. “Or have the animal wear a harness.” When using a harness on a balcony, make sure the animal cannot reach the edge when the leash is fully extended.

If your animal ever does fall, even from a low height, take him to an emergency vet right away for a check up.

2. Theft prevention

Dog and cat theft is on the rise. This year, the American Kennel Club reported almost three times the usual number of dog thefts as compared to early 2008. Purebreds, small dogs, and animals left alone in cars are particularly vulnerable.

Avoid theft by helping your companion keep a low profile. If you fancy a particular breed, don’t broadcast your passion with outdoor signs or car stickers. Be wary of strangers who appear overly inquisitive about your animal. When out, always keep your dog on a leash or in a fenced in yard, and never leave him unattended in a car.

Be sure he has adequate up-to-date ID. In combination with microchipping, the AKC recommends using a 24-hour recovery service that maintains your current contact information. This is especially useful if you move frequently or travel.

3. Paws up

Walking is part of city life, and many leashed dogs and even harnessed cats enjoy their daily explorations along city streets. But in winter, streets and sidewalks are heavily treated with ice melt and road salt, which can be harsh on bare paws or toxic when ingested. Try walking your dog in parks, away from treated roadways. If your animal has been wading through ice and slush, clean his feet with a wet cloth when you return home so he does not ingest the chemicals when licking himself.

In summer, meanwhile, asphalt can quickly heat up, also causing discomfort to bare paws. When the sun is directly overhead, walk on grass where possible but watch out for areas that are treated with pesticides. Typically a small sign is put up designating areas that have undergone treatment. Avoid these areas, and wash your animal’s feet if you suspect he may have wandered over treated grass. Some urban areas have banned residential pesticide use, but many still permit it.

Because we wear shoes and boots, it can be hard for us to notice problems with walking surfaces, so stay tuned to your companion when out for a walk If he appears skittish about walking on a particular surface, assume there is a reason and let him move to an area he’s more comfortable with.

Alternatively, consider a set of boots for your dog. It might take him a while to get used to them, but they’re one of the best ways to protect his feet from hot asphalt or road salt. Be sure to choose well made quality boots that can be properly fitted to your dog.

4. Pollution alert

Smog and pollution are unavoidable in the city. On hot humid summer days, and sometimes even on mild damp winter days, the air may be declared “poor” and the public advised to take precautions. Don’t let your animal overexert himself on such days, and be sure he has a retreat from the smoggy air. Provide him with plenty of fresh water, especially when it’s hot.

Remember also that dogs or cats walked alongside slow-moving traffic are snout level to car exhaust. Minimize your companion’s exposure to the fumes by avoiding roads tied up in traffic jams, using side streets or a park, and keeping him on the inside of the sidewalk.

You can also protect your animal from the negative effects of pollution by keeping his immune system healthy with a high quality, well balanced diet and minimal vaccines.

5. Strays and wildlife

Your heart may go out to the many homeless dogs and cats found in cities, but resist the temptation to introduce them to your own animal or take them into your home. Even if the stray seems friendly, he could be carrying an infectious disease and/or react violently once he encounters your own dog or cat.

Instead, call a no-kill shelter to pick up the stray. They’ll give him food and shelter and, if necessary and wherever possible, help socialize him and turn him into an adoptable companion. If the stray is approachable and you wish to adopt him yourself, take him to the vet first to make sure he’s healthy and able to safely interact with other animals. Introduce him to your own companion slowly and gradually; your vet can give you some tips on how to do this.

Cities are often home to wild animals such as raccoons and foxes that have lost their natural habitats due to urban sprawl and are trying to survive the best they can along with humanity. They almost never mix happily with dogs and cats, so don’t let your companion come into contact with them.

6. Crowd control

The crowded hectic conditions found in most cities can stress many animals. Here’s how to help your companion cope:

• Slowly introduce a new or young animal to the bustle of crowds.

• Start by taking him out during less busy times of day, then work your way up.

• Keep abreast with local goings-on and adjust your plans as needed. Crowds from sports events, festivals or conventions can add chaos to your animal’s usual route.

• If you travel together on a subway, ride outside of rush hour whenever possible, and be sure your dog is properly restrained.

• If your dog is frequently the target of curious children, don’t hesitate to explain to his admirers how he best likes to be approached.

City life is full of adventures that you and your companion can explore together. By taking these simple precautions, you can do so safely.


Debbie Swanson is a freelance writer living near Boston. She contributes regularly to many animal magazines, and lives with her family and a collie named Duncan.