Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald: Do you know where your pets are?

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Oct 24, 2011

In the last 25 years, many wild species have learned how to both survive in and successfully exploit urban environments. Foxes use storm sewers and compost heaps as dens. Coyotes include in their range many municipalities such as bustling Los Angeles. Raccoons are incredibly dexterous and can seemingly figure out any garbage can system. The nocturnal skunk can regularly be seen at night within many city limits in the United States. Bats use buildings and man-made structures for shelter during the day. Squirrels are a pest to electrical wiring, are astonishingly bold, and can be found in most North American cities and towns. Predatory birds and raptors likewise now consider cities home range. Owls, hawks, and falcons can be seen nesting in urban trees and buildings across the country. Rattlesnakes can be found anywhere there are prairie dog colonies, including dog parks and nature preserves within or close to urban areas.

Using Denver as an example of a typical American city (and based on what we see in our busy emergency room), let's examine just what impact wild animals can have on pet populations. At our hospital, we routinely see cats mauled by foxes (and we see the lucky ones!). How much easier for a fox to nab a fat cat off of a porch or an old cat let out at night alone than to have to run down a cagey rabbit. We have seen coyote attacks on dogs let off leash in ever increasing numbers within the city limits. Dogs and cats fare badly when they blunder across unflappable raccoons. We even saw a 35-year-old box turtle recently mauled by raccoons when left to roam in his own backyard.

Decorative koi fish in ponds in private residences are likewise not immune to being ravished by raccoons and foxes. Skunks are seemingly everywhere. (I saw two in Larimer Square last week after they came out of Cherry Creek and lumbered across Speer Boulevard!) Not only is it distasteful when pets are sprayed, but skunks, like bats, carry rabies. A great-horned or barn owl could easily take a kitten, and peregrine falcons have nests in two buildings in downtown Denver. Again, how much easier to nab a fat pigeon than to chase down agile prairie birds. So far this summer, we have seen 34 rattlesnake bites in dogs and two in cats (one of which was fatal).

Most of these encounters are easily preventable. They used to say, "It is 10 o'clock. Do you know where your kids are?" What about your pets? For a variety of sound reasons, cats should not be allowed to roam unsupervised. Automobiles, sick cats with contagious diseases, malicious people—all reason enough to keep our cats indoors. Dogs do not learn about streets. Every day we see two or three pets hit by cars, and, again, we are only seeing the lucky ones. Furthermore, dogs are hunters; they evolved chasing other animals. What if it is a skunk, a raccoon, a fox, or a coyote? What if it is a porcupine? (Six this summer in our practice.) They say fences make good neighbors, but so do leashes. In an urban environment, dogs cannot be allowed to run free. Cars, dog fights, potential poisons, and diseases (distemper and parvovirus are still out there) are just some of the reasons that dogs should be in safe, fenced yards. All pets should be up-to-date on vaccinations. Companion animals are much more likely to be exposed to rabies from a skunk, bat, raccoon, or fox than from another pet.

Also, all pets should be neutered or spayed. Unneutered dogs and cats are more likely to wander and encounter wild animals. In addition, all pets should be microchipped in case they are ever lost or hurt. A recent study in U.S. shelters found that 73% of microchipped animals are returned to their homes, while only 11% of unchipped pets find their way back to owners. A little common sense goes a long way. Be responsible. Have your dog spayed or neutered, up-to-date on vaccines, and microchipped, and don’t let it roam unattended. Now go pet them and have some fun.