By Helen Anne Travis
While most of us associate spring with longer days and warmer weather, the change of season can mean big trouble for your cat or dog. Pets who have been cooped up all winter are suddenly more susceptible to environmental irritants, exposure to toxic chemicals and overexertion, not to mention activity-related injuries, parasitic diseases and chance encounters with critters that don’t have their best interests in mind.
To help you keep your pet safe this season, we spoke to veterinarians Dr. Rachel Barrack of Animal Acupuncture in New York City and Dr. Patrick Mahaney of California Pet Acupuncture and Wellness in Los Angeles about the top 20 springtime dangers to look out for and how to keep your pet happy and healthy as the weather warms up.
Don’t expect your pets to be at their peak physical performance as soon as the snow clears. After several months inside and inactive, your dog may have gained weight, lost muscle tone and be a little stiff in the joints, said Mahaney. Reintroduce him slowly to his favorite outdoor activities by starting with short runs and hikes or gentle games of fetch and Frisbee until he’s used to an increased level of activity.
Speaking of fetch, be sure to use dog fetch toys, like the Chuckit! Ultra rubber ball dog toy, when you play with your dog. It may be tempting to pick a stick up off the ground, but these can be harmful to your pet’s health, Barrack said. They can splinter in your dog’s mouth or cause an obstruction in his digestive tract and can also be covered in tummy-irritating mold, Mahaney said.
The gifts the Easter Bunny leaves for your human kids can be downright dangerous to your fur babies. Chocolate eggs and bunny ears are toxic for dogs, especially if they contain baker’s or dark chocolate, said Barrack, while the strings of neon green Easter grass can cause tummy problems if ingested by a curious cat. Small toys also pose a choking hazard for all pets, not to mention small children.
“Just like humans, dogs and cats can experience seasonal allergies,” Barrack said. Dust, mold and pollen are among the most common triggers of seasonal allergies in pets, and symptoms can include sneezing, coughing, excessive scratching, licking and chewing.
If you suspect your pet is having an allergic reaction, consult your veterinarian to determine the appropriate treatment.
Nothing says spring like freshly cut flowers, but those beautiful bouquets can prove fatal to your furry friends. Lilies are extremely toxic to all pets, Barrack said, and can be deadly when consumed by cats. All parts of the plant, including the pollen, flower and leaves, are poisonous. If you must have lilies in the house, keep them well out of reach.
Make sure your pet doesn’t overheat when playing outside by giving him plenty of access to fresh water, as well as a shady spot where he can take a break from the sun. And whatever you do, never leave your pet unattended, even for a few minutes, in the car. Not only is it illegal, cars can also heat up rapidly in warm weather, Barrack said.
Spring means warmer weather, longer days and lots of bugs. While it’s important to keep your pets on pet prescription heartworm medicine and flea and tick meds year round, doctors say it’s essential during the warmer months when bugs are most prevalent. Don’t forget to check your pet for ticks after walks in wooded or grassy areas.
Whether you’re taking a road trip with your pup or just going for a short drive, ensure she’s properly secured inside the car. Let dogs in commercials dangle their heads out the car window; keep your dog inside the car to keep her from falling out of the vehicle or being hit by debris. And never let your dog ride in the back of a pickup truck.
“I always suggest your pet rides in a secure place inside the car, ideally in a crate or transporting device,” Mahaney said, adding that you should always put your pet’s leash and collar on while the animal is still inside the car.
While you might be rejoicing that you can finally open the windows and let in all that glorious spring air, inspect your screens and window sashes to ensure your cat can’t fall out or escape. Check your screen door for holes and ensure windows without screens are opened just enough to let out the stale winter air and not your cat.
Use the change of season as an excuse to inspect your pup’s dog leash, dog harness and dog collar. A small tear or a loose fit can mean the difference between life and death. “When you least expect it, [a leash] could break and tragedy could strike,” Mahaney said.
Annual spring cleaning can expose your pet to harmful chemicals like ammonia, bleach and chlorine. Even all-natural products can cause stomach problems, Barrack said, so keep your pets in a separate room until all recently cleaned surfaces are dry.
Spring is mating season. According to the ASPCA, 2.7 million unwanted cats and dogs are euthanized each year. Spring is the most common time of year for felines to mate. It is very important that pets are spayed and neutered to avoid unwanted pregnancy in outdoor animals. Even indoor animals should be altered in case a “visitor” enters the house or they mistakenly get outside. Pregnancy is not always problem-free in dogs and cats. They can have trouble birthing that sometimes requires surgical intervention. Also intact animals can exhibit mating behavior during the spring that can be very annoying to owners, such as humping, vocalizing, spraying and rubbing their hind end on furniture and human legs.
April showers may bring May flowers, but when planting your spring garden, you’ll want to avoid flowers like azaleas, sago palms and rhododendrons, which are highly toxic to pets, Barrack said. Fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides can also harm outdoor animals, and even something as seemingly harmless as mulch can prove unsafe. Some mulch contains coffee grounds, Mahaney said, and when accidentally eaten, these can lead to caffeine toxicity. Bring your pet to the vet immediately if you think he has ingested any poisonous plants or garden supplies.
April showers also bring puddles. Don’t let your dog drink from stagnant water sources like puddles or lakes, Barrack said. This can lead to gastrointestinal upset or more serious health concerns like Leptospirosis, a bacterial infection that can cause severe damage to the kidneys and liver.
For some, rolling off the pool cover is a springtime rite of passage. Protect your pets and small children from falling in by surrounding your pool with a fence or barrier. Also keep a bowl of fresh water nearby to prevent your pet from drinking from the pool, as the salt and chlorine in the water can lead to stomach problems and electrolyte imbalances.
Before bringing your pup to the dog park, ensure he is up to date on all his vaccinations. Once you’re in the park, watch him closely to ensure he doesn’t get into fights with other dogs or escape through a gate that was accidentally left open.
Outdoor cafes often cater to people with pets, but before you order brunch, do a quick inspection of the area around your table. Make sure there’s nothing on the ground that could prove harmful if ingested. Mahaney also advises you don’t let your dog drink from a common water dog bowl. “You never know if it’s truly clean,” he said. “Bring your own.”
As the days get longer, there’s more of a risk of overexposure to UV rays. This is even a concern for indoor pets that like to sleep by a window, Mahaney said. Animals with white coats and pale skin around their noses and eyes are traditionally more susceptible to skin cancers, he said. Make sure your pet doesn't spend too much time in the sun and if necessary, invest in protective clothing to keep her safe when she’s outside.
Anything designed to kill insects, rodents or other pests could prove fatal to your pet too. Monitor your pet closely after protecting your home and yard from springtime invaders, and if you notice symptoms of lethargy or changes in appetite, see a veterinarian immediately.
You and your pets aren’t the only ones enjoying the warm weather. Hawks, foxes and other wild animals are also coming out of their winter hiding spots, and they’re often on the hunt for food. Small cats and dogs should not be left outside alone unmonitored, even in urban areas, as you never know who’s in the sky or on the other side of the fence. They also can carry viruses that pets may be susceptible too if bitten.