Gina Spadafori has the week off. This column first appeared in 1991.
Experts say it's a good idea to check the batteries in your smoke detector twice a year. I'd like to see the same schedule on another safety check -- this one geared to our pets. Interested? It will just take a minute; all you have to do is see what's around your pet's neck.
First, check the collar. Is your dog wearing a "choke" collar? If so, take it off right now and give thanks that he's still alive. No dog should ever wear such a collar except under direct supervision.
Every year dogs are killed struggling to free themselves from a snagged choke collar. Their natural instinct to pull away only makes matters worse, as the collar pulls tighter and tighter the more the animal struggles.
For everyday wear, a buckled collar is the only way to go. Even if you have a safe collar on your pet, give it a good look. Is it frayed? A well-worn collar could give way, letting your pet escape into a dangerous or even deadly situation. If it looks weak or worn, replace it right away.
Check to make sure the collar fits properly. That puppy collar you bought at nine months may be too snug now that your pet's full-grown. Check the fit by seeing how many fingers you can slip between your pet's neck and collar. Two is about right, although one will do for toy dogs and three may be needed for large ones. Too loose a collar is a cause for concern, too. What good are tags if the collar falls off? And what good is a leash if your dog can slip the collar?
Now, about those tags. Make sure your pet has both a valid license and an ID tag with your phone number on it. The tag with your phone number is important because animal-control agencies are not equipped to locate pet-owner phone numbers 24 hours a day.
Look at the ID tag. How accurate is the information? Did you move or change your phone number in the last few months? It's easy to forget that any such change needs to be noted on your pet's ID tag.
I took care of a friend's dog recently and was surprised to find the only thing he had on his collar was an expired license tag from a city and state he hadn't lived in for more than a year. Even if someone had found him wandering and made the 3,000-mile phone call, the folks in the dog's old town have no way of knowing where his owner lives now.
I've had people argue that theirs is a "backyard dog," not likely to escape and so not in need of either an ID tag or a license. To my mind, an ID tag at $3 to $5 is the best way to protect your pet from a blown-down fence or a gate left ajar.
And as far as a license goes, it might be the difference between your dog being picked up as a stray and possibly euthanized, or at the least, held a few extra days at the city pound. So, license your pet.
My pets carry both licenses and ID tags that say "Reward!" followed by three phone numbers, including area codes. No name, no address, but enough phone numbers to reach someone at any given moment.
Many people don't like to collar their cats, fearing that their pet will get hung up somewhere with too rigid a collar or will lose too many of the "escapable" kind. If that's one of your concerns, why not start making your own inexpensive cat collars?
All you need to do is order some cloth labels (the kind sewn into children's clothing) and pick up a length of elastic (both are available at fabric stores). Measure for a snug fit, sew the ends together and the label on and you've got a cheap collar that's perfectly safe and easy to replace should your cat decide to give it the slip.
Ms. Spadafori is a newspaper reporter and an animal obedience trainer in Sacramento, Calif. Questions about pets may be sent to her c/o Saturday, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278