Monday 16 December 2019

In winter ensure your pets are easily seen

High visibility is important for dogs walking close to roads
High visibility is important for dogs walking close to roads

Pete Wedderburn - Animal Doctor

Most of us are aware of the need to be highly visible while walking close to roads in darkness. Many people go out walking before or after work, and in the Irish winter, that nearly always means being out during periods of low light and poor visibility.

Poor winter conditions on the road, with slippy leaves, copious water and blustery wind, makes things worse.

Pavements beside busy roads are often narrow (or may even be non existent), with potholes, potholes and irregular surfaces . It's critically important that car drivers see walkers from a distance, so that they are able to drive more slowly, giving walkers a wide berth to optimise their safety. People who walk regularly in low light conditions are aware of the importance of high visibility. From reflective jackets to armbands to headlamps and hand held lights, there are plenty of ways to achieve this.

In contrast, most people don't pause to consider the need for high visibility for their pets. This is important for dogs and cats in different ways because of their different lifestyles.

Under Irish law, dogs are not allowed to be out on their own, so when they are walking beside roads, they should always be with their owner, on a leash (or otherwise under closely supervised control). The problem is that even if their owner is highly visible (with reflective materials and lights), dogs can remain entirely invisible. Black dogs are especially difficult to see, and they may be at the end of a long enough leash. I encountered a tragic case when a dog of this type was hit by a car while their owner was holding the other end of the leash. Of course it could be said that the car driver should have been driving more slowly and carefully, but at the same time, if the dog had been more visible, the risk of such a sad accident would have been significantly reduced.

There are a number of simple steps that can be taken.

The ideal option would be not to walk dogs beside the road when visibility is poor. This might mean changing your routine, going for walks at lunchtime rather than before or after work. Of course, for many commuters, this just isn't possible.

If you need to walk your dog in early mornings or evenings, the first, and most obvious, way is to to improve their visibility using jackets or harnesses that have built-in bright colours and highly visible elements. You can buy specific inexpensive safety vests for dogs (which closely resemble human garments of the same type) or you buy general harnesses that have reflective strips as an added extra.

The second answer is to attach a light to the dog's collar. This can be set to flash, or to stay on continually. As well as making dogs visible to passing cars, this has the added advantage of making it easy to see where your dog is when exercising them in the dark. If you are walking your dog off the leash in the dark, it's easy to lose them completely: a flashing collar light is a helpful way of keeping track of where they are.

As well as ensuring that your dog is visible, you also need to be sure that you have excellent control of your dog when walking beside a busy road. Use a non-extendable lead at all times. The extendable leads can be useful in some situations, but there is a risk that they can accidentally slip into the unlocked position if your dog makes a sudden movement. This might be annoying in the park, but it could be fatal beside fast moving traffic. I remember one terrier who received a serious head injury, with a fractured jaw, when he saw a cat on the other side of the road, and he attempted to chase it. His owner saved his life by having him on the leash, but the leash was loose enough to allow him to place his head right in the path of a passing car.

You also need to check that your dog has a well-fitted collar. Owners often like to have their dog's collars fitted loosely, so that they seem more comfortable. But if an animal panics for any reason, they can wriggle backwards, away from an owner, slipping out of a loose collar, and running off. Dog owners need to make sure that their pets' collars are tight enough so that if they try to pull the collar over their pet's head, they are unable to do so. In general, the aim is to be able to fit two fingers under the collar, but no more.

Alternatively, a body harness can be more effective than a collar: some of these have sturdy handles built into them, so that if there is a time when you want to have particularly close control of your dog, you can grasp this handle tightly, so that they can barely move any distance away from you at all.

Cats are more at risk of accidents on the road than dogs, because they are often allowed out on their own. There are two things that can be done to minimise the risk of cats being hit by a car. First, keep them indoors during the hours of darkness, when the risk of accidents is much higher (you can lock the cat flap, or you can buy an electronic cat flap that allows you to lock it at set times automatically). And second, buy a reflective collar for your cat, similar to a cyclist's arm band. This will make them more visible in car headlights, perhaps making the difference between a "hit" and a "miss".

Look after your pets well during these dark mornings and evenings: your care could make all the difference.

Wicklow People