Pet-Proofing Your Home

Every new parent knows that one of the necessary steps in that first year is "baby proofing" your home to keep the child safe. But, as pet owners, have you ever stopped to consider whether your home is safe for your four-legged companions? Here are some of the most common household hazards for pets, and tips to help keep your pet protected.
Factors to Consider
When creating a pet-proofing strategy for your home, consider these factors to decide where to focus your efforts.
  • First, what is the size of your pet? (Or, if you are bringing home a new kitten or puppy, what size will your pet be when it is fully grown?)
  • Will your pet be confined to a room or to a certain living space or allowed free range of the house?
  • How old—or how mobile—is your pet? Whether you're dealing with an older, sedentary cat or a rambunctious Labrador pup can play a role in the degree of pet-proofing your home will require. 
Survey Your Home
Next, take a survey of your home from your pet's point of view. What is in reach that might look tempting to your dog or cat? Are there any small spaces where pets might  be inclined to hide or get stuck? (A warm pile of towels or blankets sitting in the dryer can be a welcoming invitation to many cats, so always be sure to check inside the pile and the dryer before you start your laundry!) Are there any shelves that could topple onto a climbing dog or cat? Eliminate as many hazards as you can right off the bat by minimizing small spaces behind furniture and securing shelves or bookcases to the wall. By considering all areas of the house and yard to which your pet will have access, you will be able to recognize and remove many potential dangers before they become an issue.
Start with the Basics
After you have taken note of potential hazards and established where your pet will be spending his or her time, you can start to employ some basics. For dogs that will be spending long periods of the day at home alone, it might be wise to purchase a crate. Many pets respond very well to crate training and will come to regard the crate as a comforting space. A crate can be a useful tool to keep your pet safe when you are away from home or unable to observe him or her directly.
Many of the types of devices used for baby-proofing can be used to pet-proof your home. Baby gates and even playpens can be used to help keep your dog or cat confined to a safe area, especially while he or she is still too young to roam the house unsupervised. Plastic outlet covers can be applied to any electric sockets that aren't in use. Apply latches to any cupboards that are low enough for your pet to access. Keep the lids to all toilets shut as well, to discourage any dogs or cats who might be tempted to drink from or climb into the bowl. Bathroom trash cans should be stored under cabinets whenever possible to avoid pets searching out discarded tissue, floss and other items that can serve as a potential hazard if ingested.
Clear Away Clutter
A cluttered house is like a veritable playground to a curious dog or cat. Anything small enough to fit into your pet's mouth can serve as a potential choking or foreign body hazard. Any exposed electric cords should be contained or out of reach; not only can pets chew them, effectively ruining your appliances, but they can also put your pet at risk for electric shock. Rubber bands, string, sewing supplies and decorative items such as Christmas ornaments all can resemble a toy to your cat. Socks and other undergarments are a favorite of many dogs and, if swallowed, can lead to choking or gastrointestinal obstruction. Keep small items off the floor and out of your pet's line of sight.
Control Common Household Toxins
There are many common household products that can be poisonous to your pet if ingested. Soaps, detergents, pesticides and any other chemical-laden products should be stored in hard-to-access areas, such as on the highest shelves or secured in latched cabinets. Always check any cleaning products or garden pesticides to ensure that they are safe for use around your pet. Many common houseplants can be poisonous to pets, so be sure to keep these out of reach as well.
Medications—both yours and your pet's—are another potential source of toxins. A prescription bottle left in a purse strewn on the floor or on a countertop within your pet's reach can be an easy and dangerous target. Many pet medications are flavored for palatability and can pose as a tempting snack for your pet if left where they can be accessed. Make sure any medications are properly and safely stored in cabinets. In the event that your pet ingests any potentially harmful product or substance, contact your veterinarian immediately.
Store Food Safely
Did you know that even food can be harmful to your pet? It's true. Trail mix, for example, can contain potentially dangerous or toxic ingredients such as raisins, nuts and chocolate but might be an appealing snack option to a dog sniffing around in a pantry. To be safe, store any potentially harmful foods high on shelves where they can't be reached. (A list of some other common toxic food items for pets can be found here.)
Even your pet's own food can be harmful in large quantities (particularly for overindulgent dogs who are prone to gorging themselves) and can lead to a condition called gastric dilatation volvulus (or "bloat"), which is potentially life-threatening. For dogs that have a problem with portion control, keep kibble in a storage bin to help prevent easy access.
Most cats, and some dogs, will eventually be able to reach dining tables and kitchen countertops, allowing them access to breads, pies and other food items that might be waiting there. Depending on the ingredients in these foods, they might not be toxic per se but could make your dog or cat sick if consumed in large quantities. Any baked goods should be stored in cupboards or tucked away in the microwave or a bread box.
Your kitchen garbage can also serve as a potential hazard for your pet. Many pets love to go digging through the trash can for discarded food or other items. Garbage cans should be securely latched with a lid or stored under a cabinet; better yet, keep trash in a garage or another area where your pet is unable to access it. Some pets seem keen on getting into everything despite your best efforts. In those cases, it might be wise to crate your pet when you're not at home.
Considerations for Multiple Pet Households
For households in which multiple pets are present, dogs and cats can also pose a threat to one another's safety. Even though pets might seem to get along the majority of the time, remember that they are still animals. You can never predict what might happen when you're not home. Fights can occur, and when they do, can result in an expensive trip to the vet or worse. When in doubt, it's best that dogs and cats be separated when unattended. Keeping your dog crated and the cat free to roam may work, or closing either or both pets into a single room or area of the house—away from each other—is another option. It's much better to be safe than sorry when it comes to your pets.
Much to the chagrin of their owners, many dogs fall into the habit of regularly scanning the cat litter box for "treats." Not only is ingesting your cat's litter and stool potentially harmful to your dog's gastrointestinal tract, but it has the potential to promote the spread of certain parasites, such as Giardia. Keep your cat's litter box in a place that is accessible to your cat but beyond reach of your dog. Depending on the size and tenacity of your dog, you might need to be creative. Placing the litter box up high or using a baby gate to discourage smaller dogs are both reasonable options as long as your cat is able to jump. If you can keep your litter box in a specific closet, room or even the basement, you can also install a small "kitty door" to allow the cat access but keep the dog out. Keep in mind that you will want to make any changes slowly and with caution to assure your cat doesn't lose interest in using the litter box.
Secure Your Garage, Yard & Beyond
When it comes to the great outdoors, there are even more hazards that can pose a threat your dog or cat. Rat poison, insect traps and antifreeze all contain chemicals that can be harmful and even lethal to your pet. Pool shock, if inhaled or ingested, can cause irreversible, life-threatening organ damage. Store any potentially dangerous items on higher shelves in your garage or in sturdy containers so that your pet cannot access to them.
Rocks are a common backyard item that some dogs like to eat. If swallowed, even small pieces of gravel can cause major problems in your pet's gastrointestinal tract. If your pup has a serious penchant for eating rocks, your best bet is to block him or her off from the area of the yard where the rocks are located or re-landscape, if possible.
A swimming pool can provide a great source of exercise for your pet in the summertime. However, it can also serve as a potential drowning hazard. Just like children, no pet should ever be left unattended around a pool. (Learn more about pet water safety and products you can use to pet proof your pool.)
If you live in an area where snow is common, the salt used to melt icy sidewalks can not only be an irritant to your pets paws but can also be harmful if ingested. You can protect your pet's feet with booties purchased at your local pet store or seek out a more environmentally- and pet-friendly alternative to rock salt.
Lastly, take measures to make sure your house and yard are escape-proof to protect your pet from the dangers that lie beyond your home.
Remember, our pets are curious and adept creatures, and it's impossible to anticipate every potential hazard. Pet-proofing can go a long way toward helping keep your pet safe. However, just as is the case with young children, your best defense is supervision.

American Humane Association, "Pet-Proofing Your Home,", accessed on August 6, 2013.
The Humane Society of the United States, "Foods that Can Be Poisonous to Pets,", accessed on August 7, 2013.