It's a New Year tradition around my home, one that has outlived three generations of pets but still works to help ensure the safety of the animals I live with now: I call the pets over and check their necks.
I always do my "neck checks" around the first of the year. It's easy, taking a few minutes to check for wear and fit on the collars, and for legibility on the tags.
Consider the collar first. A properly fitted collar is important, but so is the right type. For dogs, a buckled or snap-together collar made of leather or nylon webbing is the best choice, and the proper fit is comfortably close, but not too snug.
Make sure your dog's not wearing a "choke" or prong collar for everyday wear. These pose a potentially deadly hazard if left on an unsupervised dog.
Cat collars aren't as widely accepted because some people fear the collars will get caught on branches and trap the cat. Other people argue that their cat stays indoors and so never needs a collar.
Neither argument is a good one: Any cat can slip out, and as for cats being caught by their collars, most cat collars are designed to give enough to allow the pet to slip free if caught.
If you don't have a safe collar, you'll find countless choices at your neighborhood pet-supply retailer, and even more online. One online favorite of mine: Beastie Bands for cats – comfortable, colorful collars that stick tight unless a cat needs to lose them.
What if your pet already seems to have a comfortable, safe, well-fitting collar?
Take a look at the holes and the fasteners. The collar is weakest at these spots, so if you see signs of excessive wear or strain, you'll need to replace the collar soon.
Next, look at your pet's ID tags. A license is great, but since many lost pets are picked up by people in the neighborhood, it's a good idea to supplement the license with an ID tag that has a couple of phone numbers – yours and the number of a friend or relative.
Check to make sure the information is current and legible, and if not, order a new tag. I never put the pet's name or my address on the tags. Instead, my pets' tags say "REWARD!" with a collection of phone numbers – my cellphone number first, followed by the cellphone numbers of two friends in case I can't be reached. I want to get the point across that I want my pets back quickly.
If you're worried about a dangling ID getting caught – or you're annoyed by the noise – get a slide-on tag from an online source such as Boomerangtags.com.
Looking for something a little more fun? Check out DogTagArt.com, which offers hundreds of designs, or allows you to upload an image of your own. DogTagArt.com also has a service for an additional charge that will allow anyone who finds your pet to contact you immediately through a Web-based service that sends text and phone messages to you and any other contacts you designate.
Problems with collars and tags are easy to fix, but they shouldn't be the extent of your pet's get-home-safely insurance policy. If your pet isn't microchipped already, call your veterinarian and get that done. About the size of a grain of rice, the microchip has reunited pets with families who were sure they'd never see their pet again, and saved the lives of others whose chip was a ticket home when they landed in a shelter.