The Many Dangers of Owning a Dog in the City

The tragic death of Dumpling, an adorable 1-year-old French Bulldog, is a harsh reminder of how we must remain vigilant.

Dumpling died on June 8 after being struck by a bus. Photo: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt / Serious Eats
Dumpling died on June 8 after being struck by a bus. By: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

Last week an adorable French Bulldog named Dumpling, affectionately known as the “chief financial officer and/or mascot” of the foodie blog Serious Eats, was killed after being struck by a bus near his home in New York City. He was little more than a year old.

“Losing a pet so suddenly is something I wish nobody would ever have to go through,” Dumpling’s human companion, Kenji Lopez-Alt, told readers of Serious Eats, of which Kenji is managing editor. Dumpling died in Kenji’s arms en route to the emergency room.

In a tribute on his website two days after the accident, Kenji wrote, “I can only console myself with the knowledge that you were one of the most loved, spoiled, pampered, and well-fed dogs ever to have lived, and that you died in the arms of your best friend.”

Readers of Serious Eats left hundreds of comments on the blog. Kenji replied, “I just want to thank everyone for the tremendous amount of support and condolences…. It only confirms to us what a wonderful, special, and well-loved little guy Dumpling was.”

What Happened to Dumpling

I spoke to Kenji by e-mail to find out how the accident happened. Dumpling’s tragic early death is a harsh reminder of how pet owners — particularly in urban environments — must remain vigilant. City life puts all sorts of restrictions on both people and dogs. There just aren’t any wide open spaces or freedom of movement as you’d find out in the country. Modern cities are masses of steel, glass, brick, asphalt, sidewalks, streets, construction sites and automobiles. Danger lurks all around us, even at home.

Kenji told me that Dumpling had been playing off-leash in a “semi-enclosed” dog run in the courtyard of his apartment complex. Unfortunately, there was no closed gate. Here’s what happened:

“He happened to spot a squirrel across the courtyard and bolted out the door before anyone could stop him. Once he was out, he just started sprinting around as young dogs do. This time, he just went the wrong way. Around the building, through the parking lot, out the gate, and straight across the street. The bus driver had no way of seeing him coming.”

Dangers of Owning a Dog in the City

Hobbs died in 2007 after swallowing a piece of wood.
Hobbs died in 2007 after swallowing a piece of wood.

Obviously we can’t turn back time and bring Dumpling back. But we can use the dog’s loss as a teaching moment to remind us that we need to stay alert as pet owners, particularly when we live in cities.

Dog owners in New York City and beyond should not have their dogs off the leash during walks, no matter how well “behaved” your dog is in such situations. The tiniest thing can distract your beloved pet. As Kenji told me, “Even if he’s doing the same things he’s done 100 times before with no problem, there’s always the chance that he’s just going to see that squirrel to distract him, and that’s all it takes.”

I just want to point out that these things do happen, and nobody wants it to happen to him. And I speak from experience, because it did happen to me.

Four years ago my Basset Hound, Hobbs, died after eating a chunk of wood. He had swallowed the 2-inch piece of wood while we were playing at the Tompkins Square Park dog run. After two unsuccessful surgeries, poor Hobbs had to be euthanized. Lessons: watch your dog like a hawk at the dog park; and don’t let your pet chew on things that aren’t meant to be chewed by pets (including chicken bones and peach pits).

Elton fell from a four-story window that had been left partially open.
Elton fell from a four-story window that had been left partially open.

Secure Your Windows

A few years ago, my best friend from college lost his mutt, Elton, in tragic circumstances in Greenwich Village here in NYC. Elton was left alone while my friend was at work. This was the same as every day, but unfortunately on this particular day the window had been left ajar. Elton — not a dumb dog — apparently saw something outside that grabbed his attention, and then Elton slipped through the open window and fell four stories.

My friend returned home a few minutes later to see a bunch of bystanders gathered around outside his building — and was horrified to see his dog lying there dying. As my friend held Elton in his arms, the dog took its last shallow breaths. It was just awful, and the lesson drawn from that painful loss can’t be clearer: pet owners who live on upper floors must have window guards. If you have a cat, use window screens (kitties can slip through child-proof window guards); but dog owners should install security bars if you want to keep the window open.

Don’t allow young pets out onto balconies, upper porches, high decks or fire escapes.

Watch Where You Walk

Blair Sorrel has been warning the public of a very dangerous problem for pets and humans alike: contact voltage from manhole covers and common electrical/metal fixtures.

His website, StreetZaps.com, explains that in New York City alone, the electrical system could wrap around the earth about four times. And every day, New Yorkers and their dogs walk over these electrical cables. Contact voltage is a hidden hazard, but has already killed far too many dogs and even some people, all around the country. Any metal can become energized if it touches a wire with stray current flow. Sometimes even the sidewalk can be “hot” above unseen electrical wires that are corroded and wet.

StreetZap.com has several profiles of victims, such as Sammy, a 6½-year-old dog from Seattle, who died on Thanksgiving Day after touching a light pole that happened to be electrified.

Here are some tips Sorrel says can help you avoid trouble when you’re walking your dog: Think of the walk as an obstacle course and stay vigilant at all times, especially if the sidewalks are wet or icy. Keep away from metal! (Instead of letting your dog pee on a street light or fire hydrant, let him pee on cardboard or freestanding garbage bags.) Don’t ever walk over manhole covers, which may have current running through them. Stay away from work sites in general. Carry your pet if in doubt.

Report tampered equipment and hot spots to your electrical authority. StreetZap.com has a collection of hot spot maps.

Other Safety Tips to Consider

  • Make sure that plumbers, building supers and other workers who visit your apartment during the day know that you have a pet — and that they don’t accidentally let your pet scramble out the door.
  • Keep your kitchen and bathroom cabinets closed. All those household chemicals and cleaners and bug sprays are big, big trouble for pets, who can chew through the containers. If you’re anything like me, and keep dozens of plastic shopping bags under your sink, keeping the cabinet doors closed will prevent your pet from gaining access to those bags, which can present a suffocation hazard to pets.
  • Chocolate is a big no-no: it can be deadly toxic to dogs (especially smaller dogs) in large quantities, and can injure cats as well. Xylitol, found in some chewing gums and candy, can kill pets in very small amounts.
  • Believe it or not, some common house plants can poison dogs or cats if ingested. These include aloe, dieffenbachia, dumb cane, elephant ear, lilies and spider plants. Take these plants out of your apartment or put them out of reach using hanging baskets. (If you have a garden, you’ll want to read our article on common garden plants that could kill your pet.)
  • For even more tips, see our previous articles on what you can do to prepare for a pet emergency, why you should microchip your dog, and how to plant a pet-safe garden.

And here’s something exciting to know: You can get reimbursed for the cost of microchipping under Embrace Pet Insurance’s Wellness Rewards. Curious about the cost of pet health insurance? It’s more affordable than you probably think. Get your FREE, no-hassle quote here (affiliate link).

Kenji, the Serious Eats managing editor, says that after losing Dumpling he’s gone through “the worst couple days of my life.” But he does have some advice for people who have pets: “spend as much time as you can with them, spoil them rotten, and never take them for granted for one second.”

Dave Baker

View posts by Dave Baker
Dave Baker, founder and publisher of Petful, is a journalist and editor who has worked at The New York Times and The Nation magazine. He was also part of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize–winning team at The Times-Picayune newspaper of New Orleans. After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, he moved to Brooklyn, New York, where Petful is now based. A longtime advocate for pet food safety, Dave has been passionately tracking pet food recalls for the past 10-plus years, and more than 30,000 pet parents are subscribed to his recall alerts — which often arrive faster than even the recall alerts put out by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Dave holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Clemson University, where he studied journalism and was editor in chief of The Tiger, a student newspaper twice awarded Best in Show during his years there by the Associated Collegiate Press. A passionate animal lover, Dave has cared for a number of dogs, cats and other small pets over the years. Learn more about Dave and the rest of the amazing Petful team here: Meet the Team.

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