Q: I enjoy year-in-review lists because they help me set goals for the future. What are some big pet stories from 2011 that we should remember?

A: From not-so-sudden bouts of naughtiness to tips for safe pet travel, my dog Lulu inspires most of my Mother Nature Network columns. Her fun, frisky outlook on life inevitably colors my own. It’s hard to be mad at that face, even when it has destroyed shoes, leather-bound books and countless dog beds. Thanks to Lulu, I take more time to enjoy the little things in life, such as cuddle time or endless shades of blue on display during our morning walks. Pets can teach us so many things, but only if we pay attention.

Here are a few lasting lessons from pets that made news in 2011.

1. A dog’s loyalty has no match

A massive earthquake caused a tsunami last March that eviscerated communities in Japan. Struggling to find signs of life in the ravaged community of Sendai, one camera crew discovered a dog carefully guarding its injured four-legged companion. That heartbreaking scene generated millions of views on YouTube and serves as a lasting reminder of one dog’s loyalty — even in the midst of chaos. According to the Nippon Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Mei Chan, the Brittany spaniel that stood vigil over her injured friend, has been reunited with her guardian. The search for Lee Chan, the injured dog, continues.

2. Pets don’t decide how much they will eat; people do

Lulu may gain a few extra pounds during winter months, but I try to keep her weight in check. She’s much easier to handle at bath time when there’s less junk in the trunk. Unfortunately, plenty of pets and people seem to be losing their battle of the bulge. A study by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention found that more than half of the cats and dogs in this country are overweight or obese. Weight gain can increase the risk for diabetes, a pricey and preventable health condition.

Dr. Jennifer Monroe of Eagles Landing Veterinary Hospital in Georgia offers simple advice to correct this growing pet health issue: “We have a responsibility to [pets] as their caretakers to make sure they stay healthy. The best way to make sure they stay healthy is to keep their weight in a reasonable range.”

Grab a leash or some interactive toys. Pronto!

3. Love conquers all

For every happy reunion, countless military families cope with devastating loss. A Labrador retriever named Hawkeye placed that pain into razor-sharp focus during the funeral for his owner. Navy SEAL Jon Tumilson was one of 38 killed on Aug. 6 when a rocket-propelled grenade took out a U.S. Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan. During the funeral, Hawkeye approached Tumilson’s casket and remained at his side until the end (top photo).

4. Breed-specific legislation breeds lawsuits

Pit bulls have received plenty of bad press, leading several U.S. cities and some states to ban the breed. Pit bull lovers argue that breed-specific legislation fails to punish negligent owners. Enforcing such bans also can be costly for taxpayers. The most recent example involves a pit bull named Snickers and his owner, disabled veteran Jim Sak. Although Snickers is certified with the National Service Animal Registry, Saks was forced to place his pit bull in a kennel due to a ban on the breed in his new hometown of Aurelia, Iowa.

Saks and the Animal Farm Foundation filed a lawsuit, arguing that the Americans with Disabilities act does not prohibit pit bulls from being service dogs. A federal judge ruled in favor of the Saks, and Snickers is going home.

5. The skies aren't quite so friendly for pets as cargo

Dogs, cats, snakes and hamsters take to the friendly skies on a regular basis. But horror stories like that of Jack, the JFK cat (pictured at right) that never made his flight from New York to Los Angeles, still make me nervous about pets flying as cargo.

Jack escaped when a clerk placed his kennel on another kennel and it fell, opening on impact. Over the next few months, concerned pet lovers took to Facebook with messages about the missing feline. Although Jack was found 61 days later, he was euthanized because of malnourishment and dehydration, which made him prone to severe infection and organ dysfunction.

If long-distance pet travel is in your immediate future, take steps to reduce the risk of loss or injury. Invest in a sturdy crate and bookmark sites like PetFriendlyTravel.com, which identify pet-friendly airports along your route.

6. Accidents happen. Be prepared

In May of 2011, residents of Joplin, Mo., faced one of the deadliest tornadoes in U.S. history. More than 120 people died and 1,000 more were injured. News reports that followed indicate that some residents may have ignored initial warnings.

If you live in an area that’s known for weather emergencies, act as soon as you hear a warning, says Toni McNulty, team lead for animals in disaster with HumanityRoad.org. “When pets sense urgency, they hide and you lose valuable time trying to find them,” she says.

Prepare an emergency plan that includes your pets. Keep food, health records, leashes, collars and crates ready at a moment’s notice, along with emergency contacts. When disaster strikes, you must be your own first responder.

7. Your pets may outlive you

News that designer Alexander McQueen committed suicide shocked the world. In July 2011, BBC reported that the troubled artist had left $82,000 to care for his dogs. It served as a painful reminder that pets require care long after we are gone.

Pet owners have several options for legally establishing long-term care, including a contract, will or pet trust. Several states also offer general guidelines for pet trusts. But the first and most important step involves identifying friends or family members who are up for the task of caring for your pets.

“Nobody likes surprises,” says Atlanta attorney Steve Dubner, adding that your top choice isn’t required to accept the responsibility. It also helps to create an emergency contact list that includes friends or neighbors who can quickly reach your pets. Carry a copy in your wallet or purse, just in case.

8. You’re never too old to learn a few new tricks

Pet adoptions tend to spike during the holiday season. If you have a furry new addition to your home, start things off on the right foot with obedience training, regardless of the pet’s age.

“Everyone needs to be working with the dog,” says Kate Jackson of Jabula Dog Academy in Decatur, Ga., who encourages the entire family to participate in training efforts. “At home, the dog will only respond to who puts work into it.”

Ask your vet to recommend obedience classes in your area or seek referrals for a reputable trainer. Starting early is the key to a long and happy relationship with your pet.

9. Seize the day, every day!

For my Lulu, a simple tennis ball leads to hours of unspeakable joy. Too bad we all can’t be that happy-go-lucky. Bookmark Mother Nature Network’s gallery of the Happiest dogs on YouTube and watch it any time you need a mental lift. Then grab a tennis ball and seize a few minutes of play time with your pet.

Sure, the emails and to-do list will still be there. But they may just be a little more tolerable once you’ve rolled around on the floor with reckless abandon.

10. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure

The American Pet Products Manufacturing Association estimated that pet owners spent more than $14 billion on veterinary care in 2011. A large portion of that bill goes toward treating preventable issues such as arthritis, diabetes and heart disease.

To reduce the chance of unnecessary illness or injury, it pays to keep your pet mentally and physically stimulated. Dr. Arhonda Johnson, owner of The Ark Animal Hospital in Atlanta, offers this pearl of wisdom for a healthy 2012: “The best way to keep pets out of the veterinary clinic is proper nutrition and exercise, just like with people. Feed them good, nutritious food and walk them regularly.”

Visit our advice archives to see if your question has already been tackled.

Click for photo credits

Photo credits:

Funeral: Lisa Pembleton/Getty Images

Dog and bowl: .imelda/Flickr

Jack the cat: Facebook

Dog tricks: pbump/Flickr

What can we learn from some of the year's biggest pet stories?
We learned valuable, sometimes painful, lessons from our pets in 2011. A fallen Navy SEAL's dog epitomizes loyalty at his master's funeral. A pit bull service d