Keeping Pets Healthy in Winter

Allison Hunter

When our four-footed family members turn up their noses at going outside in the wind and the snow, they may be smarter than us and we’d be wise to listen to them and not make them stay out longer than necessary. On the other, if our furry friends act invincible to the elements, it’s they who will need to listen to us. For the sake of their health, follow the tips below this winter.

KEEP THEM INSIDE

The best strategy? Keep your pet inside! If you don’t want to be outside, your pet probably doesn’t either.

It’s a common belief that dogs and cats are more resistant to cold than we are because of their fur, but this isn’t so. Like people, they are susceptible to frostbite and hypothermia. Exposed skin on noses, ears, and paw pads can quickly become frostbitten, which may lead to permanent damage. Short-haired dogs, young or old dogs, and all cats should never be left outside in freezing temperatures without supervision. Even those dogs bred for colder climates, namely long-haired and thick-coated dog breeds such as Huskies, should not be left outside when temperatures drop below zero.

Even indoors, all pets should be provided a warm place to sleep that’s free from drafts. If you have a pet bird, you’ll want to take steps to ensure the air doesn’t become too dry. Some options include: using a vaporizer or humidifier designed for birds, placing shallow pans of water on top of radiators, regularly misting houseplants to keep them releasing moisture into the air, or leaving the bathroom door open when you shower.

POTTY TIME

When it’s cold out, our pets might resist going to the bathroom outside. Because there usually isn’t a suitable alternative, you will need to find ways to make the outdoors more hospitable.

One of the best strategies is to create an ideal potty area for your dog. Keep an area in his regular potty area as free from snow as possible, large enough for him to sniff and turn around. The smells of previous bathroom breaks will serve as a green light for your dog to do his business in this space, while the uncovered ground will allow him to navigate without his paws slipping or freezing. If that doesn’t work, you might need to resort to rewarding him with his favorite treats and praise when he does his business. Do whatever works to generate an enthusiastic response when it’s time to go outside.

Puppies do not tolerate the cold as well as adult dogs, and may be difficult to housebreak during the winter. If your puppy appears to be sensitive to the weather, you might elect to paper-train him inside.

WALKS

There are also times when you’ll want to venture outside with your dog or cat for the sake of fresh air and exercise. This should go without saying, but always keep them on a leash. Snow and rain can wipe away familiar scents, causing them to become disoriented and even lost. In addition, whatever the breed, never shave your pets in winter. A longer coat will provide more warmth. Do you own a short-haired breed? Consider getting them a coat or sweater with a high collar or turtleneck, with coverage from the base of the tail to the belly. Some pet owners also use booties to protect their pet’s feet.

You should also know your pet’s limits, which can vary from one animal to the next based on their coat, body fat, activity level, and health. Short-haired pets feel the cold faster because they have less protection, while short-legged pets may become cold faster because their bodies are more likely to come into contact with snow. Pets with diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, or hormonal imbalances may have a harder time regulating their body temperature, and may be more susceptible to problems from temperature extremes. Arthritic and elderly pets may have more difficulty walking on snow and ice and may be more prone to slips and falls.

ANTIFREEZE

While on walks, you should also take care to avoid antifreeze, a lethal poison which has a sweet taste that animals like. Antifreeze contains ethylene glycol, which is toxic to dogs and cats. The metabolic products of the ethylene glycol cause severe damage to the pet’s kidneys, which then produce a toxic exposure to the central nervous system. Even if your dog or cat simply licks her paws after walking through antifreeze, enough antifreeze can be ingested to cause death.

Antifreeze is commonly used in car cooling systems and home plumbing systems to help maintain heat during winter months. One preventative measure is to clean up any spills from your vehicle and to consider using products that contain propylene glycol rather than ethylene glycol. But regardless what kind of antifreeze you use, you can’t control what kinds are used by others, so after returning home from walks you should always wash your pet’s paws in soapy water.

If you suspect your pet has been exposed to antifreeze, immediate veterinary treatment is necessary to prevent the toxin from being absorbed into a pet’s liver. Symptoms include sores in the mouth, noticeable bad breath, confusion, vomiting, an increase in thirst and urination, depression, and lethargy.

Side Note: There is another source of antifreeze that may surprise you: snow globes. Imported ones can  contain 2% antifreeze, which is enough to be toxic to your pets should the snow globe shatter or leak.

DRY OFF

Antifreeze concerns aside, when coming in from a winter walk or play session you should dry your pet off thoroughly and take extra care to wipe her belly, legs, and paws. Salt and other chemicals used to melt snow and ice can irritate the pads of your pet’s feet, cause sores in his mouth, and (as already noted) make them deathly ill. Paw pads might also bleed from snow or encrusted ice; an accumulation of either between the toes might also cause lameness. You might be able to reduce the chance of ice-ball accumulation by clipping the hair between your pet’s toes.

PARKED CAR

What if you take your pet for a ride instead of a walk? Just be aware that winter weather can turn your car into a refrigerator, holding in the cold and causing your pet to freeze to death. For that reason, you should never leave your pet unattended in a car in any weather. Pets that are young, old, ill, or thin are particularly susceptible to cold environments. The best rule of thumb is to limit car travel in winter to only that which is essential.

Speaking of cars, when the temperature drops, chilly critters will look for any warm place to curl up. This includes under the hoods of cars. When the motor is started, the stowaway can be injured or killed by the fan belt.  A trick to evict stowaways is to bang on the hood of your car loudly a few times before you enter. Check underneath your car, bang on the hood, and honk the horn before starting the engine to frighten slumbering hitchhikers into escaping before you start your car.

THE OUTDOOR PET

Every article I read about pets in winter repeated the advice to keep them inside! However, there are dog breeds that were bred for colder climates, and might be happier with short periods outside.

Should this be the case, be sure to create a shelter to which they can retreat. The shelter should be dry, clean, and well-insulated. It should also be turned to face away from the wind. In addition, the shelter should also be big enough to allow your dog to sit and lie down comfortably but also small enough to hold in the dog’s body heat. Space heaters and heat lamps should be avoided because of the risk of burns or fire. Finally, the doorway should be covered with waterproof burlap or heavy plastic.

Besides shelter, dogs that spend a lot of time outdoors need more food in the winter because keeping warm burns calories. For such winter-loving dogs, increase their daily food intake by 10-20 percent. You should also routinely check your pet’s water dish to make certain the water is fresh and unfrozen. Use plastic food and water bowls rather than metal; when the temperature is low, your pet’s tongue can freeze to metal.

When temperatures plummet, no pet should be left outside for any length of time. Larger breeds and thick-coated dogs should come inside when the temperature drops below zero. Cats should be kept indoors, or at the very least brought into a warm garage. If an pet is cold to the touch, or his paws and ears are pale, he may be suffering from frostbite. Move the animal to a warmer area and immediately contact your veterinarian.

So far this article has covered mostly dogs and cats. When it comes to horses, they are actually outdoor pets that require special care. It is beyond my expertise, even with research, to offer extensive advice, but they too should receive shelter. A barn or a three-sided run-in will allow them to escape the wind and cold. Blankets will also help horses keep warm and dry. In addition, during colder months horses should be given warmed water, fed additional hay, and receive regular hoof care.

Pets are social animals that crave human companionship. Rare exceptions aside, the happiest pets are those that receive exercise and fresh air on milder winter days but are kept inside the rest of the time. Bottom line, your animal companions deserve to live indoors with you and your family.

 

ONLINE RESOURCES: GENERAL

American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

Animal Rescue Foundation

Animal Veterinarian Medical Association

Humane Society of the United States 

Pet WebMD

Veterinary Pet Insurance

Vet Street

 

ONLINE RESOURCES: BIRDS

Bird Channel

Wyld’s Kingdom

 

ONLINE RESOURCES: HORSES

Equine Health Library

 

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