Preparing for Winter

by Bruce W. Little, DVM

Winter storm Cato is heading up the east coast, and is expected to bring the first snow fall of the season to many cities. These conditions give us pause to consider the preparation for and well-being of our pets during these times of extreme weather. Like people, cats and dogs are susceptible to frostbite and hypothermia. They should be kept inside. Long-haired and thick-coated dogs are more tolerant of cold weather, but no pet should be left outside for long periods of time in below freezing weather.

If your dog usually stays outside all day then consider creating a place in the garage or the utility room on these extremely cold nights. Fix a cushioned spot for them to be protected from the cold, wind, rain and ice that winter storms can bring. If there is no place for them inside, be sure their dog house is weather proofed by covering all the cracks in the sides and roof with material that will withstand the wind and prevent the cold and snow from penetrating into the house. The dog house should have a floor and be elevated off the ground, so the dog’s paws do not touch the cold ground. Provide bedding such as old carpets, blankets, bath towels or straw for them to sleep on and to snuggle under for warmth. Change the bedding frequently to make sure it remains dry. You must provide fresh water several times per day and provide a high caloric dog food to help them ward off the cold. This is especially important for smaller dogs and pets that are very young, very old or suffering from a chronic illness.

If your dog is an inside dweller that only goes outside to go to the bathroom then be sure he or she finds a spot to go that allows comfort in performing his or her necessary duties. If your dog has an arthritic hip joint or arthritic feet then packed snow may make it difficult for your dog to go. If your dog's favorite spot to go to the bathroom is covered with snow or ice then take him or her out on a leash and encourage him or her to pick another temporary spot. You will probably need to shorten your dog’s walks in very cold weather to protect you both from weather associated health risks. Check your dog’s paws frequently for signs of cold weather injuries or damage, such as cracked paw pads or bleeding. During a walk, a sudden lameness may be due to an injury or may be due to ice accumulation between the toes. You may be able to reduce the chance of ice accumulation by clipping the hair between your dog’s toes. Dogs that run loose might run into the street on snow packed roads and get hit by cars. It is best to take them out on a leash during these trying times. During and after walks, wipe down or wash your dog’s feet, legs and belly. Your dog may have picked up deicers, antifreeze or other chemicals used to melt the snow, which can be toxic to your pet. It’s important to remember to clean up any antifreeze spills quickly, as even small amounts of antifreeze can be very deadly.

Cats seem to tolerate the cold temperatures much better than dogs; however, we must take special precautions around cars. Cats will curl up against anything to stay warm including a car engine. Many times we will get into cars that are left outside only to start the engine and a cat will dart from under the hood having been curled up against the engine or radiator to keep warm. This results too many times in injury to the cat with cuts from the fan or belts or burns. Usually a tap on the hood of the car or a honk of the horn will be enough for the cat to escape its warm spot before the car is put into operation.

Inside your home, use special care with space heaters. Pets can burn themselves when trying to get close to the heat. They can also knock a space heater over and put the whole family at risk. If you have pet birds, keep their cages away from drafts coming through doorways and lesser heated areas of the house.

With a few precautions, both the pet family members and the human family members can withstand these trying winter times without too much inconvenience. In the end, the preparation is worth it to us all.