By Dr. Bruce Little
While in line at the curbside baggage check at Chicago’s Midway Airport recently, I was reminded of the 1959 Dean Martin song, “Baby Its Cold Outside” and suddenly I realized it was time to write about protecting our pets from the extremes of winter. The temperature was minus 3° F. with wind chills far below that as we were leaving the Midwest following an enjoyable visit with family and friends. Although our pets have varying degrees of furry coat protection from the cold, they still can suffer many undesirable symptoms because of the cold, wind, snow, and ice. Winter can bring bitter cold days or numbing wetness that can make life miserable for our pets. The cold tolerance of pets varies with age, size, coat type, stores of body fat, activity level, and general health. It is incumbent upon responsible pet owners to protect those furry family members from suffering frostbite and damage to their skin and feet from the cold.
You should know your pets’ cold tolerance limits. Much like people, pets’ cold tolerance can vary from pet to pet based on the thickness of their coat, body fat, activity level and health. Adjust your winter activities to the level of your pet’s comfort. It may be necessary to take more frequent, shorter walks in very cold weather to protect both you and the dog from weather-associated health risks. Arthritic and elderly pets may have more difficulty walking on snow and ice and may be more prone to slipping and falling. Short-haired pets feel the cold faster because they have less protection and short-legged pets may become cold faster because their bellies are more likely to come into contact with snow-covered or frozen ground. 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. The same goes for very young and very old pets, or those with compromised immune systems. For those inside dwellers that go outside to the bathroom, be sure they find a spot to go that allows them comfort in performing their duties. Packed snow and ice may make it difficult for them go to the bathroom especially if they have arthritic hip joints or feet. If their favorite spot is covered with snow or ice, take them out on a leash and encourage them to pick another spot. Check your dog’s paws frequently for signs of cold-weather injury or damage, such as cracked pads or bleeding. During a walk, sudden lameness may be due to an injury from slipping on slick surfaces, puncture by a sharp object that is hidden under the snow and ice, or may be due to ice accumulation between the toes. You may be able to reduce the chance of ice ball accumulation by clipping the hair between your dog’s toes during the winter season. It is best to take them out on a leash during the winter months so you can choose the most acceptable spot for them to attend to their bathroom needs that exposes them to fewer dangers than they may encounter on their own. If necessary, consider putting a coat or sweater on them when they go outside for a walk. Be sure the coat or sweater is dry as wet pet clothing can make your pet colder. You may want to keep several coats or sweaters in the closet to make sure the one you choose is dry at that time. During and after walks, wipe down or wash your dog’s feet, legs, and belly as they may have picked up salt deicers, antifreeze or other chemicals used to melt the snow and ice that may be harmful to your pet. Clean up any antifreeze spills quickly, as even small amounts of antifreeze can be very deadly. Also, antifreeze appears to have a sweet taste and dogs, especially, will drink more of it than they will water and that may cause kidney damage that leads to severe symptoms, including death. If you need help determining your pet’s temperature limits, consult your veterinarian for their professional help.
If your dog does stay outside all the time, consider creating a place in the garage or the utility room on those 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 on which they can sleep and to snuggle under for warmth. Change the bedding frequently to ensure it remains dry. Make sure fresh water is provided several times per day and feed a high caloric dog food to help them ward off the cold.
Inside your home, use special care with space heaters. Pets can burn themselves when trying to get close to the heat, or they can knock a space heater over and put the whole family at risk. Cold weather also brings the risks of severe winter weather such as blizzards and power outages. Prepare an emergency or disaster kit for both you and the family pets. Some pet owners feel that a little extra weight gives their pet some extra protection from the cold, but the health risks associated with extra weight does not make it worth doing. Watch your pet’s body condition and keep them in a healthy weight range for their breed, age, and health conditions. Outdoor pets will require more calories in the winter to generate enough body heat and energy to keep them warm. Talk to your veterinarian about your pet’s nutritional needs during cold weather. If you have pet birds, keep their cage out of drafts such as doorways and lesser heated areas of the house.
Pets can become lost while outside in rough, winter conditions due to the snow and ice cover that may change the appearance of their known environment or recognizable scents that might normally aid them in finding their way back home. Make sure your pet has a well-fitting collar with all its contact information including address and telephone number imbedded on the collar. My choice of a permanent pet identification marker is the microchip. Microchips currently used in pets are not a GPS device and cannot track your animal if it gets lost or stolen. However, companies that manufacture microchips maintain a data base of all their microchips that include name of owner, address, and telephone number for finding the original owner of the pet. I believe all pets should be microchipped. Consult with your veterinarian for making sure your dog or cat gets properly identified should it become lost by injecting a permanent microchip under its skin.
Hot cars are known to present a threat to pets in the summertime; however, cold cars pose a significant risk to your pet’s health as well. Cars can cool down rapidly in winter conditions resembling the interior of a refrigerator while cooling down your pet. Pets that are young, old, ill, or thin are particularly susceptible to cold environments and should never be left in cold cars. It is best to leave the pets at home if there is a possibility they will need to be left in the car for any period while you are out shopping or running errands.
Cats seem to tolerate the cold temperatures better than dogs; however, we should take special care 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 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.
Preparing for the comfort and well-being of your pets during the trying times of extreme winter weather can be a difficult task if some thought and preparation does not go into the planning stages during ideal weather. Cold weather requires special considerations for the pets, and if the other family members plan for the cold and icy weather, the whole family benefits. It is by far better to be prepared for cold weather and let the pets be a part of the family activities as is normally the case. That makes for a complete and happy family!