The holidays are over and we are in a world beyond light and warmth. A world of crisp starry nights and mountains of ice and snow. We have entered “The Doldrum Zone”. I have noticed the days are getting just the tiniest bit longer, with just a few added moments of sunlight. But that sunlight is cold and watery and weak. There are really no holidays or celebrations between January and May. And gone are the colorful lights and shiny decorations that brightened up the nights through part of November and most of December. As I enjoy the heat vent in my little room, or the nice soft wool sweater Dr Deb “leaves” on her chair for me to curl up in, I revel in the fact that I do not have to be out in that rain and snow and ice and wind and cold. It got me to thinking though. What hidden dangers are out there in the winter weather? Beyond the simple fact that I do not like to get my fur wet. I got to digging and compiled a list for you. Keep these things in mind the rest of the cold months, and you and your pets will be warm and dry clear through till June!
Know the Limits – Pets’ tolerance to cold varies, just like humans’, based on body type and size, age, and the amount of fur they have. Regardless, humans need to be aware of how the cold affects their pets. Older dogs, or those prone to arthritis, may have more difficulty walking on snow and ice. Short-legged dogs may become cold faster because they are lower to the ground, closer to the snow and ice. Pets with health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, or hormonal imbalances such as Cushing’s disease, may have difficulty regulating their body temperature and may be more susceptible to temperature extremes. If you need help determining a pet’s tolerance level, consult your veterinarian.
Provide choices – Provide sleeping space that allows for a warm place to curl up as well as enough space to get away from a heat source if necessary. Give them safe options so they can adjust their sleeping place as needed.
Stay inside – Cats and dogs should be kept inside during cold weather. It is a commonly held thought that dogs and cats are more resistant than people to cold weather because of their fur. Like people, cats and dogs are susceptible to frostbite and hypothermia and should be kept inside. Longer-haired and thick-coated dog breeds, such as huskies and other dogs bred for colder climates, are more tolerant of cold weather but no pet should be left outside for long periods of time in below-freezing weather.
Make some noise – A warm car or truck engine can be very enticing to a cat on a cold winter night. Often they will climb up inside the engine compartment to sleep. Before starting your vehicle after it has been sitting, bang on the hood, honk the horn, and check under the hood. This will encourage any would-be stowaways to vacate their perch.
Check the paws – Check your pet’s paws for signs of damage if they have been outside playing or walking. The cold and dry conditions can cause chapping, and can lead to cracked or bleeding paw pads. Sudden lameness on a walk could be caused by injury or due a build-up of ice clinging to the hair between the pads. You can lower the chance of accumulating iceballs by trimming the hair between their pads.
Dress up – If you pet has short hair, or seems bothered by the cold, you can find several different styles of coats and sweaters at most pet stores. Have several on hand so they can be changed as needed if one becomes wet or soiled. A wet coat or sweater can actually make your pet colder. If your pet spends a lot of time hiking or walking in snowy and icy conditions, you may consider booties to protect their paws. Make sure that they fit correctly, so they do not cause blisters or restrict movement.
Wipe down – There is a plethora of chemicals used to make roads safer for cars, and keep cars and trucks running in the cold. Often these chemicals, such as deicers, antifreeze, and others are picked up on your pets’ paws while out and about. Upon returning home, be sure to wipe down their belly, paws, and legs , to reduce the risk of accidental ingestion by licking. Consider using pet-safe deicers to protect your pets and others in the neighborhood.
Always carry ID – With the rain, wind, snow, and ice, many scents and landmarks become difficult to discern. Update your pet’s ID tags to make sure they are accurate. Readjust the collar to make sure that it fits well. You may want to think about getting your pet microchipped as well, in case the collar gets lost.
Stay home– In summer, there is lots of publicity about children and pets being locked in hot cars. In winter, cold cars can pose a similar threat. A car can cool down rapidly, and become like a refrigerator. Old, young, thin, and ill pets are especially susceptible to cold cars and should never be left unattended. Leave them home, unless the trip is absolutely necessary.
Avoid ice – When out for walks, avoid frozen ponds, lakes, and other water. It is impossible to tell if the ice will support the weight of your pet. If your pet breaks through the ice, it could be deadly. If your pet goes down, human instinct is to try to rescue him or her, and then you could both be in jeopardy.
Provide shelter – As I mentioned earlier, it is recommended is that pets stay inside during the coldest winter months. However, this may not be possible. In the event that your pet has to spend a significant amount of time outdoors, provide a shelter that is out of the wind. Make sure he or she has access to fresh, not-frozen, water. Ideally, the floor of the shelter should be off the ground and the bedding should be thick and dry. Straw can provide a good insulator, with a blanket on top, for comfort. Both may need to be changed frequently to provide a warm and dry environment. Space heaters and lamps should be avoided, due to the risk of burns and/or fire. Heated pet mats should also be used with caution as they can cause burns.
Recognize problems – If your pet is whining, shivering, seems anxious, slows down or stops moving, seems weak, or starts looking for warm places to burrow, get them back inside quickly because they are showing signs of hypothermia. Frostbite is harder to detect, and may not be fully recognized until a few days after the damage is done. If you suspect your pet has hypothermia or frostbite, consult your veterinarian immediately.
Be prepared – Cold weather also brings the risks of severe winter weather, blizzards and power outages. Prepare a disaster/emergency kit, and include your pet in your plans. Have enough food, water and medicine (including any prescription medications as well as heartworm and flea/tick preventives) on hand to get through at least 5 days.
Feed well – Keep your pet at a healthy weight throughout the winter. Some pet owners feel that a little extra weight gives their pet some extra protection from cold, but the health risks associated with that extra weight don’t make it worth doing. Watch your pet’s body condition and keep them in the healthy range. 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.
In looking over the list, I thought, “If it works for you, it’ll work for your pets.” After all, we pets are just small humans with fur, right? Many thanks to the folks over at the AVMA for helping me with my research.