Author: Karen L. McGlothlin, DVM, PhD
Well, it surely hasn’t felt much like winter so far, as we begin the New Year. Mid-January highs in the upper sixties made it seem more like Spring to me (and to the dandelions making an early appearance in my front lawn). However, we know that cold temperatures and wintry weather will inevitably arrive at some point in the very near future. It’s easy to think that our dogs and cats will tolerate the weather just fine – after all, they are wearing natural fur coats, right? Not so much. When the temperatures drop outside, here are some safety tips that can help your pet stay warm.
- Bring or keep your pets inside with you, if you can. I saw a post on the internet that read: “If your pets are outside, go sit with them for a while. Then, decide if they should come inside with you.” This is great advice! Although they have fur, they are no more tolerant of cold temperatures than you are and can develop the same serious problems, including frostbite and hypothermia.
- Provide warm shelter and bedding options, if you can’t bring your pets in with you. With fluctuating temperatures, your pets will need sleeping areas that are warmer during some parts of the days than others, even if they are inside. Giving pets multiple options for comfortable resting places in areas that have more (or less) sun exposure or are closer to heating vents will help them regulate their temperatures. If your pets have to remain outdoors, there are ideas for building affordable, warm outdoor shelters out of everything form cardboard boxes to styrofoam containers to old coolers on the internet. Remember to make sure that any outdoor bedding is dry at all times. Wet bedding can contribute to dangerous drops in body temperature, potentially contributing to hypothermia and, possibly, death.
- Limit outdoor exercise in cold temperatures and bundle your pets up while they are out. If you walk your dog(s) in very cold weather, consider reducing the distance and time spent outdoors. Senior pets may have more difficulty walking in cold weather due to arthritic changes and may be more likely to slip and fall, possibly causing injuries. Very young or very old pets and pets with systemic diseases, including heart disease and diabetes, may have more difficulty regulating body temperature. Try planning for shorter walks or outdoor exercise periods during cold snaps. In addition, investing in sweaters or coats and booties for the paws can protect against the elements and decrease heat loss during outdoor winter adventures.
- Watch your pets for signs of hypothermia or frostbite while outside. Even though your pet may be bundled up, be vigilant about signs that may indicate your pet is in distress. If you notice that your pet is shivering, anxious, vocal, and/or seems to be weakening or slowing down, get them inside as soon as possible to prevent hypothermia. Check paws frequently to make sure paw pads are not cracked or bleeding and there is no ice accumulation on the hair between the toes.
- Check your car’s engine before starting it. Frequently, outdoor cats and small dogs may seek the warmth and shelter provided by parked cars in winter weather. They often climb into warm engine compartments, under parked cars, or into wheel wells to escape exposure. Before starting your car, consider making some noise – such as tapping on the hood or tooting the horn, to provide an opportunity for any sheltering animals to bail out before the car is started. It’s also worth noting that you should never leave pets in parked cars, as the interior turns cold very quickly and an animal trapped inside is susceptible to hypothermia.
- Use pet friendly deicers on walkways or driveways and wipe pets down after outdoor excursions. At Lawndale Veterinary Hospital, we deice our walkways and parking lots with commercially available products that are safe on paw pads and non-toxic, if accidentally ingested. If you use chemical deicing products on your walkways and driveways, choose pet-safe ice melt products. Avoid rock salt, antifreeze and other poisonous products, as those can be toxic if ingested – even in the small amounts that may be accidentally ingested when a pet licks its paws or fur to clean itself. Always wipe down or wash paws, paw pads, legs, and fur (especially on the belly) after your pets have been outdoors.
- Be prepared for winter emergencies. Make sure your pet has a collar with current identification and/or is microchipped in case of loss. Snow and ice accumulation make it more difficult for pets to detect recognizable scents and make it more difficult to find home. In addition, remember that winter storms can bring about problems, including power outages and problems with transportation. Prepare an emergency kit that includes a 5-days’ supply of your pet’s food and medications, as well as fresh water, just in case.
We hope that you enjoy sharing winter activities with your pets but remember to keep them – and yourself – safe!