With most of the country experiencing bone-chilling temperatures, snow and ice, the American Veterinary Medical Association reminds pet owners that a fur coat is not enough to fend off brutal temperatures.
“Most pet owners seem to worry about their pets overheating in the summer, but tend to overlook the dangers of cold weather. Their fur coats don’t always provide the necessary protection from the cold, particularly for small animals . . .” said Dr. Douglas G. Aspros, past president of the AVMA.
The best prescription for winter weather is to keep your dog inside with you and your family. The happiest dogs are taken out frequently for walks and exercise but kept inside the rest of the time with you!
We’ve compiled a list of tips for keeping pets warm and safe. This list is primarily for dogs, but some of the tips will also apply to other pets.
Cold Weather Pet Health Tips
- Protect your dog's paws Ice and icy crust on top of snow can cut their paws. Even if they don’t cut, ice balls can be painful between pads. In extreme cold weather, your dog can get frostbite on their paw-pads. Prolonged contact with frozen ground surfaces such as concrete and asphalt can be dangerous for dogs. Be aware of harmful substances such as road salt and other ice melting antifreeze products that can get lodged in between paws causing an irritation or chemical burn. Products such as Musher's Secret can be applied directly to your dog's paws, or your dog can learn to wear boots to protect sensitive paws from harsh chemicals. Wipe your dog's paws with a warm, wet washcloth (and then dry them) after an unprotected walk in places that use these products to prevent your dog or cat from licking these chemicals from irritated paws.
Learn more about de-icers on Cesar Milan’s website, he also includes a link to a homemade paw wax for dogs and cats.
- Watch pet behavior Signs of cold stress include whining, shaking or shivering, anxiety, weakness, slowing down, lifting feet, and searching for shelter. All clues it’s time to bring your animals inside.
- Never leave a pet in a cold car Don’t leave your dog or cat in the car unattended for any time during extreme weather periods – cold or hot. Just because most pets have fur does not mean they can stand near arctic (or below) temperatures; they can freeze to death.
- Check the engine Outdoor cats and wildlife often seek shelter under the hood of your car in cold weather, so try to scare them out before you start the engine.
- Exercise and wardrobe Keep your dog active, but avoid overdoing it in extreme temperatures. Pay more attention to the amount of time spent outside, and limit your pet's time outside (to reduce exposure) when it is really cold. More frequent, shorter play times or walks are good.
Temperature tolerance varies by breed, age, health status and acclimation. For example, one vet advised that a young, 3.5 pound Chihuahua stay indoors unless the temperature was above 40 degrees! But other small breed dogs and mixes can be much hardier. Dogs with thick coats, especially undercoats or double coats, will be able to handle cold weather better than dogs with thin layers of fur. For example Pit Bulls, Greyhounds, and Boxers are just a few breeds that might be susceptible to getting too cold quickly. Also senior dogs, dogs with health issues and small dogs may benefit from an insulated vest, sweater and doggie boots to protect their paws and core. Whatever you choose, make sure the coat covers your dog's chest, not just his back.
Puppies under eight weeks should not be left in extreme cold. Puppies cannot regulate their own temperature until they are two weeks of age. How puppies handle the cold will also depend on age; smaller breeds may have trouble adjusting to cold weather compared to larger breeds with thicker coats, especially ones bred for colder environments (huskies, malamutes, etc.). Older dogs may need supervision with the cold as well.
- Nutrition & adequate hydration Dogs that spend most of their time outdoors may need more calories to maintain their energy level in cold weather. The calories in most commercial dog foods come from carbohydrates. In very cold weather, the dogs do better with a higher amount of fat calories. A study indicated a sled dog racing the Iditarod required 10,000 calories a day to meet their metabolic needs. The only way to meet that high caloric need is with a diet high in fat calories. Most pet dogs do not need that many calories and may get very sick from a high fat diet. Always check with your vet regarding all changes to your dog’s diet.
It’s also important to make sure your dog has adequate water outside. Keep it fresh and in a plastic bowl (avoid metal) to prevent it from freezing. You can also look into a pet water warming bowl for outside dogs and cats. Snow and ice in an urban setting can be filled with toxins that are harmful to your dog’s digestive system, so you don’t want to allow them to eat ice or snow to hydrate.
- In the dog house If your dog or cat lives outside and either cannot or will not come in, pet owners should provide good sheltering and bedding. Pet housing should be raised several inches off the ground. Modify it to provide shelter from the wind. It should be big enough for the animal to turn around and lie down comfortably, but small enough to effectively collect body heat. Provide bedding for insulation inside the house. Fresh straw (avoid hay) can provide a nice bedding. Straw keeps mold and bacteria down and is a great insulator in the house. Avoid space heaters and heat lamps, which pose a fire risk.
- Watch their step Watch pets around frozen lakes/rivers and slippery staircases, which pose risks for injuries.