Winter is Coming: Know How to Keep Your Pet Safe
By Cindy McGovern
Predicting winter’s anticipated snowfall is an annual tradition. Will the D.C. metro area receive any measurable snow? If so, when, and how much? The Capital Weather Gang is predicting a mild winter with little snow accumulation with January temperatures in the normal range, disappointing many. But that doesn’t mean you can write off winter and if you are a pet owner, you still need to plan for the cold with its freezing temperatures and chemically treated roads and sidewalks.
Just like people, every animal reacts differently to the cold and it’s important to know your pet. If you have an arthritic or older pet, they will likely feel the cold more than a younger animal. They may also have problems walking on snow and ice and be more prone to slipping and falling. Pets with diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, or hormonal imbalances may have a harder time regulating their body temperature and thus be more susceptible to problems from temperature changes.
If it’s cold outside for you, it’s cold for your pet. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, a common misconception is that because an animal has a fur coat, they’re immune from the cold: they’re not. Just like people, cats and dogs can get frostbite and become hypothermic and should be kept inside during cold weather. Some long-haired dogs breeds, such as Huskies, are more cold tolerant, but they’re the exception, not the rule. In fact, short-haired breeds feel the cold faster because they have less protection and short-legged pets even more so because their bellies and bodies are closer to the cold or snow-covered ground.
Know the signs of hypothermia: whining, shivering, seeming anxious or weak, slowing down or not moving are all possible indications. Get the animal back inside quickly and if they’re wet, dry them off before wrapping them in a blanket. Frostbite is harder to detect and may not be fully recognizable until a few days after the damage is done. If you suspect your pet has hypothermia or frostbite, consult your veterinarian immediately.
For any animal, exposure to cold can cause chapped paws and itchy, flaky skin. Limit baths during the cold as washing can remove essential oils from the skin and increase your pet’s chance of developing dry, flaky skin. If you must bathe your pet, use a vet recommended moisturizing shampoo or rinse. If your dog is long-haired, trim his fur to minimize attracting ice balls, salt crystals and de-icing chemicals that can dry the skin. And don’t forget the hair between the toes.
Pay particular attention to your dogs’ paws in cold weather and check them frequently for cracked paw pads or bleeding. During a walk, a sudden lameness may be due to an injury or ice accumulation between the toes. Your dog (or cat) may also pick up deicers, antifreeze, or other chemicals that could be toxic. Once the walk is over, wipe down the animal to remove the chemicals. Not only does this protect the feet and skin, it reduces the risk that your dog will be poisoned after he licks his feet or fur. Use pet-friendly ice melts whenever possible and be sure to clean up any antifreeze spills quickly and thoroughly. The American Kennel Club has information on pet friendly deicers, as does Dogs Naturally Magazine.
One way to protect paws is by massaging petroleum jelly or other protectants into their paw pads before going outside. Booties provide even better protection and can prevent sand and salt from getting lodged between the toes and causing irritation. Not all pets will tolerate them and it’s important that they fit properly. To complete your pet’s winter wardrobe, consider a sweater or raincoat, but remember, wet sweaters can actually make them colder.
Cats are notorious at hiding and a warm vehicle engine can be appealing for outdoor and feral cats, but also deadly. If you know there are feral cats in your neighborhood, make sure you check underneath your car, bang on the hood, and honk the horn before starting the engine to scare them away.
While a car may seem like a safe place for your pet over the winter, it can act as a refrigerator that holds in the cold, just as it holds summer’s heat, and cause animals to freeze to death. Pets that are young, old, ill, or thin are particularly susceptible to lower temperatures and should never be left in cold cars.
Now that we’ve covered the outdoors, what can you do inside to keep your pet safe and comfortable? Just like you, pets like to be comfortable when sleeping and may change their preferred location based on the season and temperature. Give them some options away from cold drafts with warm blankets or beds and if possible, move the beds off the floor. Be careful with space heaters that can cause burns or be knocked over. Make sure your traditional wood fireplace has a grate to prevent your pet from exploring or embers from escaping.
It’s natural to resort to hearty meals and comfort food over the winter and some pet owners think a little extra food will help their pet feel better as well. But just as you will struggle to shed that winter weight in the spring, so will your pet. It’s best to keep them on the same diet and at their normal, healthy weight. Outdoor pets do require more calories in the winter to generate enough body heat and energy to keep them warm, but for most pets, winter is not the time to overeat. Cold weather can also lead to dehydration, so make sure your pet has plenty of water to drink to keep them well-hydrated and their skin less dry.
Winter can be a magical time with your pet if you know the risks and how to mitigate them.
About the Author: Cindy McGovern has volunteered at King Street Cats and is an avid animal lover and pet owner.