Pets in Cold Weather: Winter Pet Safety Tips

As pet owners, we sometimes forget that our pets can get chilly or suffer the same effects of cold weather as we do. We also need to remember that there are dangers during the winter months, both inside the home and outdoors that we need to be aware of in order to keep our pets safe and healthy when winter arrives. Here are some cold weather tips for pets.
Before the colder, more brutal temperatures of winter set in, it’s a good idea to take your pet to the veterinarian for a winter checkup to make sure they are beginning the season healthy. It’s easier to avoid health complications than to cure them if your pet is starting out with an ailment.
Once winter has taken hold and temperatures drop, it's a good idea to keep your pets indoors as much as possible. Obviously, your dog will need to go outdoors to relieve himself, but those periods should be kept short. Watch your dog while he is outdoors and when he has finished, bring him inside. Some canines will come running as soon as they are finished while the more curious and larger breeds may need to be called. It only takes a few minutes for a dog’s paw pads, nose or short hair parts of their muzzle to become frozen. If necessary, stay outside with your pet while it relieves itself, to make sure he gets the job done and does not get distracted.
Long-haired breeds such as Huskies, Alaskan Malamutes and Chows will clearly do better than a shorthaired breed like Dachshunds, Dobermans or smaller toy breeds. Outdoor cats and short-legged breeds will have difficulty in climates where there are excesses of snow and ice. If possible, keep an area free of snow where these animals can move around easier and faster to relieve themselves. It doesn’t have to be a large area, just an area of a few feet where their bodies and bellies won’t be covered in snow while they are trying to move around. It’s also good to remember that elderly pets and the very young will be at greater risk for problems from extremely cold temperatures, so if necessary, take them outdoors more often for shorter periods.

OUTDOOR DANGERS

Felines who live outdoors will seek warmth wherever they can get it, such as under a car hood where a recently driven car engine will exude heat, or on top of a tire inside a wheel well of a vehicle to get out of the wind. When getting in a car that is not garaged, make sure to check for your cat first before turning on your vehicle or moving it.
If you have a waterfront property, near a lake or pond or stream that generally freezes, it’s a good idea to keep your dog on a leash during his outdoor periods to make sure he does not wander out onto the ice. Even if the ice does not break, it is extremely difficult to maneuver on the ice and he may not be able to return to the land, and his paw pads will freeze quickly. Even if the water never freezes, the temperature will be dangerously cold, so stay with your pet if you cannot leash it during outdoor periods. The cold water temperature could kill them quickly.
Winterizing a vehicle is necessary, so antifreeze containers need to be placed well out of reach of any pets that may easily have access to them in sheds or garages. Check your vehicle for leaks and garage floors for antifreeze which may have puddled under a car or dripped from an antifreeze bottle. Antifreeze is sweet tasting and your pet may lick this highly toxic chemical.
If you light a fire outdoors, make sure to keep close watch on your cat or dog, who may lay too close to it for warmth. If you use a metal, low-standing fireplace that sits on a patio or even in the yard, make sure the embers have burned out completely, or the coil (if artificially producing heat) has fully cooled before you leave your pet unattended, to make sure they do not burn themselves.
Many people use rock salt, or other chemical ingredients to melt ice on sidewalks and driveways to keep them clear. When your pets come back indoors, make sure you check their paws and foot pads for any pieces of salt or ice that may be stuck. Wiping their paws down with a warm washcloth should remove any debris. Even if you don’t see any debris, it’s a great idea to wipe down their feet to remove any residue from de-icing chemicals, as pets generally lick their paws once they return indoors.
Any pets that must spend a considerable amount of time outdoors need to have some form of shelter available to them at all times so they can find protection from precipitation and cold winds when needed, until they can return indoors. This is important for both cats and dogs, as their fur will only protect for a short period of time.
Water that is provided for your pet that spends time outdoors needs to be checked frequently to make sure it has not frozen. Use of a rubber water container will help keep the water from freezing much longer than a metal bowl. A plastic bowl will keep the water from freezing faster too, but plastic will become more brittle when frozen and crack, causing the water to leak out of the bowl, or even pinch or cut your pet’s tongue if they lick the cracked spot.
If you have a coat or sweater for your dog or cat, use it! The outside temperatures can drop quickly during the winter, or cold winds can penetrate even the thickest fur. If your pet will wear it, these are a valuable accessory to your pet. Using such items does not mean you can leave your pet outdoors for indefinite periods or longer than necessary. Indoor temperatures are still much better and safer for your pet.

INDOOR DANGERS

Cats and dogs love to curl up near fireplaces or space heaters where they can enjoy the heat. However, they often do not realize how hot their fur, tail or any other part of their body is becoming when they stay there too long. They may also get too close when sniffing out a place in front of a heater and burn their nose or paws on a hot surface or the coils or the flames and embers that may fly out from a fireplace when it is burning.
Have your furnace or heating system checked periodically to make sure there are no carbon monoxide leaks, as pets (who generally spend more time in the home than their human companions) are more vulnerable to this colorless and odorless, but fatal gas.
If your indoor pet spends time in an uncarpeted utility room or garage, you will still need to make sure he is warm enough. Check your pet frequently for signs of discomfort such as shivering, whining or just seeming to be a bit more hyper or anxious than normal, as this may be their way of moving around to keep warm. You may also notice your pet acting as though they are digging at something; mimicking a burrowing animal searching for a place they will feel better or feel warmer; this is a sign they are cold.

THINGS TO REMEMBER

When outdoors for any length of time in exceptionally cold temperatures, check your pet frequently for signs of frostbite or hypothermia.

Signs of Pet Frostbite (abnormal redistribution of body warmth to central part of the body away from the limbs to major organs such as heart, kidney, lungs and liver in order to survive):

  • Ece crystals forming on limbs or tail
  • Excessive shivering
  • Places with no fur or extremely short fur are bright red (nose, ears, muzzle, belly on some breeds)
  • Swelling or blisters on skin beneath the fur

Signs of Pet Hypothermia (abnormal lowering of body temperature which results from extended exposure to cold temperatures):

  • Shivering
  • Weak pulse
  • Unusual fatigue
  • Shallow breathing
  • Reluctance to move (as if unable to)

Remember that elderly pets or those with arthritis will need gentle handling. The colder temperatures will make them stiffer and their joints more tender, which may cause them to be more stressed than usual. Climbing stairs, jumping up on furniture may be a bit more difficult then usual because of the stiffness, so keep a close watch on them in case they need assistance. Be careful on slippery surfaces and sidewalks outdoors too, as a slip or fall for an aging or arthritic pet could result in a serious injury.
Just as it is dangerous to leave a pet in a hot car during the summer months, it is equally as dangerous during the winter months when the temperature can turn a cold car into a freezer in a very short period of time. If you must take your pet with you in the car, keep your trips short and make sure the car is not left running in a garage or enclosed space to keep the pet warm, as carbon monoxide could build up quickly and result in death.
Avoid trimming your pet’s coat too short during the winter months, as his fur coat is the best source of warmth for him both indoors and outside. Good grooming is essential too, to make sure the coat provides sufficient warmth, so make sure you continue your good grooming routine no matter what season it is. Matted hair is not as protective because it will not be able to keep snow and ice away from the skin or properly insulate the animal’s body.
Remember, exercise during the winter months is important, especially because there is less opportunity to take walks and spend long periods of time outdoors. You can still play games with your pet by hiding toys, playing tug-o-war and fetch (in hallways or by  rolling a ball along the floor and having the pet chase it and retrieve it).
Be careful not to overfeed your pet. The regular meal schedule should be sufficient to take care of your pet’s energy needs. Additional food may be necessary for dogs that must spend considerable time outdoors (perhaps while you are at work during the day); however be careful not to give the dog too much. If you are uncertain about the amount of food your dog requires, check with your veterinarian for advice.

How do you keep your pet warm in the winter? Share your ideas with us in the comments!

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