By Dr. Becker
Depending on where you live, you’re bracing for another winter of ice, snow and frigid temperatures. I know I am here in the Chicago area. But before we all find our own ways to weather the chill for the next few months, it’s a good time to remember the importance of keeping furry family members as safe, warm and comfortable as we are.
Cold weather can be just as hard on pets as it is on humans – especially for dogs and cats left outdoors for extended periods of time (which I never recommend). Pets left outdoors in cold weather can acquire a wide variety of injuries and illness, not the least of which are hypothermia and frostbite.
Here are some things you can do to keep the four-legged members of your family warm and safe.
10 Tips to Help Your Pet Weather the Cold This Winter
- Take your pet for a wellness exam. I recommend twice-yearly veterinary exams for all pets, and especially seniors, so making one of those visits in the fall or early winter is a good way to insure your dog, cat, or other companion is in good shape before the cold weather arrives.
- Have your furnace inspected. It’s a good idea to have your heating unit checked for carbon monoxide leaks before winter sets in. Carbon monoxide is odorless and invisible, but it can cause serious health problems in both people and pets. Since your dog, cat or other animal companion very likely spends much more time at home than you do during the winter months, she’s more vulnerable to carbon monoxide poisoning.
If you use a fireplace or space heater, expect your pet to snuggle up to the warmth. Keep a close watch to insure no part of your pet’s body comes in contact with flames, heating coils or other hot surfaces. Your pet can easily burn herself or knock a heating unit over and put everyone in the house in danger.
- Keep your pet indoors. I recommend keeping cats inside at all times (unless you have a secure outdoor cat enclosure for use during nice weather, or you take your cat on walks using a harness), but especially during winter. Accompany your dog outdoors when he needs to relieve himself or get some exercise. When you get cold enough to go back inside, chances are your dog is just as cold.
If your dog is a large breed, he’ll be able to tolerate cold temps and snow much better than a smaller dog. If your pet has a condition like diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease or an endocrine disorder, it can compromise his ability to regulate his own body heat. Pets with chronic disease, very young and older animals are more vulnerable to the cold than healthy youngsters and adults.
- Make sure your dog’s ID tag is current and keep him on leash outdoors. More dogs go missing in the winter months than any other time of year. It’s very easy for your pet to lose his scent and get lost when snow or ice is on the ground, and especially during snowstorms. Snow accumulation can make it impossible for your dog to know if he’s in his front yard or standing out on a street or highway. Light-colored dogs with snow on their fur can quickly blend into the background, making them nearly impossible to spot.
- Keep an eye out for outdoor cats. Hopefully you keep your cat inside, but your neighbors may not, or there could be strays or feral cats in the area. Kitties left out in cold temperatures will sometimes crawl up under the hoods of cars or into the wheel wells. Starting or moving the vehicle can hurt or even kill a cat taking shelter inside a car. So during winter months, it’s a good idea to bang loudly on your car hood before starting the engine as a warning to a cat that might be in or around your vehicle.
- Be careful with your dog near water. If you live near a pond, lake or other inland water source that tends to freeze over during cold weather, take care when letting your dog off the leash. Animals can easily fall through the ice, and it’s very difficult for them to escape on their own, or for humans to rescue them.
- Wipe down your dog after a trip outdoors. Pets who go outside during the winter months can pick up rock salt, ice, antifreeze, and other toxic chemicals on their footpads. To keep your dog’s paws from becoming chapped and raw, and to prevent ingestion of toxins, thoroughly wipe off his feet, legs, and underside after he’s been outside in the snow and ice. Also regularly check your pet’s paws for any signs of injury or bleeding from walking on frozen or snow-packed surfaces.
- Consider investing in a sweater for a shorthaired, older or frail pet. Some pets won’t wear items of clothing no matter how chilly they are. But if your pet tolerates it well, a sweater can help keep your dog warm, especially when you take her outdoors. But keep in mind that pets lose most of their body heat through the pads of their feet, their ears and their respiratory tract, so there’s a limit to how much warmth a sweater or jacket will provide.
Signs your pet is uncomfortably cold include whining, shivering, appearing anxious, slowing down or stopping, and looking for a warm place to burrow.
- Let your pet’s coat grow. Don’t shave or clip your dog’s (or cat’s) coat short during the winter months. A longer coat will keep her warmer.
- Be extra-cautious with your senior, arthritic or frail pet. Cold weather can be especially difficult for senior pets and those with degenerative joint disease or another chronic, debilitating condition. Talk with your holistic vet about physical therapy and other safe, natural methods for improving your pet’s comfort and mobility during cold weather. And make sure your pet has a thick, soft bed in a warm room for naps and at bedtime.