By Dr. Becker
Winter is here, and this is a good time to remind pet parents of the importance of keeping furry family members safe, warm and comfortable for the next few months.
Cold weather can be just as hard on animals as it is on humans — especially for dogs and cats left outdoors for extended periods of time (which I absolutely never recommend). Pets left outdoors in cold weather can acquire a wide variety of injuries and illnesses, not the least of which are hypothermia and frostbite. Here’s a list of things you can do to help keep the four-legged members of your family warm, safe and healthy.
12 Tips to Help Your Pet Weather the Cold This Winter
1. Take your pet for a wellness exam
I recommend twice-yearly 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 or cat is healthy before the cold weather arrives. Proactive vets will measure muscle mass, joint range of motion, check vital organ function and make a wellness plan for the upcoming cold months.
2. Let your pet’s coat grow
Don't shave or clip your pet's coat short during the winter months. A longer coat will keep her warmer. And make sure long-haired pets are brushed and groomed regularly, since matted fur can interfere with their ability to regulate their body temperature.
3. 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 for potty walks or to 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 and very young and older animals are more vulnerable to the cold than healthy youngsters and adults. Also never leave your pet unattended in a car in cold weather. Hypothermia can be just as deadly as heatstroke.
4. Keep your pet well-exercised
It’s really important to maintain your pet’s physical condition year-round. If you allow your dog to become a couch potato all winter, you increase his risk of injury when he starts exercising again in the spring. Especially if you live in a location that gets really cold and wet during the winter months, it can be challenging to insure your dog stays physically active. Some ideas to consider:
- A hydrotherapy or warm water dog pool
- An indoor dog park (this is also a great idea for those of you who live in climates where the summers are too hot for strenuous outdoor exercise)
- Indoor agility or tracking training, or nose work
- Cross-country skiing
5. Provide a sweater for a shorthaired, older or frail pet
Some pets won’t wear 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.
6. Be extra careful 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 integrative veterinarian 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, nontoxic (organic) bed in a warm room for naps and at bedtime.
7. Make sure your pet’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 him 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.
8. 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.
9. 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.
10. Stay alert 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 temps 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.
11. Have your furnace inspected and change your air filter
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 or cat very likely spends much more time at home than you do during the winter months, she’s more vulnerable to carbon monoxide poisoning.
Changing your whole house air filter twice a year is a great idea. Most people are shocked to learn how much dust, dirt, allergens, pollen and mold can accumulate in filters over the summer. Dust mites thrive during the winter months, making your home a ripe environment for year round misery, in terms of itchy paws and bellies. Providing pets with filtered air is one way to help reduce the allergen load in your house during winter.
12. Keep your pet safe from potentially dangerous heat sources
If you use a fireplace or space heater, expect your pet to lie near it for warmth. Keep a close watch to insure no part of her body comes in contact with flames, heating coils or other hot surfaces. She can easily burn herself or knock a heating unit over and put everyone in the house in danger.