Red Alert: So Poisonous a Single Teaspoon Can Kill

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

winter pet safety

Story at-a-glance -

  • Winter brings with it a unique set of challenges for pets, namely cold temperatures and severe weather conditions like snow and ice
  • Even pets who normally spend long periods outdoors, like outdoor cats or working dogs, should have access to a warm bed indoors when the weather turns cold
  • Dogs with thin coats, older dogs and small dogs may feel more comfortable having an extra layer on when they go outdoors in winter
  • Antifreeze contains ethylene glycol, a poison that can cause kidney failure and death in dogs and cats if as little as 1 teaspoon is consumed

Winter brings with it a unique set of challenges for pets (much as it does for people), namely cold temperatures and severe weather conditions like snow and ice. Some pets, like Siberian huskies, are uniquely suited for winter, with double coats to keep them warm — but most are not.

In addition to the weather, the holidays and winter weather tools like antifreeze pose more hurdles for pets at this time of year. To keep your pets safe, here are the most important factors to keep in mind.

Winter Safety for Pets: Seven Top Tips

1. Let Your Pet Inside — Even pets who normally spend long periods outdoors, like outdoor cats or working dogs, should have access to a warm bed indoors when the weather turns cold. A good rule of thumb is that when you feel cold enough to go inside, your pet probably does too.

Many factors influence your pet's ability to tolerate the cold, including age, breed, diet and health status, but generally speaking large breed dogs do better in the cold than smaller breeds, and older pets are more vulnerable to cold temperatures than younger ones (with the exception of puppies and kittens).

Likewise, dogs with thin coats, like Greyhounds, will get cold faster than those with thick coats, like Samoyeds. Signs your pet needs to come in from the cold include:

Shivering

Holding up a paw

Anxiety

Searching for warmth

Whining

Weakness

Slowing down

Lack of mental alertness

2. Watch for Signs of Hypothermia — Depending on the factors mentioned above, your dog may start to feel uncomfortable outdoors when it's below 45 degrees F, however it's important to really start watching for signs of discomfort at 32 degrees F and below, particularly in dogs more vulnerable to the cold (older dogs, those with thin coats, puppies and those with chronic illness).

When temperatures dip below 20 degrees F, however, hypothermia becomes a real risk for all pets. Here are the signs to watch for:

Pale skin

Strong shivering

Lethargy

Weakness

Low heart rate

Difficulty breathing

Dr. Ilan Frank, sports medicine and rehabilitation resident at Colorado State University's Veterinary Teaching Hospital, told Reader's Digest that it's especially important to keep a close eye on older dogs who may have cognitive dysfunction:1

"They might not really completely understand the situation, or might forget they're outside. Don't assume that they just like to lay out in the snow for a couple hours. If you have an older guy, you might need to initiate bringing him back inside."

3. Consider Winter Gear

In most cases, the best way to limit your pet's risk of injury from winter weather is to keep him primarily indoors. He'll still need exercise, however, and time for potty breaks, and some pets benefit from winter gear for this purpose. Dogs with thin coats, older dogs and small dogs, in particular, may feel more comfortable having an extra layer on when they go outdoors in winter.

Look for simple sweaters or coats (with no zippers, buttons or hoods) made from organic materials, and be sure they don't interfere with your dog's natural movements. Some dogs may even enjoy wearing a sweater indoors on cold days, but be sure he doesn't overheat.

4. Keep a Close Eye on Outdoor Cats — If you have an outdoor cat or feral cat that lives nearby, keep a watch out for frostbite, which often affects the ears, nose, paws and tail first, and hypothermia, which, like in dogs, may lead to shivering, lethargy or crying. Cats may crawl under the hood of a car, seeking warmth from the engine, so bang on the hood before starting any vehicles that are left outdoors. Also be aware that the cat's water will freeze if it becomes too cold, which is a life-threatening scenario.

5. Protect Your Dog on Longer Outings — If you have a dog who enjoys cold weather and is well-suited for it and are planning a longer hike, be sure to bring along water and even a healthy snack to give your dog energy. Specially designed boots for dogs can help keep your dog's paws safe from snow and ice if you know you'll be on rugged terrain, but remove them every so often to be sure there's no ice or rocks inside of them.

6. Store Antifreeze Safely — and Watch for Leaks

Antifreeze contains ethylene glycol, a poison that can cause kidney failure and death in dogs and cats if as little as 1 teaspoon is consumed. While it's common sense to store bottles of antifreeze safely out of the reach of pets, most poisonings occur when the liquid leaks from car radiators and a dog licks it up off the ground.

Cats can also be poisoned if they walk through an antifreeze puddle and then lick it off their paws. Although some manufacturers have begun adding a bitter-tasting agent to antifreeze to discourage pets (and children) from ingesting the otherwise sweet-tasting poison, it's not a guarantee that your pet won't eat it.

Be sure to check your car radiator regularly and repair leaks right away, and don't let your pet roam unsupervised where he may have access to antifreeze.

7. Watch Out for Holiday Hazards — The holidays bring another set of hazards, including from what humans consider to be a treat: certain holiday leftovers. Alcohol, chocolate and macadamia nuts are examples of holiday staples that should not be given to pets. Holiday decorations like tinsel can also be risky, as they may cause gastrointestinal obstruction if they're ingested (tinsel is especially attractive to cats).

Another often-overlooked source of stress to pets is the guests who come to your home. Make sure your pet has a quiet, safe space to retreat to if unfamiliar guests make your pet nervous, and be sure pets are not able to bolt out of the house when guests come and go.

By taking some precautions to keep your pet safe in cold weather and amidst holiday gatherings, you can both enjoy the winter season together — and maybe even a brief bout of play in the snow!

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