Cold Weather Pet Health Tips
This article was originally published on February 3, 2011 and expired on April 3, 2011. It is provided here for archival purposes and may contain dated information.
Dr. Kandi Norrell, primary care veterinarian at the University of Illinois Small Animal Clinic offers these recommendations for pet safety in extreme winter conditions.
- Limit exposure to cold. Pets should be out in the cold only for short periods. This is especially true for the very young, old, or sick, which have a decreased ability to retain body heat in cold weather. Extremities, such as the nose, toes, ear tips, and tail, get less warmth and blood flow in the cold and can get frostbitten. Wind and wetness also draw heat from an animal's body, so keep your pet dry and protected from gusts. Although sweaters and windbreakers for pets may provide some protection, they don't necessarily keep pets from getting a chill. Even "cold weather breeds" such as Huskies may have trouble maintaining body heat in freezing temperatures if they have been bred and raised in a moderate climate and their fur coats have not grown thick enough. When your pet is outside, watch for these signs that she is too cold: refusing to walk, lifting her paws, whimpering, or shivering.
- Take precautions for outdoor dogs. Canine companions normally housed in the garage or in outdoor runs need adequate warmth and shelter. Dog houses should contain ample bedding materials to help insulate your pet from sub-freezing temperatures. The best insulation is hay/straw; avoid blankets, which can become wet and freeze. Ideally the house will be elevated off the ground (e.g., with a wooden pallet) and positioned with the entrance away from wind. A door, such as a sheet of slitted plastic, covering the entrance also helps block the wind. Igloo-shaped outdoor houses are designed with all these features. Make sure outdoor pets have access to fresh, unfrozen water. Water bowls with built-in heating elements should be used when temperatures drop below freezing. If you use a space heater to warm your pet's shelter, be mindful of the potential for carbon monoxide poisoning; the signs include drowsiness, incoordination and a bright red color to the gums. Dog house warmers with protected cords that dogs cannot chew are available at pet stores.
- Check for stray cats under your hood. Cats should stay indoors in the winter. Cats left to roam outdoors will seek out a warm, though not necessarily safe, place to stay when weather gets extreme. We have seen many instances of cats injured because they had curled up on the engine block of a vehicle that warm, and later a driver unknowingly started the vehicle. Banging on the hood of your car before starting it can scare away any household or neighborhood cats that may be resting underneath.
- Care for dogs' feet. Dogs' toes and paw pads present special problems in the winter. Salt, snow, ice, and the resulting moisture can cause irritation of the skin between the toes and on the surface of the pads. Booties are a good way to protect paws from salt and snow if a dog will tolerate them (many sled dogs wear these). Lotions and emollient sprays available from pet stores may keep snow from sticking, but these don't provide full protection from the cold. Wash dogs' paws with warm water after a walk to wash away salt. Dry the paws thoroughly, especially between the toes. Inspect feet for cracks, redness, and bleeding. Cracked foot pads need veterinary care, since dogs may chew at the itchy skin, exacerbating the problem. Left untreated, cracks may widen as the dog bears weight on the feet, interfering with healing.
- Prevent escapes. Pets that get lost can get hurt or stuck out in the cold, which can lead to hypothermia. Make sure your pets stay on a leash. Animals that seem impervious to the cold during short walks can get critically ill if stuck in the cold for hours. An animal that has been left in the cold and appears lethargic should see a veterinarian immediately.
- Use common sense. Other winter hazards arise not from the cold but from human activities. Be cautious when using a snow-blower, or when bringing a dog along on a snowmobiling, sledding, or skiing trip. Like people, pets can get hurt by these activities. Also keep in mind that many kinds of antifreeze are toxic and attractive to pets, so always keep your garage and driveway free of spills and leaks.
Source: Dr. Kandice Norrell
Pull date: April 3, 2011
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