How Winter Conditions May Effect Your Pet's Health

by Bruce W. Little, DVM



Although I am aware that many parts of the United States are enjoying a much warmer winter this year than is customary for that part of the country in a normal non-El Nino year, the calendar tells us that any day a mass of cold air could come down from the north and engulf most of the upper half of the country in cold, snowy winter weather. It is prudent that we are aware that we must prepare for our pet’s comfort and safety prior to the inevitable storms that may be on the horizon. Like people, cats and dogs are susceptible to frostbite and hypothermia and should be kept inside. Longer-haired and thick-coated dog breeds are more tolerant of cold weather, but no pet should be left outside for long periods of time in below-freezing weather.

If your dog does stay outside all of the time consider creating a place in the garage or the utility room on those extremely cold nights. Fix a cushioned spot for them to be protected from the cold, wind, rain and ice that winter storms can bring. If there is no place for them inside, be sure their dog house is weather proofed by covering all the cracks in the sides and roof with material that will withstand the wind and prevent the cold and snow from penetrating into the house. The dog house should have a floor and be elevated off the ground so the dog’s paws do not touch the cold ground. Provide bedding such as old carpets, blankets, bath towels or straw for them to sleep on and to snuggle under for warmth. Change the bedding frequently to ensure it remains dry. Make sure fresh water is provided several times per day and feed a high caloric dog food to help them ward off the cold. That's especially important for small breed dogs and pets that are very young, very old, or suffering from a chronic illness; such as, diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, or hormonal imbalances that may have a more difficult time regulating their body temperature, and may be more vulnerable to problems from temperature extremes.

For those inside dwellers that go outside to go to the bathroom, be sure they find a spot to go that allows them comfort in performing their duties. Packed snow and ice may make it difficult for them go to the bathroom especially if they have arthritic hip joints or feet. If their favorite spot is covered with snow or ice, take them out on a leash and encourage them to pick another spot. It may be wise to shorten your dog’s walks in very cold weather to protect both you and your pet from weather-associated health risks. Check your dog’s paws frequently for signs of cold-weather injury or damage, such as cracked paw pads or bleeding. During a walk, sudden lameness may be due to an injury from slipping on the slick surfaces, puncture by a sharp object that is hidden under the snow and ice, or may be due to ice accumulation between the toes.

You may be able to reduce the chance of ice ball accumulation by clipping the hair between your dog’s toes during the winter season. It is best to take them out on a leash during the winter months so you can choose the most acceptable spot for them to attend to their necessary bathroom needs that exposes them to fewer dangers than they may encounter on their own. If necessary, consider putting a coat or sweater on them when they go outside for a walk. Be sure the coat or sweater is dry as wet pet clothing can actually make your pet colder. You may want to keep several coats or sweaters in the closet to make sure the one you choose is dry at that time.

During and after walks, wipe down or wash your dog’s feet, legs and belly as they may have picked up salt deicers, antifreeze or other chemicals used to melt the snow and ice that may be harmful to your pet. Clean up any antifreeze spills quickly, as even small amounts of antifreeze can be very deadly. Also, antifreeze appears to have a sweet taste and dogs, especially, will drink more of it than they will water and that may cause kidney damage that leads to severe symptoms, including death.

Hot cars are known to present a threat to pets in the summertime; however, cold cars pose a significant risk to your pet’s health as well. Cars can cool down rapidly in winter conditions resembling the interior of a refrigerator while cooling down your pet. Pets that are young, old, ill or thin are particularly susceptible to cold environments and should never be left in cold cars. Never leave your pet in a closed car in the winter time or in the summer. It is best to leave the pets at home if there is a possibility they will need to be left in the car for any period of time while you are out shopping or running errands.

Inside your home, use special care with space heaters. Pets can burn themselves when trying to get close to the heat, or they can knock a space heater over and put the whole family at risk. Cold weather also brings the risks of severe winter weather such as blizzards and power outages. Prepare an emergency or disaster kit for both you and the family pets. You can refer to one of my previous blog articles on this web site entitled Emergency Preparedness for Your Pets for details on how to prepare an emergency kit. Keep your pet at a healthy weight throughout the winter. Some pet owners feel that a little extra weight gives their pet some extra protection from the cold, but the health risks associated with extra weight does not make it worth doing. Watch your pet’s body condition and keep them in a healthy weight range for their breed, age and health conditions. Outdoor pets will require more calories in the winter to generate enough body heat and energy to keep them warm. Talk to your veterinarian about your pet’s nutritional needs during cold weather. If you have pet birds, keep their cage out of drafts such as doorways and lesser heated areas of the house.

Pets can become lost while outside in rough, winter conditions due to the snow and ice cover that may change the appearance of their known environment or recognizable scents that might normally aid your pet in finding their way back home. Make sure your pet has a well-fitting collar with all his or her contact information including address and telephone number imbedded somewhere on the collar. My choice of a permanent pet identification marker is the microchip. Microchips currently used in pets are not a GPS device and cannot track your animal if it gets lost or stolen. However, companies that manufacture microchips maintain a data base of all their microchips that include name of owner, address and telephone number for finding the original owner of the pet. I believe all pets should be microchipped. Consult with your veterinarian for making sure your dog or cat gets properly identified should it become lost by injecting a permanent microchip under its skin.

Cats seem to tolerate the cold temperatures better than dogs; however, we should take special care around cars. Cats will curl up against anything to stay warm including a car engine. Many times we will get into cars that are left outside only to start the engine and a cat will dart from under the hood having been curled up against the engine or radiator to keep warm. This results too many times in injury to the cat with cuts from the fan or belts or burns. Usually a tap on the hood of the car or a honk of the horn will be enough for the cat to escape its warm spot before the car is put into operation.

As is usually the case with many things regarding our pets, a little thought and preparation for winter weather is most valuable when facing Mother Nature’s worst of winter weather conditions. Keep your pets inside if possible; however if not, make a warm, comfortable spot for them in the garage or other enclosed shelter in the yard. Both you and the dog will benefit by that preparation.

Bruce W. Little, DVM