Winter pet care: safety suggestions from your pet’s veterinarian
Cold weather can be hard on pets, just like it can be hard on their people. Sometimes we forget that our pets are just as accustomed to the warmth of our homes as we are. And after Super Storm Sandy we were reminded just how cold it gets (and it wasn't even winter, yet) when there isn't that thermostat to turn up: no heat... brrrrr! Not all animals are adapted to outdoor living so don't leave your pets outside for extended periods of time. If it's too cold for you to be outdoors properly dressed then it's too cold for your pets who share your home temperature conditions. Pets can be put at risk for serious danger and illness so let's review a few things that you can do to keep your pets safe and warm.
Take your pets to the vet for a winter check-up before winter kicks into high gear. As your pet's veterinarian we can check to ensure that any medical problems they may have do not make them more vulnerable to the cold. And, check their diets and weight to ensure that in the less active winter months there isn't going to be that "howl-a-day" weight gain!
Keep your pets inside as the temps drop but if they must be housed outdoors make sure they have had adequate time to acclimate: they need to get a heavier fur coat for those winter below freezing days, they need adequate shelter that is solid against wind, heavier clean bedding that can insulate them against the cold, and plenty of water that won't freeze.
Some animals can remain outside longer than others. It really is a matter of common sense that a short coated thin skinned dog will not do as well as a long-haired breed like northern breeds such as Huskies and Malamutes: bred for outdoor conditions (but again only if they're used to it should you assume they'll do well and they'll still need extra care and attention). Cats and small dogs are likely to feel the cold sooner as they often are shoulder deep into snow. Certain diseases also affect how your pet responds to temperatures and how long they can safely stay outdoors. Conditions like diabetes, heart diseases, kidney diseases, neurological dysfunction, dementia, thyroid and other hormonal imbalances can compromise an animal's ability to be aware of and regulate their own body heat. Animals that are not in good health should not be exposed to the stressors of winter and may need adjustments to their elimination schedules and set-up. Very young and very old animals are more susceptible to the cold as well. Regardless of their health, no pet should be outdoors for unlimited periods of time in freezing cold weather. You may need to provide shelter in a garage or basement when the temps drop below freezing. If you have any questions about how long your pet should be outdoors during winter, ask your pet's vet!
Cats will often curl up under the hood of cars to stay warm. Tragedy has happened when cats are caught in the moving parts of the car engine as they can be seriously hurt or killed. A good idea is to either check beneath and around the car and make noise by honking the horn using the auto key lock/unlock function and knocking on the hood of the car before your start out. Remember also that if you leave your garage open, animals are likely to get in seeking heat and shelter: you may just find a family of raccoons, outdoors cats, or mice taking up residence if they have the chance and the choice.
If you live near a pond or lake, be very cautious about letting your dog off-leash. Animals can easily fall through the ice, and it is very difficult for them to escape on their own. If you are near open water, stay with your dogs and have them within your eyesight at all times and have your cell phone ready and charged (assuming you have a signal) in case of emergencies.
If you have fire place or wood burning stove or a space heater, remember that your pet wil also seek the warmth from these sources. Check to make sure fur, tails, paws, and whiskers do not come in contact with flames, heating coils, or hot surfaces. Pets can burn themselves or knock over a heat source and put the entire household in danger.
It's also a good idea to have your furnace checked for carbon monoxide leakage before your turn it on. Put fresh batteries in smoke and other detectors now if you didn't already do so at daylight savings time clock changing. Also check chimneys: some animals are known to get in and nest causing back drafts into your home and unsafe fireplace conditions.
Pets that do go outdoors are at risk for chemical ice melters on their foot pads and in between their toes. Always remove any ice and rock salt from your pet's paws when you come indoors. This habit will prevent burns, irritations, and ingestion of materials that will cause digestive tract difficulties.
Keep an eye on water resources for pets. water bowls easily freeze and then there may not be anything to drink leading to dehydration and additional stress for your pets. These animals are more likely to drink out of puddles or gutters where they can ingest such poisons as anti freeze (which tastes sweet) and die from complications of kidney failure.
Be gentle with the elderly and arthritic pets during winter. Oh, those joints can be so stiff and painful! Our pets may become more awkward then usual getting their footing. Use supports for them such as slings or your helping hands to aid them when they are climbing stairs especially when they first get going. Maybe make their environment easier for them to get around using non slip surfaces and area rugs to help. Offer a softer thicker surface for their bedding, too. And if they need safe exercise we can have them use our underwater treadmill: heated to 85-90 degrees it's just the thing for those stiff,sore, achy joints. Watch also for signs of discomfort and pain in your pets. If they whine, shiver, seem anxious, slow down or stop moving, or seek warm places to burrow they're saying "turn up the heat please"!
There are 2 very serious conditions directly related to cold weather: frostbite and hypothermia. Frostbite happens when the animal's body gets too cold and blood is shunted away form the extremities such as ear flaps, toes, and tail to the center core of the body. Ice crystals can form in the tissue causing damage and even loss of these body parts. The tricky thing about frostbite is that it is not immediately noticeable. If you suspect frostbite, bring the pet into a warm environment and call your pet's vet. We can advise you how to warm up your pet gradually and resume circulation to these outer body parts. Your pet's vet can then assess the damage and start treatments for pain and infection if necessary. At Animal Health Care we have also used our LASER therapy to help restore function to these compromised body areas.
Hypothermia of a body temperature below normal is a condition that occurs when the animal spends too much time in cold temps or when animals in poor health or with poor circulation are exposed to cold. In mild cases the normal body response is to shiver and many will show signs of depression, lethargy and weakness. As the condition progresses, a pet's muscles will stiffen, heart and breathing rates slow and there will be poor to no response to stimuli (ie, calling out their name, touch, or offering treats). If you notice these signs you must get your pet warm and ask your veterinarian how to best accomplish this rewarming safely.
Winter is a great time of year. But watch out-- it can also be a dangerous time as well. If you take the above precautions you and your pet can have a fabulous winter. Or, you could always "snowbird" and take them to warmer climates with you....