Cold Weather Safety

Whether you have indoor, outdoor, or indoor/outdoor pets, you must take seasonal precautions, especially during temperature extremes. Even Texas and South Florida had cold weather snaps that cannot be simply brushed off. If it’s cold for humans, it’s definitely cold for animals! (There have even been reports of iguanas and sharks freezing in Florida and Massachusetts. There have also been heartbreaking stories of dogs being rescued from the elements. Not all of them make it.)

Excuse me while I get onto my soapbox: Do I need to reiterate that it is inhumane to leave pets out in the cold? Two words: animal cruelty. Some states are changing their laws about it. It’s a big deal. Take it seriously. OK. End of rant.

What should responsible pet owners do to keep their pets happy, safe, and healthy over the long winter months? There are a number of things (head’s up–this is a long post). I have compiled several of them…

Things to Consider: Outside with Your Pet

  1. Be observant, and if need be, advocate.
    1. Let’s say you notice a dog left in your neighbor’s backyard for several hours. It’s cold and snowing. You’re worried but aren’t sure what to do.
    2. Politely let them know you are concerned about their dog’s welfare. Perhaps your neighbor did not think about the risks the cold weather posed, assuming that the dog will be fine because it has fur.
    3. If your neighbor responds to your suggestions (e.g. brings the dog inside, limits the dog’s outdoor exposure afterward, etc.), the problem is solved.
    4. If your neighbor ignores you, or you suspect neglect or abuse, follow the Humane Society’s detailed advice.
    5. If you have concerns about a stray or loose animal’s welfare, also consult the aforementioned link.
  2. Strays. If you are concerned about feral or stray cats in your neighborhood, here is out you can make a DIY winter shelter for them. Getting them off the streets in very cold weather, though, is preferable.
  3. Bang on your car hood. Cats are hidey creatures and excellent at finding the best warm spots (often stealing yours). Small wildlife will also be desperate for warmth too.
    1. When it’s cold out, they may sneak under the hood, seeking the engine’s warmth, and you may never see them do it.
    2. If you bang on the hood, it may scare the cat out so it won’t get trapped in the fan or engine when you start the car.
    3. Another good place to check is the tire well.
    4. You can also honk the horn to rouse the feline squatters.
    5. Alternative: park your car in the garage (if possible) so (A) you won’t have this issue and (B) you won’t have to dig your car out of ice and snow.
  4. Use pet-friendly ice melts. Since dogs are more likely to pick up rock salt when out on a walk, they can be at a risk for salt poisoning if they lick it from their paws. Even if you don’t have pets, use these products on your sidewalks and driveways. Store de-icing salt in a safe place afterward. Think of it paying it forward for the environment at large. The pet owners in your neighborhood will be grateful to you!
  5. Coolant and antifreeze. These products taste sweet and both are deadly to pets. If you are performing vehicular maintenance, thoroughly clean up any leaks or spills and store these products in a secured place where animals cannot access them. Brownie points: consider using products that contain propylene glycol instead of ethylene glycol.
  6. Poisons. If you suspect that a pet ingested coolant, antifreeze, rock salt, a de-icing agent, or any other noxious chemical, contact a veterinarian immediately. You can also contact the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center Phone Number: 888-426-4435.
  7. Bring pets inside. If left outside in the elements, pets can become disoriented, lost, stolen, injured, or killed. NB: Don’t leave pets unattended in a cold car. In cold weather, a car can act like a refrigerator and hold in all that frosty air. In any case, freezing to death is a horrible way to die.
  8. Outdoor shelters. If pets must stay outside for some periods of the day, ensure that their shelter is warm enough and sufficiently insulated. Their shelter should be dry and free of drafts. It should be small enough to retain body heat but roomy enough to allow the animal to move comfortably. The floor should be a couple inches above the ground and covered with straw, cedar shaving, or other appropriate bedding. Cover the doorway with heavy plastic or waterproof burlap.
  9. More food. If your pet spends more time outdoors, they’ll need more calories because trying to keep warm depletes energy source reserves. Check with your vet to ensure your pet is getting enough fat and protein and their diet to complement their outdoor lifestyle. Ensure that your pet’s water if fresh and unfrozen. Use plastic food and water bowls instead of metal, as when the temperature dips below freezing, your pet’s tongue can stick and freeze to metal.
  10. Ice. Watch out for frozen ponds, lakes, and other bodies of water. Heavy loads of ice can shift without warning and slide off roofs, making pancakes out of cars (I’m serious). Also, ice is slippery! If out walking your pet, stay away from these areas and use utmost caution after freezing rain on sidewalks. Another thing about frozen ponds and lakes: You won’t be able to know if these will be able to hold your dog’s weight, let alone yours, and if the ice breaks, you have a disaster on your hands. Avoid it entirely.

Things to Consider: Inside with Your Pet

  1. ID. Ensure that your pet is outfitted with proper identification (e.g. well-fitting collar, ID tags, and microchip with current information and registration). Pets can easily become lost in the winter because snow, ice, and wind may mask recognizable scents that may usually guide your pet back home.
  2. Too cold. Sometimes, it can be so cold that it can be unsafe to take your pet outside for a walk or exercise for very long. This page has a handy chart for guidance.
  3. Windchill. Just like humans, pets have exposed skin, and those parts lose heat the fastest. In cases of pets, these areas are primarily are on their noses, ears, paw pads, underbellies, and genitals.
    1. When exposed to cold temperatures for long periods, pets can be at risk for frostbite and hypothermia. For example, some hypothermia signs to look out for in dogs include constant shivering, weakness, slow and shallow breathing, muscle stiffness, blank stare, and torpor.
    2. For more information, go here and here for dogs and here and here for cats. Very scary but good information to know in case of an emergency.
  4. Emergency plans. In case of the likes of city-paralyzing blizzards and power outages, prepare an emergency kit and include your pet in your preparations. Have sufficient food, water, and medications (which should include prescriptions, heartworm and flea/tick/mosquito preventives) on hand to get at least through 5 days. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to add a crate, as your pet would presumably go inside it. If your pet is very large and/or a crate is not feasible, have leads of different lengths on hand. In an emergency, you may need to move your pet fast and you do not want to lose them.
  5. Diet. Don’t overfeed your pet during the winter. Instead keep your pet at a healthy weight year-round. Only outdoor pets require extra calories to generate sufficient body heat and energy stores.
  6. Grooming. If you have an issue with clinging ice, snowballs, salt, mud, or other detritus, consider giving your pet a thorough grooming before getting out the trimmer. A light trim may be necessary, yes, but remember that your pet needs the long coat for warmth and insulation. Long-haired pets often have tufts of fur in between their paws, and these provide traction as well as insulation; don’t forget these when grooming. If you don’t feel confident or comfortable taming your pet’s wind-tossed coiffeur, seek the assistance of a professional groomer.
  7. Practical apparel. If your pet is short-haired, consider a completely durable sweater that provides full coverage to the base of the tail. A high collar or turtleneck will help provide more insulation (think of it as the pet equivalent of a scarf) and ensure the belly is covered. This last part is important: the belly and genitals are an especially vulnerable area as they have much finer hair there. Have more than one sweater available so you can use a dry sweater each time your pet goes outside. Wet sweaters can actually make your pet colder and therefore at risk for getting sick.
  8. Bedding and sleep. Pets take sleeping very seriously, so naturally they are invested in their beds too.
    1. Give your pet comfy sleeping options that allow them to vary their sleeping spots based on their needs for more or less warmth.
    2. You may notice that your pet’s favorite sleeping spot changes in the winter or that you now have a Velcro-kitty because he wants the warmth of your lap. (There are worse problems to have.)
    3. Example 1: Garrus lolls next to our master bathroom window in order to sunbathe; that’s the only spot he does that. Otherwise he likes snoozing on our bed or the ottoman.
    4. Example 2: Boudicca normally camps out in my office but in the winter she switches to the living room couch but insists that a crocheted blanket be laid out first.
    5. Example 3: I have friends in the Midwest who use heated pet beds, and they have very happy cats and dogs.
    6. Although this varies, pets may sleep more in the winter due to the decreased amount of light during the day. They might also might feel less energetic or bored. It is possible for pets to feel depressed.
  9. Pet-proofing. See #4, #5, and #6.
    1. Prevent access to medication bottles, household chemicals, potentially toxic foods (grapes, onions, xylitol, chocolate, alcohol, etc.), and poisonous plants such as lilies and poinsettias.
    2. Make sure that doors, windows, and gates latch properly so prevent pets from inadvertently getting loose and lost.
    3. Install and regularly check the batteries for the carbon monoxide and fire alarm detectors in your home.
    4. Space heaters and heat lamps can burn pets, and they can be knocked over, possibly starting a fire.
    5. Inspect your furnace to ensure that it is working properly.
    6. Use heated pet beds with caution as they are still capable of causing burns.
    7. Do not leave pets unattended near open flames.
    8. If you have a pet bird, double check to ensure that its cage is away from drafts.
  10. Medical issues. This is a many-faceted topic. Disclaimer: I’m not a vet and I’m only conditionally omniscient.
    1. A pet’s coat, overall health, body fat, activity level, age, and breed will influence how it tolerates the cold (and heat).
    2. Larger breeds, especially those with longer, thicker coats, will generally tolerate cold better than smaller breeds. Some pets do not seem bothered much by the winter. Others look pitiful all season long and need TLC until spring returns.
    3. If your pet is elderly or unwell, you may need to shorten your walks and keep an eye on your pet, as these pets may be prone to falling or slipping on ice.
    4. Arthritis, for example, may flare up in winter and make your pet very uncomfortable. This will require additional veterinary attention.
    5. Pets with certain medical conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease, may have a more difficult time regulating their body temperature.
    6. Senior pets, puppies, kittens, and ill pets will also be sensitive to extreme temperatures or have trouble regulating their body temperature.

 Things to Consider: Skin and Paw Care

Just like humans’ skin can dry out in the winter, pets can have itchy, flaky skin and chapped paws! Skin and paw issues can flare up by repeatedly leaving the frigid temperatures outside and entering the dry heat of your home. (A humidifier inside the house may help.) Dogs are likely to get all kinds of gunk in their paws from going outside or on walks, and this outdoor exposure can aggravate dermatological troubles.

  1. Fresh water. In the winter months there tends to be a drop in humidity, and this accounts for the dryness. Ensuring your pet stays sufficiently hydrated will help lessen skin problems as well as improve overall health.
  2. Bathing. Too much time in the tub can remove essential oils and increase the likelihood of your pet developing the chance of dry, flaky, irritated skin. If your pet stinks to high heaven, ask your vet for a recommendation for a quality moisturizing shampoo or rinse. (Also, keep your pet away from skunks!)
  3. Remove ice, salt, and chemicals.Depending on how messy your pet gets outside, it may be a multi-step process. (Be prepared for resistance. Zoomies may occur.)
    1. Using a damp towel, thoroughly wipe the crud off your pet’s feet, legs, belly, and, if necessary, face and tail as soon as they come inside. Do this so they don’t lick off any of the aforementioned noxious stuff and get sick.
    2. Be meticulous about drying off the feet and in between the toes, as this is where moisture can build up. Remove any snow and ice from the paw pads. Cleaning the paws will also prevent them from stinging or getting irritated, especially if you took your pet on a long walk. Proceed to #26 if paws are clean.
    3. If need be, use warm water to thoroughly clean your pet’s feet. When paws are clean, proceed to #26.
    4. Thoroughly towel dry afterward.
    5. Feel free to give praise, kisses, scritches and other displays of affection to your pet during at time of this process.
    6. NB:If you towel off your pet, said pet won’t leave clumps of snow and wet spots all over the place. Bonus: your home will be cleaner and less slippery! Win!
  4. Protectants. Massaging petroleum jelly into the paws prior to a jaunt outside may prevent further irritations from salt, sand, and other substances.
    1. Petroleum jelly also may also prevent cracking by providing some moisture.
    2. Clean your pet’s paws once your pet is back inside.
    3. This trick is also useful in the summer time to help prevent paw pads from becoming burned by hot asphalt.
    4. If your pet has persistent paw troubles, consult with your vet.
  5. Paw wellness. Check your pet’s paws for any cracks, redness, swelling, bleeding, evidence of pain or discomfort, sudden lameness, or if your pet doesn’t want to stand. If you notice anything amiss, contact your vet.
  6. Booties. Seriously.
    1. When taking your pet out for a walk, put these on your pet just like you put on your shoes before going outside.
    2. You may have to train your pet to get used to them and not all pets will tolerate them.
    3. Booties keep your pets’ paws warm and also protect them from becoming irritated by salt and from all kinds of toxic chemicals on the ground (i.e. antifreeze and deicing agents).
    4. Make sure they fit properly.
    5. Service dogs, for example, wear booties and other kinds of gear regularly to protect themselves and therefore be able to perform their best work. And service dogs are awesome.

Writer’s Note: I must admit that I found researching and writing this post enlightening. I hope others find it useful as well.

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