The best way to avoid turning your pet into a pupsicle or chilly kitty this winter is to keep them inside during very cold temperatures. If that’s not an option, or your pet needs to make a trip outside for work, potty, or play, do what you can to limit their time outdoors. Also take into consideration your dog’s breed, typical environment, and other environmental factors.
Not all breeds are created equal when it comes to heat and cold, according to Dr. Rebecca Ruch-Gallie, veterinarian and chief of the community practice service at the Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital.
“Sight hounds – think greyhounds and Italian greyhounds – have a short coat without an undercoat and no fat under the skin, making them very prone to getting cold quickly,” Ruch-Gallie said. “On the flip side are northern breeds like Alaskan malamutes and American Eskimo dogs, which have thick coats, undercoats, and extra layers of skin and fat to help them tolerate colder temperatures.”
That doesn’t mean heavy-coated dogs are immune to frigid temperatures, however. If a dog is normally housed in a warm environment, cold temperatures might be a shock to its system.
“Even if a dog typically lives outside, environmental factors like dampness and humidity can make them feel colder and decrease their ability to maintain a core body temperature,” Ruch-Gallie said. “Sunshine, particularly without a breeze, can help them keep warm.”
Trips outside during extreme cold should be brief, and even then, you should watch your pet’s behavior for any signs that it has had enough of the cold. If your dog is lifting its feet, shaking, or searching for shelter, it’s time for it to come inside.
Pets can experience hypothermia and frostbite. Your pet is in trouble and needs immediate veterinary attention if it is shivering, acting disoriented and lethargic, or its hair is puffed out and standing on end. Signs of frostbite include changes in skin color, particularly if the skin is bright red, pale, or black. Skin at the tips of ears and on extremities, including reproductive organs, is particularly at risk.
In the face of below-freezing temperatures that are even colder when factoring in wind chill, consider these other tips for keeping dogs and cats warm and safe:
- Watch where you step. Ice can be dangerous for people and pets.
- Knit a sweater. Better yet, get Fido a water-resistant outdoor coat to help keep him warm and dry.
- Check the feet frequently. Snow between the toes causes hard and sometimes sharp ice balls that can be painful. Also, salt and de-icers can be damaging to the feet of dogs and cats. Be sure to wipe or wash off feet after animals have been outside in places that use these products, particularly before Fluffy cleans her paws herself.
- Provide adequate water and food. Staying warm is hard work on the body; be sure to help your pet stay fueled. For outdoor animals, frequent water changes or a warming bowl may be needed. Consult with your veterinarian about any dietary adjustments for optimal health during the winter. Active pets may need extra calories.
- Set up a solid shelter if your dog or cat lives outside and either cannot or will not come in. Pet housing should be raised several inches off the ground. It should be big enough for the animal to turn around and lie down comfortably, but small enough to effectively collect body heat. Provide bedding for insulation inside the house.
Keep away from danger
While the cold temperatures are reason enough to exercise caution, winter weather often brings with it accessibility to other household hazards:
- Space heaters or bedding on or near heat registers can be dangerous for your dog and cat.
- Antifreeze is tasty but fatal to pets unless emergency care is started within a few hours. Even small amounts of the substance licked off a cat or dog’s paws or lapped off the sidewalk could be life-threatening. Store antifreeze in an area away from pets, and immediately clean up any spills or leaks. If you suspect a pet has ingested antifreeze, seek emergency veterinary care. Symptoms of antifreeze poisoning include drunken-like behavior, vomiting, excessive urination and drinking, and acting depressed and moving in an unstable manner.
- Be on the lookout for pets seeking warmth and shelter in dangerous places like under the hood of your car. Make some noise to try to scare them out before you start the engine.
Check with your veterinarian if you have any concerns about your pet or its ability to handle the cold. Your veterinary team can offer suggestions for your pet.