These guidelines have been provided by the ASPCA and AVMA to protect your companion animal when the temperature drops. This year winter seems mostly mild, and though mostly common sense, this is a good refresher for when winter does decide to show its cooler side.
Just like people, pets' cold tolerance can vary from pet to pet based on their coat, body fat stores, activity level, and health. Pets with diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, or hormonal imbalances (such as Cushing's disease) may have a harder time regulating their body temperature and may be more susceptible to problems from temperature extremes. If your dog is sensitive to the cold due to age, illness or breed type, take him outdoors only long enough to relieve himself.
Arthritic and elderly pets may have more difficulty walking on snow and ice and may be more prone to slipping and falling. Long-haired or thick-coated dogs tend to be cold tolerant but are still at risk. Puppies do not tolerate the cold as well as adult dogs and may be more difficult to house train during the winter. More frequent, very short excursions outside may do the trick and don’t forget treats for a job well done.
Check paws frequently for signs of cold-weather injury or damage, such as cracked paw pads or bleeding. During a walk, a sudden lameness may be due to an injury or may be due to ice accumulation between the toes.
During walks, your dog's feet, legs and belly may pick up deicers, antifreeze, or other chemicals that could be toxic. When you get back inside, wipe down (or wash) your pet's feet, legs and belly to remove salt, antifreeze and other chemicals that could hurt your dog if ingested while licking its paws or coat clean. Consider using pet-safe deicers on your property to protect your pets and others in your neighborhood. More people are using animal-friendly products that contain propylene glycol rather than the traditional products containing ethylene glycol.
Keep your cat inside when possible. During winter, outdoor cats can freeze, become lost, or incur frostbite injuries. Cats allowed to stray are exposed to infectious diseases, some of which can affect you, but also those same salts, antifreeze and de-icing chemicals as dogs. During winter, cats sometimes choose to sleep under the hoods of cars, where warmth lingers after the engine is shut off. They can be injured or killed, when the motor is started. To prevent this, bang loudly on the hood of your car and wait a few seconds before starting the engine, giving any animals a chance to escape.
If your dog has a short coat or seems bothered by the cold weather, consider a sweater or dog coat. Look for one with a high collar or turtleneck that covers your dog from the base of her tail on top and to the belly underneath. While this may seem like a luxury, it is a necessity for many dogs. Have several on hand, so you can use a dry sweater or coat each time your dog goes outside. Wet sweaters or coats make your dog colder. Some pet owners also use booties to protect their dog's feet; if you choose to use them, make sure they fit properly.
Never let your dog off leash on snow or ice, especially during a snowstorm. When walking your dog, stay away from frozen ponds, lakes and other water. If you don't know that the ice will support your dog's weight and your dog breaks through, it could be deadly. Dogs frequently lose their scent in snow and on ice and easily become lost. They may panic in a snowstorm and run away. More dogs are lost during the winter than during any other season. Make sure your pet has a well-fitting collar with up-to-date identification and contact information. A microchip is a more permanent means of identification, but it's critical that you keep the registration up to date.
Hot cars are a known threat to pets, but cold cars also pose significant risk to your pet's health.
You're already familiar with how a car can rapidly cool down in cold weather; it becomes like a refrigerator and can rapidly chill your pet. Pets that are young, old, ill, or thin are particularly susceptible to cold environments and should never be left in cold cars. Limit car travel to only that which is necessary, and don't leave your pet unattended in the vehicle.
We don't recommend keeping any pet outside for long periods of time, but if you are unable to keep your dog inside during cold weather, provide them with a warm, solid shelter against wind. Make sure that they have unlimited access to fresh, non-frozen water (by changing the water frequently or using a pet-safe, heated water bowl). The floor of the shelter should be off the ground (to minimize heat loss into the ground) and the bedding should be thick, dry and changed regularly to provide a warm, dry environment. The door to the shelter should be positioned away from prevailing winds. Space heaters and heat lamps should be avoided because of the risk of burns or fire. Heated pet mats should also be used with caution because they are still capable of causing burns.
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 cold, but the health risks associated with that extra weight don't make it worth doing. Watch your pet's body condition and keep them in the healthy range. 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 your pet is whining, shivering, seems anxious, slows down or stops moving, seems weak, or starts looking for warm places to burrow, get them back inside quickly because they are showing signs of hypothermia. Frostbite is harder to detect and may not be fully recognized until a few days after the damage is done. If you suspect your pet has hypothermia or frostbite, consult your veterinarian immediately.
Cold weather also brings the risks of severe winter weather, blizzards and power outages. Prepare a disaster/emergency kit and include your pet in your plans. Have enough food, water and prescription medications on hand to get through at least 5 days.
Odds are your pet will be spending more time inside during the winter, so it's a good time to make sure your house is properly pet-proofed. Use space heaters with caution around pets, because they can burn or they can be knocked over, potentially starting a fire. Check your furnace before the cold weather sets in to make sure it's working efficiently and install carbon monoxide detectors to keep your entire family safe from harm.
Sources of information:
American Veterinary Medical Association
American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.