The winter season brings lots of fun holiday festivities, and can be a beautiful time of year, but if we’re not careful and aware it can be a dangerous one for our pets. Before you settle down in front of a warm cozy fire, take some time to learn how you can keep your animals as warm, safe and comfortable as you are.
Winter chills can be as hard on our animals as they are on us. While of course some breeds, like huskies, are more equipped for temperature drops than others, like greyhounds, we must not forget that most of our pets are just as accustomed to the warm shelter of the indoors as we are.
When the temperature drops, consider keeping your pet inside as much as you can. When you do take them out, make sure they’re supervised and when you're cold enough to go inside, they probably are too. If you have the long underwear of a ski god on, try being attentive to the following signs that your pup is too cold – shivering, whining, appearing anxious, slowing down, stopping movement, or hound-pose (lifting paws off the ground). If they seem like they are looking around like a steak is about to appear from around the corner, they are probably looking for a warm place to burrow and are letting you know they want to get back inside.
Never leave your pet outdoors in temperatures below freezing. If it is absolutely necessary to leave your pet outside for a significant length of time, make sure they have a warm, solid shelter, facing away from the wind, and thick bedding. Consider wrapping warm-water bottles in towels and leaving them in the shelter. Make sure your pet always has fresh, non-frozen drinking water, and avoid letting him or her turn to gutters and puddles for a sip, where they could potentially drink deadly antifreeze, oil or other chemicals.
If your pet is looking like he had one-too-many Jack and Cokes there’s a possibility that they have ingested antifreeze. The first sign of antifreeze poisoning is your pet appearing drunk. This phase will occur from 30 minutes to 12 hours after ingestion, depending on the amount consumed. Once in your pets body, the toxin begins to go through processes of shutting down your pet’s kidneys, which can be fatal if not treated within 4-8 hours. Contact your veterinarian immediately if you suspect your pet has consumed antifreeze.
A little extra layer around the core will provide some added warmth, but remember that pets lose most of their body heat through the pads of their feet, their ears, and their respiratory tract. The best way to protect your animals against the cold is by watching for signs of discomfort to make sure they’re enjoying a winter wonderland walk as much as you are.
If your pup will tolerate them, special booties that protect their paws can be beneficial and typically quite humorous the first time they try out their new kicks. Uneven, icy surfaces aren’t the only danger to dogs' paw pads – rock salt, used to melt snow and ice, and other chemicals can irritate sensitive paws. Booties can help keep your dog from licking the salt off its feet, which can cause inflammation of the digestive tract, as well as providing protection from the cold.
If your pup has a “no shoes, no shirt, no problem” kind of attitude, consider wiping their feet with a warm washcloth when they get inside, or using unscented baby wipes to clean them off. Musher's Secret made with 100% natural waxes, or good ol' petroleum jelly, can be used as a protectant before and after walks to prevent paw pads from getting chapped or raw.
Hypothermia, or a body temperature that is below normal, can happen when animals spend too much time in cold temperatures, or when animals with poor health or circulation are exposed to the cold. In mild cases, animals will shiver and show signs of depression, lethargy, and weakness. As the condition progresses, an animal's muscles will stiffen, heart and breathing rates will slow down, and they may stop responding to stimuli.
Frostbite is another serious condition that your pet can face in the colder months, but can be very difficult to detect because its signs are not immediately obvious. When an animal's body gets cold, it pulls in blood from the extremities to the center of the body to stay warm. Ears, paws, or the tail can get cold enough that ice crystals can form in the tissues and damage it, but signs may not be visible for several days.
Severely frostbitten areas will become necrotic, or die, and as this happens will change to a blue to black color; then, over a period of several days or even weeks, it sloughs, or falls off. Watch for signs of skin discoloration (often pale, gray, or bluish), coldness of the area when touched, swelling of the affected areas, and blisters or skin ulcers.
If you notice any of these symptoms or suspect that your pet may have frostbite or hypothermia, you need to get your pet warm, and contact your veterinarian immediately. Do this by slowly wrapping your pet's body with warm dry towels or blankets, and placing hot water bottles wrapped in towels near its body. You may also apply warm water compresses or soak the affected area in a bowl of warm, not hot, water. Do not use direct dry heat such as a heating pad or hair dryer. Your vet may want you to come in to treat affected areas or monitor your pet’s heart rate and blood pressure, and give warm fluids through an IV. While traveling to the vet keep your dog warm by wrapping the pet in dry towels or blankets that have been warmed in the clothes dryer.
Your pet's health can affect how long it can stay outdoors. Animals that are not generally in good health shouldn't be exposed to winter weather for a long period of time. Very young animals or those with conditions like diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, and hormonal imbalances can have a very difficult time regulating their own body heat. The cold can be especially hard on the joints of older or arthritic animals. Be particularly gentle with them and try to avoid traumatic injuries, like slipping on ice, by being aware of the conditions when you walk them. Staying directly behind older pets when they are climbing stairs or jumping into the car can help prevent falls.
Please remember that you should not leave your dog alone in the car. It's not a good idea in the summer, and it's not a good idea in the winter either. If the car engine is left on, carbon monoxide will endanger your dog's life. If the engine is off, the temperature in the car will get too cold. Contrary to some belief, a car can actually act like a refrigerator, holding in cold air, and making temperatures more extreme. Can we all just agree not to leave our pets in cars?
The holidays can actually be a stressful time for dogs. Try to keep a normal schedule during all the excitement and keep in mind some special precautions:
- Holly, mistletoe, and poinsettia plants are poisonous when consumed, and whether your holiday tree is live or artificial, both kinds of needles are sharp and indigestible. Place these plants out of your pets reach and don't leave your dog unattended in the room with your tree. And if you must use tinsel, hang it well out of a pet’s reach since it may obstruct circulation and if swallowed, block the intestines.
- While a sweet little puppy looks even sweeter with a holiday bow on its head, holiday’s are not an ideal time for introducing a new pet into the family. New puppies and dogs require extra attention and a stable environment when getting acquainted with their new families. If you really need to win a “parent of the year” award, think about giving a gift representative of the dog to come, such as a toy, leash, or bed.
Most indoor pets do not need their diet adjusted for different seasons. True, it takes more energy in the winter to keep body temperature regulated, but unless your dog is a working animal, or spending an above average amount of time outdoors, it does not need the additional calories. Your veterinarian can help determine whether your pet's diet is adequate and balanced.
Remember to keep up with Fido's mani/pedi's: Without hard surfaces to act as a natural file your dog’s toenails can grow longer in the winter.
It is easier and cheaper to prevent parasites than treat them when a pet is infested or infected. Pets should take monthly flea, tick, and heartworm preventatives year-round.
If you light a fire or plug in a space heater to keep your home nice and toasty, be sure to keep a close eye on your pet. They love to be warm and cozy, and are attracted to the heat. Try providing them a designated place, like a doggy-bed or blanket, near the heat source at a safe distance away. You don't want them coming in contact with flames or hot surfaces, or worse, knocking something over that could cause something to catch fire.
Even though your pet has a healthy coat of hair, they can still get the chills, which also means that they can get sick. To help you prevent your dog from getting sick, and keep warm and safe during the winter season, follow the expert advice above.
More expert advice about Dog Health and Wellness
Further medical content and more pet care advice can be found at the American Animal Hospital Association's website at www.healthypet.com. This information is provided for educational purposes only and is intended to be a supplement to, and not a substitute for, the expertise and professional judgement of your pet's veterinarian. It may be necessary to consult your pet's veterinarian regarding the applicability of any opinions or recommendations with respect to your individual pet's care and concerns, symptoms or medical condition.
Photo Credits: Winter Warz by Flickr: Tomas Amaral; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas - Fotolia.com