As the temperatures begin to dip and the morning frost clings to the newly barren branches of the trees, we are all reminded that the chill of winter will be here before we know it. With our annual visit from Jack Frost fast approaching, it’s time to start thinking about how to keep our four-legged friends warm, safe, happy, and comfortable during the cold months. While many of our pets have natural fur coats, they are still vulnerable to the harsh effects of winter weather. Read on to learn how to prepare your pets for those chilly winter days and ensure they stay warm and healthy throughout the season!
- Keep them indoors. Despite their furry coats, pets are just as sensitive to extreme temperatures as humans, and exposure to frigid weather can lead to serious health issues. According to The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), as a general rule, if it’s too cold for you, it’s probably too cold for your pet. If left outdoors, pets can freeze, become disoriented, lost, stolen, injured, or even killed.
- Dress them up. For some pets, especially smaller breeds and those with short hair, additional clothing can make a big difference. Invest in pet sweaters or coats to provide extra insulation. Make sure to ensure any clothing you put on your pet is comfortable and does not restrict movement.
- Protect their paws. Cold pavement and ice can be tough on your pet’s paws, and the use of rock salt and other chemicals to melt ice and snow on roads and driveways can make a winter walk downright dangerous. These substances can cause skin irritation and result in severe health complications if your dog or cat licks their paws after a walk. Consider using booties or petroleum jelly to protect your pet’s paws from the cold and harsh chemicals and switching to a pet-safe ice melt for your own driveway. After each walk gently clean your pet’s feet with a damp towel to remove any irritants and check for signs of irritation or injury. If you notice your pet indicating discomfort while on a walk, like frequently lifting up their paws, whining, or stopping, discontinue the walk and follow the steps above to clean and check for issues. Make sure you store de-icing salt in a safe place, inaccessible to your pets, and if you think your dog or cat has ingested rock salt or any other chemical de-icing agent, contact your vet immediately.
- Maintain a balanced diet. Winter is a time when your pet’s metabolism can increase as they burn extra energy trying to stay warm. You may need to adjust their diet to provide supplemental calories. Consult your veterinarian for guidance on any appropriate dietary changes for your specific pet.
- Stay active, but be mindful. It is essential to keep your pets active, even during the winter, but be mindful of the weather and your particular animal’s limits. Your dog or cat’s breed, size, age, and health play integral parts in determining their ability to withstand the cold. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) encourages everyone to be aware of how their pet tolerates the weather and adjust as needed. Consult your veterinarian if you need advice; but, on the whole, it’s a good idea during the colder months to bring any outdoor cats in, take shorter walks, and use playtime indoors to help maintain your pet’s physical and mental health.
- Hydration is key. Pets can become dehydrated in the winter, just as they can in the summer, not to mention the discomfort of itchy, dry winter skin due to lack of hydration. Make sure your pets have access to water at all times, refrain from using metal bowls outside as your dog or cat’s tongue may become frozen to the bowl, and consider using a heated bowl to prevent freezing. Keep your home humidified and towel dry your pet as soon as they come inside from a walk or playtime outside.
- Keep an eye on antifreeze. Antifreeze has a sweet taste that can be appealing to pets, but is highly toxic. According the American Kennel Club (AKC) as little as a teaspoon can cause kidney failure. Store antifreeze safely out of your dog or cat’s reach, ensure that they do not come in contact with antifreeze spills, and consider using products that contain propylene glycol rather than ethylene glycol. If you notice any signs that your dog or cat has swallowed antifreeze — drooling, vomiting, seizures, excessive thirst, panting, lethargy, and/or a drunken appearance, contact your vet immediately.
- Grooming matters. While you want to avoid shaving your dog down in the winter, as a longer coat will provide more warmth, keeping your pet’s fur clean and well-maintained is essential to avoid mats and tangles that can make it harder for them to stay warm. Trimming longer fur, particularly around their undercarriage and paws, and regular brushing will help to keep your pets coat in good shape and minimize clinging ice balls, salt crystals, and de-icing chemicals that can dry out the skin. Keeping bathing to a minimum, so as not to remove essential oils, will also decrease the likelihood of dry flaky skin. If your pup must be bathed, ask your vet or groomer to recommend a moisturizing shampoo and/or rinse.
- Battle boredom. Colder and shorter days mean more opportunities for your pets to get bored. Provide plenty of toys and mental stimulation to keep them engaged. Puzzle feeders and interactive toys are great tools to help prevent the winter blues.
- Be cautious around fireplaces and heaters. Fireplaces, space heaters, and radiators can be a great source of warmth and coziness for everyone, four-legged family members included; but, they can also be dangerous. Prevent burns, other injuries, and even fire by ensuring your pets don’t get too close to open flames or hot surfaces.
- Check your engine. Warm engines in parked vehicles often attract outdoor and feral cats, as well as small wildlife, who may crawl up under the hood for warmth in the cold weather. To avoid injuring any hidden animals check underneath your car, bang on your hood, and honk the horn to scare them away before starting your engine.
- Steer clear of frozen bodies of water. Keep pets on leash when walking near frozen bodies of water to prevent them from running onto the ice. You don’t know if the ice will support your pet’s weight and falling through could be deadly. If a pet falls through the ice, do not go onto the ice after them. If you cannot reach your pet from shore, call 9-1-1 or go for help.
- Avoid leaving pets unattended in your car. Leaving pets unattended in a car in the winter can be just as dangerous as doing so during the height of summer. In the winter cars can act as refrigerators that hold in the cold and can cause an animal to freeze to death.
- Prevent frostbite and Hypothermia. Whenever you are outdoors with your pet during the colder months you should be regularly monitoring them for signs of frostbite and hypothermia. Despite their coat and any precautions you may take, pets are particularly vulnerable to frostbite on their earflaps and tail tips. And, depending on their age and health, they may be more susceptible to hypothermia than you imagine. When spending time outdoors keep an eye out for shivering, lethargy, pale or discolored skin, and cold extremities. Frostbite can be more difficult to detect and may not be fully recognized until a few days after the damage is done. If you notice any of these signs or suspect your dog or cat may have hypothermia or frostbite, get your pet inside and contact your veterinarian.
By following these tips, you can ensure that your pets have a safe and cozy winter. Remember that every pet is unique, so it’s essential to tailor your care to your pet’s individual needs. With proper preparation, your pets can enjoy the winter season while staying warm, healthy, and happy by your side.