Caring For Your Dog in Wintertime
OK, so they do wear fur coats. However, says Dr. Linda Peck, director of the Pre-Veterinary Medicine program at the University of Findlay in Ohio, animals are as subject to frostbite and the chills of winter as we are. You've already winterized your home and vehicle – now it's time to prepare your pet for the cold days ahead.
"The main thing is to use common sense," says Dr. Douglas Brum, director of the Wellness Program at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston. Your dog's age, body type, general health and acclimation to the environment all play a part in how she'll handle cold weather. The same goes for cats, although as Dr. Brum points out, it's usually best for cats to be indoors year-round.
Walking in a Furry Wonderland
When your dog goes outside, it's important to follow his cues. "Watch your dog," Dr. Peck says. "If he starts to shiver, remember that animals have the same reactions to cold as we do, and shivering is an instinctive reaction that uses muscle contraction in an attempt to build up heat. If you see your dog shivering, it's time to bring him back in."
And don't forget about a cold weather option humans have enjoyed for millennia – clothes. Those little doggie sweaters and coats really do keep easily chilled pets warm, Dr. Brum says. Dog booties may protect some dogs' sensitive paws. We tend to think of canine apparel as best suited for toy breeds, but dogs of any size may lack thick enough coats to keep comfortable outside, especially if they spend most of their time indoors. A sweater or coat can greatly increase your dog's wintertime comfort.
Back at the Den
First things first: Check those paws. Your dog may not enjoy it, Dr. Peck says, but checking the pads of her feet, even between her toes, is essential. You're looking for trapped ice and salt, which can be caustic if left on the skin.
In addition, wet dogs need to be dried to prevent chills. If your dog has a long, thick coat, a hair dryer set on low can be used to get her thoroughly dried and warm, Dr. Peck says.
If you think your animal has gotten overly chilled or may even have frostbite, it's important to proceed with caution. Frostbitten skin on an animal can look red, but often will be pale and off color, and cold to the touch. Don't rub the area and don't apply hot water. Instead, gently wrap the area in a warm, moist towel and contact your veterinarian.
You may need to increase the amount of food you give your pet during cold weather, especially if she's spending a lot of time outside. Keeping warm burns a lot of calories.
And don't forget her water bowl. Owners sometimes lose sight of the importance of fresh water during the winter, Dr. Peck says. The problem, especially for outside dogs, is that water can become extremely cold, even frozen. "If you want to really weaken an animal, have them drink icy water when they're cold already," Dr. Peck says. "It chills them inside and out. I'm a strong proponent of heated water bowls."
Karen Ray, from southeastern Oklahoma, begins preparing her outside dogs for the winter by filling their houses with bedding, usually clean hay, and then placing the shelters with their back to the north. Food and water bowls are also placed in an area protected from wind, Ray says. On cold nights, the dogs – a black mouth cur, a beagle and a mixed breed cow dog – often invite the Rays' cats into their shelters for extra warmth.
According to Dr. Brum, these kinds of winter preparations are essential for outside animals. Shelters should be small and cozy, so that your dog's body heat can warm the environment. Like the Rays, you should fill the shelter with a warm, dry bedding material and place the shelter and the animal's food and water bowls out of the path of the wind.
Occasionally, temperatures drop so low that it is safest for all pets to be inside. Dr. Peck advises all animals be brought indoors once the wind-chill reaches 0 degrees Fahrenheit, regardless of the type of animal or if it is used to being outside. "We even worry about livestock in those kinds of temperatures," she says.
Winter weather can bring other safety concerns. Be very cautious when changing the antifreeze in your car. Antifreeze contains a substance called ethylene glycol. It's naturally sweet, Dr. Peck says, and its scent appeals to dogs and cats. But only a few licks can be toxic, sending your pet into renal failure. Worst of all, Dr. Peck says, small children are often attracted to antifreeze as well. Be absolutely sure that no antifreeze is left on your driveway and that it is disposed of properly. A less toxic form of antifreeze, made with propylene glycol instead of ethylene glycol, is available and may be a safer alternative.
With outside cats, make it a wintertime habit to blow your horn before starting your vehicle. Felines seeking warmth have been known to curl up on the engine block of a car for the night. Honking the horn gives them a chance to escape, because if they are still there when the engine cranks, there can be heartbreaking consequences. "A 'fan-belt' cat is not a pretty emergency, and many of these cats don't survive," Dr. Peck says. "Please, please honk that horn."
Reassuringly, Dr. Blum notes that he actually sees fewer injuries in the winter months than during the summer. "This is probably due to animals being kept inside for longer periods, and supervised more closely when they are out," he says. With a little extra thought and care, you and your pets can have a truly wonderful winter.