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Cold Weather
Cold Weather

During this part of the year, it's important to remember that our pets can suffer from the cold just like we do. Dogs and cats can contract a number of the same cold-weather-related illnesses that people contract, including influenza, frostbite, and hypothermia.

It is very important to ensure that your pet has access to a warm shelter and unfrozen water at all times during the winter—especially if he lives outside all the time.

 

What should I do to protect my outside pet from the cold?
If your dog or cat is an outside petthat is, he spends the majority of his time outside of the house or in a room such as a garage that is not climate-controlledthere are a number of things to keep in mind when the weather turns cold.
  • Make sure that he always has access to water—not just ice or snow. We all know that water freezes at 32 degrees F. What we don't often consider is that our outdoor pets' water bowls can stay frozen even when the temperature is above freezing. A small amount of water, such as that in a water bowl, can retain cold, especially if the bowl is made of thick plastic, which acts as an insulator. So even if it's in the high 30s outside, your pet's water bowl may still have a layer of ice on the top that's a quarter of an inch thick.

    But if there's snow on the ground, he has access to water all the time, right? Well, not really. An extremely thirsty pet will resort to licking the snow in order to obtain water. But if it's very cold outside, the pet's body is already exerting an enormous amount of energy to keep him warm, and eating snow will only make his body work harder to keep him warm. Think about what happens when you eat ice cream or drink a glass of ice water: it makes you cold. The same thing happens to a dog or cat that eats snow or licks ice. If he's already cold, he won't want to lick the snow unless he's dehydrated, and then when he does, he won't obtain enough water to really quench his thirst. There's not as much water in a handful of snow as you might think.


  • Increase the amount of food you give him. If your pet is particularly active, it's a good idea to increase his daily calorie intake by increasing the amount of food you give him or by changing him to a more calorie-dense food. He will burn more calories in the winter than in the warmer seasons because his body will require more energy to stay warm when it's cold. Keep in mind that changing a pet's food always carries the risk of upsetting his digestive system.

  • Keep his shelter dry and stocked with blankets. Make sure your pet has a dry, insulated shelter that is away from drafts and has blankets or bedding off of the ground. The ground can stay cold much longer than the air can, so often even when the temperature is above 40 degrees, the ground is still frozen. If your pet's bedding is on the ground, his blankets might not do much to keep him warm because they will absorb the cold from underneath them.

  • Check your pet's ears regularly for signs of frostbite. It doesn't take long for an animal to acquire frostbite when he is exposed to freezing temperatures. Frostbite can happen in a number of places on a pet's body, but you can only see the signs of it on a dog or cat's ears. Frostbitten skin generally appears red and puffy, although it's difficult to see the color of the skin unless the pet's hair is white. The easiest way to tell if your pet has gotten frostbite is to gently feel the tips of his ears; if they are thicker than usual and your pet seems to find them painful, you should contact your veterinarian right away.

  • Check your pet's feet periodically for irritation. The pads on the bottom of a dog or cat's feet are some of the most sensitive areas on his body. It is not uncommon for pets' foot pads to become irritated during cold weather. Products used to melt ice on sidewalks can inflame the foot pads, particularly if your pet has an allergic reaction to an ice melt product, and sharp ice or crusty snow can actually cut the foot pads and cause infection.
What should I do with my inside pet?
  • Keep him inside as much as possible. Inside pet often love to romp around in the snow as much as outdoor pets do, but a dog or cat that is used to being inside will not handle cold temperatures as well. Don't let your inside pet stay outside in the cold long enough for his body temperature to fall; in small dogs and cats, this can happen in just a few minutes. The safest route is to let your inside pet outside only if he needs to go to the bathroom or really has the urge to run a few laps around the backyard.

  • Make sure he isn't confined to a room with cold floors and no bedding. Leaving your inside pet in a room with tile or hardwood floors is fine (accidents are much easier to clean up this way), but be sure to give him a bed or some blankets to lie on so he can stay warm.

  • Decrease the amount of food you give him. Whereas outside pets often require more calories when it's cold because their bodies have to work harder to maintain a regular temperature, inside pets might require fewer calories because they don't get as much exercise. A dog or cat accustomed to romping around outside a few times a day will not be able to do so when it's cold outside, so you may need to decrease his food intake in order to keep him from gaining an unhealthy amount of weight.
What other general things should I keep in mind during cold weather?
  • Don't let your pet near antifreeze or any other automotive liquid. Pets are attracted to antifreeze and to other liquids such as windshield wiper fluid because they smell and taste sweet. But these liquids are some of the most dangerous chemicals for animals to ingest; even a few tablespoons of antifreeze can be lethal to a medium-sized dog. For more information about the dangers of antifreeze and other automotive liquids, read our Antifreeze article.

  • Before starting your car, make sure there are no animals under the hood. When the weather turns cold, outside pets will migrate toward warm locations, and one favored location for cats is under the hood of a vehicle. Cats are lithe and acrobatic enough to get under the hood of a car or truck from the underside of the vehicle and squeeze into the space between the engine and the vehicle's hood. They often do this because the engine carries residual heat from the last time the vehicle was driven. Before getting in your car, try banging on the hood or honking the horn, and any stowaways will generally squeeze out and run away.
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