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How to Help Your Pets Weather the Cold Winter

Winter continues to hold us within her icy grip, and pet owners need to take precautions to keep their animals safe and healthy.

The danger may be worse than what the thermometer reads. The wind chill factor can drop the temperature by 20 or 30 degrees. In other words, if the thermometer reads 34 degrees, the wind can make it feel like zero.
So even dogs and cats that stay outside in warmer weather may have to be brought inside in extreme cold snaps. “Be attentive to your dog’s body temperature and limit time outdoors,” advises the SPCA.

Provide Adequate Shelter

An adequate shelter means your pet is kept warm, dry and away from drafts. That is easy enough to do in most homes, but remember that tile and uncarpeted areas can get very cold. If your pet lives in a shelter of his own, make sure that it is raised off the ground, has dry bedding and is insulated or heated. Make sure also that your pet has a constant source of clean water – not snow. Thermal heaters are available to make sure the water source doesn’t freeze.

But portable heaters and fireplaces are potentially deadly hazards for small animals. Screen all fireplaces and place portable heaters out of their reach.

Never leave antifreeze or windshield wiper fluids on the garage floor or anywhere within reach. Many of these products taste sweet and are attractive to pets – and are extremely deadly.

Wipe snow and ice off your pet’s feet – even clean between the toes – after outdoor walks and be especially sure to clean paws of lime rock salt or calcium chloride salt, both of which can cause vomiting and diarrhea if the animal licks it.

Avoid Frozen Areas

Nothing’s more fun than cavorting with your dog in the snow, and regular exercise is important when your pet’s been house-bound much of the time. But take care that your dog isn’t close enough to a frozen lake, river or pond to jump in and get injured.

Dr. Gail Golab, assistant director of the American Veterinary Medical Association, warns that roaming cats and wildlife like to climb onto car engines for warmth in winter. “There’s a large number of people who let their cats outdoors, even in winter,” she said. “One of the things they tend to do is seek out warm places.” So look under the hood and honk the horn before starting the engine.

Animals get frostbite, too. Just a short exposure to sub-zero temperatures can produce frostbite of the feet, nose or ears. Frost-bitten skin is red or gray and may peel off. Treat it by applying warm, moist towels to thaw the affected areas slowly, until the skin looks flushed. Then contact a veterinarian for further care, says Golab.

Extra Calories for the Cold

If your dog spends a lot of time outdoors, especially if he’s a working animal, feed him extra calories because it takes more energy in winter to keep his body temperature regulated.

But be careful not to overfeed a dog or cat that’s spending most of their time on a warm rug in the living room, said Dr. Sandra Sawchuck, staff veterinarian at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine in Madison.

“They’re probably getting less activity, so they may even need less food,” said Sawchuck, who’s seen her share of plumped-up animals.

Many dogs just don’t want to eliminate waste in deep snow, she said. In those cases, make a more comfortable bathroom by shoveling the snow away in a certain place, she recommended. “Get the dog out there and back very quickly,” she said.

Booties and coats can help your dog stay warm, but letting a thick-coated dog like a poodle go without grooming can cause more problems than it solves. The fur can get wet and matted, making it an irritant, so don’t bypass grooming sessions for too long, she said.

Most importantly, remember that your pet is smaller and thus more vulnerable to the chills you feel, said Sawchuck.