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Winter brings with it darker, icier days, as well as a variety of outdoor hazards for our pets. It is important to familiarize yourself with these hazards, so that you can take the appropriate measures to keep your pet safe and healthy during this beautiful (but harsh) season.
The winter season increases the likelihood of certain chemical products being used, some of which can be toxic and harmful to pets.
With the colder weather comes the increased use of antifreeze, commonly referred to as coolant. Unfortunately, this product may leak out of cars and onto the ground of our driveways and garages. It can have a sweet smell and taste, which may be attractive to dogs and cats, but, unfortunately, can lead to kidney damage if ingested. In order to reduce the chance of your pet becoming exposed, you should always clean up any spills or leaks. Care should be taken to wipe your pet’s paws every time they come inside, ensuring they do not lick them and ingest any material left behind. You should also store antifreeze and all chemicals out of reach of your furry friends. Lastly, you may want to consider using antifreeze products containing propylene glycol rather than ethylene glycol, since ethylene glycol is the toxic component.
Salt and Ice Melts
Salt and other ice melt products are commonly used during cold, winter weather. Unfortunately, they don’t only irritate your pet’s paws, they can lead to gastrointestinal distress if eaten. If ingested at higher doses, the salt and other chemicals in ice melts may even result in neurological symptoms, such as difficulty walking, tremors, or seizures. You can reduce the chance of your pet reacting to these products by wiping their paws when they come into the house after being outside. Similar to antifreeze, there are also alternative pet-friendly versions.
Pets and people aren’t the only ones seeking warmth and shelter during the winter; small rodents may venture into our homes in order to escape from the bitter cold. During the winter months, there tends to be an increase in use of rodenticide to combat this problem. Ingestion of such products can result in bleeding disorders, neurological dysfunction, and even death. Regardless of the type of poison you choose to use, it should be kept in an area that is inaccessible to your pet.
Winter can be a nice change of pace from the dog days of summer. You may be yearning to enjoy it with your furry friends, but care must be taken to avoid potentially dangerous side effects from the low temperatures and harsh weather the season brings.
Hypothermia and Frostbite
Hypothermia and frostbite may result from prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. Many people think that their pets are resistant to these conditions due to their thick hair coats, but they are just as at risk as humans. When pets are exposed to cold weather, blood is diverted from the extremities (the tail, limbs, and ears) and shunted toward the body core. This can result in an overall low body temperature, as well as the extremities becoming susceptible to frostbite. Smaller pets, pets with shorter hair, and older pets may be at a greater risk for hypothermia and frostbite. Underlying diseases, such as diabetes and kidney disease, can make a pet more prone to these conditions, and ailments like arthritis may be worsened.
Care should be taken to minimize exposure to cold weather. If you have to take your pet outside for prolonged periods of time, booties and a jacket should be considered. Keep in mind, however, that pets who are more acclimated to cold weather, such as Nordic dog breeds, may not require booties or a coat, since the additional clothing may actually result in overheating (especially during exercise). If you and your pet live in a warmer climate and you decide to venture somewhere cold, either for vacation or a permanent move, your pet may have more trouble acclimating to the cold weather than a pet who lives in that area year-round.
Lack of Shelter
While we would never recommend leaving a pet outside in extreme temperatures, either hot or cold, some people have no other choice. Therefore, there are some things you should know if your pet is housed outside during the cold winter months.
Your pet should be in an area that is warm and has shelter from the freezing wind. The floor of the housing should be elevated off the ground in order to minimize heat loss. Heat sources, including space heaters, lamps, and heated mats or blankets, should be avoided, since they can result in fires and/or burns. Ensure that your pet has unlimited access to fresh water, and consider using a pet-safe, heated water bowl to prevent the water from freezing. Metal bowls should be avoided, since cold temperatures could lead to your pet sticking.
The shelter should also be large enough to allow your pet to move around, but small enough to retain their body heat. You should also note that pets who stay outside in the winter will have a higher caloric requirement and may need to be fed larger amounts of food. Your veterinarian can further guide you on your pet’s caloric requirements.
Cold Weather and Cars
Leaving your pet in the car during the winter months can be just as dangerous and risky as doing it in the summer months, so this should be avoided entirely.
Stray animals should also be considered during the winter months. Cats may seek shelter from the cold in a garage or even under the hood of a car. On cold days, you should always take care to make sure a cat is not hiding under the hood prior to starting your vehicle, either by banging on the hood or honking the horn.
Ice can be a problem for a multitude of reasons.
Snow and ice can build-up in between your pet’s paws and may even cause irritation and damage. Pets, especially those who are older and suffer from arthritis, may have trouble walking and can even slip on ice, resulting in serious injury.
If a pet escapes from home, snow and ice can make it much harder for them to “smell” their way back. Therefore, make sure your pet is microchipped and/or properly identified just in case they go missing. Your pet should also always remain on a leash to reduce the chances of them wandering off.
The winter season brings with it shorter days and longer nights. When walking your pets in the dark, care should be taken to ensure that you are both visible to other people and vehicles. It is suggested that you and/or your pet wear flashing lights and/or fluorescent material.
Lack of Exercise
Dark, cold days may lead to skipping walks and exercise. Monitoring your pet’s dietary intake will be important. If your pet is getting less exercise, cutting back on treats and meals will be key to helping them avoid unhealthy weight gain, which can lead to long-term side effects and chronic medical conditions. The colder weather may also lead people to think they need to feed their pets more to keep them warm, but this is a common misconception, that is, unless they are being kept outside (see Lack of Shelter).