The weather is already getting colder, with frost making the grass crunchy and forcing early morning commuters to either preheat the car or spend a few minutes scraping their windshields. We get to put on our winter coats and crank up the heat, but what about our pets? It is important to protect them from the cold as well.
Some pets are very well adapted to the low winter temperatures. The northern dog breeds such as huskies and malamutes love it when the mercury dips below freezing. Their thick coats and tolerance of the cold were bred into them so they could work in the harshest of conditions. Other breeds like thin-coated boxers and Dobermans and warm-climate dogs like Chihuahuas may not fare so well. Every dog is different and although I have seen dachshunds gambol for hours in the snow and Samoyeds who would rather lie by the fire than venture outdoors in anything below 40 degrees, it is true that in general, larger, heavier coated dogs are better-suited for long stints outside. If you clip your pet’s hair, he may need a coat since his body is accustomed to the added insulation the fur supplies. Any dog can stay outside for short periods, but caution and common sense will dictate the wisdom of longer lengths of time.
For pets who will be outside for extended periods, they definitely require a few basic things. One is obviously shelter from the wind and precipitation. The risk of hypothermia is greater if their coat is soaked. The shelter should be small to help conserve body heat and contain hay or other bedding. Also, there needs to be a supply of water. Heated water bowls are very useful. It should have a false bottom which houses the heating coil so the pet can’t chew on it. In addition, keeping warm takes more energy, so increasing the amount of food you feed will help keep your pet in good condition.
A couple of dangers in the winter, aside from the temperature, involve toxins. Antifreeze is the most deadly. It is sweet and will attract animals to drink it. As little as a teaspoon can kill a cat or small dog. Antifreeze causes acute kidney failure and quickly becomes irreversible. There is an antidote available for dogs but it must be administered immediately and it is very expensive. Unfortunately, it cannot be used in cats. If there is potential exposure, the animal should be made to vomit immediately and be hospitalized for IV fluids and treatment. Once the pet is in kidney failure, it is already too late.
Other more minor issues seen in the winter include irritation from road salt- both on the feet and in the stomach if ingested, and an increase in musculoskeletal injuries such as sprains, strains and torn knee ligaments. We also seem to see more urinary tract infections in the winter, either because pets are going out less frequently, or because blood in the urine, which often accompanies infections, is visible in the snow.
None of these things should deter you from taking a nice stroll along a wintry trail with your pet or chasing him through the snow while he catches snowballs (a favorite pastime of my dog), but be mindful of your pet’s comfort and limits.