By: Cate Burnette

With the seasons changing and cooler weather moving in, it’s not just the humans in our families that will be affected by the cold. As caring pet parents, we need to become aware of how cooler temperatures influence the health and safety of our furry companions and do our best to alleviate any discomfort they might feel.

There is no definitive weather condition or temperature that can affect pets. A harsh, winter wind, a cold, drenching rain, sleet and ice, or a heavy snowfall can all create potentially dangerous conditions for your dog or cat. If you need to bundle up, chances are so do your pets.

Those dogs bred to live in cooler climates – Siberian huskies, Alaskan malamutes, Samoyeds, for example – generally have fewer problems with the cold if they live in it. However, even those breeds may be uncomfortable in cold weather if they’re used to the regular tropical temperatures we find here in Texas.

Additionally, dogs and cats with short coats (or no undercoats) don’t cope well with frigid temperatures. Puppies, elderly dogs, and dogs with health conditions such as diabetes, cardiac disease and kidney failure will also feel the cold more quickly. Short-legged or toy breeds dogs who have to wade or jump through deep snow will get chilled and tire easily. Brachycephalic dogs and cats (Boston terriers, English bulldogs, Persian cats) may find it hard to breathe in chilly winds. To make matters worse, some animals are more naturally predisposed to feeling the cold more than others.

My own StellaThePuggle, with her squat nose and short coat, refuses to go outside when the cold rain and blowing winds of winter set in, preferring to snuggle under the covers.

Many veterinarians recommend scheduling annual check-ups before cold weather sets in just to ensure that all pets are healthy and able to withstand cooler temps.

Cold Weather Safety Tips

If it’s cold outside, supervise your dog while outdoors and bring her in once she has “done her business.” Don’t leave any of your pets out in the weather if you can avoid it. If your pets do need to visit the outdoors, here are some tips to help keep him or her healthy and safe.

  • Teach your dog to wear coats and boots when walking out in the cold.
  • Clean any salt and chemical de-icers off paws with a warm washcloth once you get back home. These elements have the potential to be toxic if your pet licks wet, dirty paws once inside. You’ll also want to make sure you dry your pet’s paws and belly completely to protect against fungal disease and any contamination that may be brought into your house.
  • Know your pet’s limits for remaining outside in inclement weather. Just like humans, an animal’s tolerance for cold can vary from pet to pet based on the heaviness of the coat, body fat stores, activity level, and health. Be aware of your pet’s tolerance for cold weather, and adjust accordingly.
  • Protect your pets against anti-freeze poisoning by cleaning up any spills immediately. The sweet smell and taste of anti-freeze is extremely toxic to both cats and dogs and, if ingested, causes acute kidney failure that often leads to death.
  • Avoid ice on frozen ponds or lakes. You won’t be able to tell if the ice will support your dog’s weight, and it could be deadly if your pup breaks through the ice into the cold water below. Both of you could be in trouble if you jump in to save your dog.
  • If your pet appears anxious, stops moving, seems weak, or is whining or shivering and looking for a warm spot to burrow, get her back inside quickly because she is showing signs of hypothermia. Frostbite on paws and ears is harder to detect and may not show until a few days after the damage is done. Consult your veterinarian immediately if you suspect your pet has suffered either condition.

Please Note: It may be illegal in your state of residence to leave your dog tethered or untethered outside your home in extremely cold and inclement temperatures. For example, New York, Pennsylvania and Minnesota and Texas have laws that make it a crime to leave an animal outside without adequate shelter, food and water.

Beginning Jan. 1, 2016, pet owners in Illinois that leave pets in extreme hot or cold weather will be subject to prosecution. If a pet is hurt or dies as result of being left in extreme weather, a pet owner can now be charged with a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a $2,500 fine or up to one year in jail if they are found guilty. According to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, “The law is a response to the high number of dog deaths last winter after dogs were left outside in subzero temperatures. It is hoped that the law will lead to fewer pets dying and becoming injured and help raise awareness about the animal welfare issue.”

Animal Health Issues During Cold Weather

Senior pets, puppies and kittens, and animals with compromised immune systems need to be closely guarded against the effects of the cold. The arthritic joints and bones of senior pets can be extremely painful once the cooler weather sets in. Young animals that normally tend to have lower core temperatures need the extra warmth of a mother’s and the litters’ body heat to ensure against hyperthermia. Cardiac disease, kidney failure, osteoarthritis, hypo- and hyperthyroidism, Cushing’s syndrome and other illnesses can worsen with a pet’s exposure to the elements.

Feed your pets a healthy, nutritional diet throughout the cooler months of the year. Some pet parents may think that animals need extra calories or fats during the colder weather to maintain weight, however, the health risks associated with that weight gain might not be what is needed for your individual pet. Typically, the only animals that need the extra food to maintain optimal body temperature are those animals such as horses and cattle that reside outside in a barn or some other shelter. Watch your pet’s body condition to ensure that it remains in a healthy range for your animal. Consult with your veterinarian for your pet’s nutritional needs during cold weather.

Support any feral or outdoor cats by providing them with an elevated warm, dry shelter protected away from the wind and the rain. Make sure food is kept out of the elements and water is not frozen. Check your car engine – just bang on the hood or wheel wells – to make sure any cats have not taken refuge under the hood of your car for warmth. Many cats – and a number of car engines – are injured or killed every winter when pet parents start the engine without checking for “tenants” first.

Prepare a disaster/emergency kit for cold weather emergencies and include your pet in your plans. Have enough food, water and medicine (including any prescription medications as well as heartworm and flea/tick preventives) on hand to get through at least 5 days. Check out our blog “In Case Of An Emergency…” for tips on what to pack in your emergency kit.

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