It's been a particularly harsh winter so far in the Pacific Northwest.
Temperatures have hovered in the single digits, snowfalls have broken records
in many areas, and icy conditions have led to accidents and road closures.
While winter weather can be an inconvenience to humans, most of us realize
it can be dangerous and even deadly to our pets. A few basic precautions can
help us keep our beloved pets safe, whether they live outdoors full time or just
spend time outdoors in the winter.
Humane Living Conditions
Let's start with Fido or Fluffy's living quarters. Pets that live outside
obviously need shelter. Shelter should provide protection from both wetness and
wind. Inside the shelter, a crate or box just large enough for the critter to
curl up in, lined with blankets, is ideal (a larger box doesn't insulate as
well). Some pet owners prefer cedar shavings to blankets, but these can be
irritating to some animals' skin, and can also cause problems if ingested;
check with your veterinarian regarding your particular pet. If your pet is a
chewer, make sure whatever material you provide in its home is not toxic.
Heating devices can present problems. Mats designed for outdoor pet use are the
best bet, but follow directions and use with caution. Never, ever, use a space
heater or other device not approved for outdoor or pet-specific use.
Pets who live outside, or spend time outside in cold weather, need extra
calories to keep warm. They can burn up to a third more calories than usual, so
make sure you provide this. A consistent supply of unfrozen water is also
crucial. Heated water bowls are available at better pet stores or feed and tack
stores. Again, use caution with electrical cords if your pet tends to chew. If
you do not provide a water heater, you should at a minimum replace frozen water
with fresh frequently, and use plastic bowls instead of metal. (Remember what
happens when you stick YOUR tongue on frozen metal?)
Some pets are simply not suited to living outdoors year-round. Sled dogs and
heavy-coated/ double-coated breeds do best, but slender, thin-coated animals
can really suffer. Elderly animals and puppies/ kittens are at greater risk
than healthy adult animals.
Many pets have access to indoor shelter, but still spend time outdoors. These
situations, too, require caution. Walking your dog in cold weather, for
example, presents not only the thermal dangers, but dangers in terms of the walking
Snow and ice can get packed between the pads of the animal's paw, creating
painful and even injurious situations. Clipping the hair between the toes and
pads during winter can ameliorate this problem to some degree.
Substances used for melting ice can be dangerous as well. They cause
irritation to paws and can make the animal sick when they ingest them. While
some melters are safer than others, it's best to avoid areas that are treated
with any type of salt or chemical de-icer. The next best alternative, if your
pet will tolerate it, is to have him wear boots, which come in all sorts of
levels of ruggedness as well as all sizes. If your pet inadvertently walks in
an area that you suspect has been treated, wipe her paws with a damp rag after
the walk or before she has a chance to lick or chew them.
If you take your pet into recreational areas, watch for snowmobiles and
bodies of water. No one is expecting a dog when they fly around the corner of a
snowmobile trail, nor is the dog expecting a fast-moving vehicle. And thin ice
presents a real hazard for off-leash animals who are accustomed to heading
straight for water.
Finally, as with pets who live outdoors full time, those who recreate
outdoors have varying needs depending on age, health, and breed. My
coarse-coated Old English Sheepdog was pretty much up for any weather if I was,
but my thin-coated Irish Wolfhound needed to borrow a sweatshirt on a cold
shopping excursion recently. Warm jackets make good sense for many breeds.
Hypothermia and frostbite are both dangerous possibilities for pets in extreme
cold. Watch for shivering, which can be an early sign of hypothermia. A
shivering pet should be taking to a warm location or warmed by its owner.
Frostbite occurs most often at extremities such as ears, tail, and feet.
Blood vessels constrict in cold weather, and a reduced blood supply reduces the
interior heat in that part of the animal. If the tissue becomes cold enough to
freeze, it will die. Frostbitten tissue feels cold and hard to the touch, and
can appear gray or pale.
Treatment for frostbite in animals is the same as in humans. Warm the area
with wet, moderate heat, such as warm, moist towels. Don't use overly hot water,
and don't use dry heat such as an electric blanket or hair dryer. If you will
be unable to keep the animal warm after treatment, however, don't get it wet,
as refreezing a frostbitten area is dangerous. Seek veterinary treatment
In the end, as any good pet owner knows, pets are not wild animals. They
won't just "be OK" regardless of weather. A little common sense,
exercised with love, and you and your pet can enjoy the outdoors together
Sally O'Neal is a lifelong pet owner whose current inventory includes two
Irish wolfhounds, an indoor Siamese, and a recently acquired outdoor kitten.