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Winterproof Your Pet: Health and Safety Tips

Protect your animal during the cold months with this timely advice.
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Winter Worry: Hypothermia
Beagle on ice
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Dangerous details: As soon as a dog's or cat's body temp falls below 101 degrees, she'll shiver and show signs of lethargy and weakness. You must treat immediately to avoid coma, or heart and kidney problems.

Stay safe: Dogs with heavy fur can handle any kind of weather, but be sure short-haired and elderly dogs wear a coat or sweater when it's below freezing. The amount of time your pet can spend in frigid weather depends on age, breed, and health, so ask your vet for specifics. If she's shivering, take her indoors and wrap her in a warm, dry blanket. Call your veterinarian if it doesn't subside after 30 minutes.

Winter Worry: Antifreeze

Dangerous details: Animals like the sweet smell and taste of ethylene glycol, an ingredient in antifreeze. But drinking even a small amount can cause fatal kidney damage. Vomiting, lack of coordination, seizures, and thirst are signs of exposure.

Stay safe: Stow containers on a high shelf out of your pet's reach, and discard bottles that are cracked or leaking. Clean spills thoroughly with soap and water. If you think your pet has ingested dangerous chemicals, take him to the vet ASAP.

Winter Worry: Snow Removal Chemicals and Salts

Dangerous details: Dogs who play outside might lick de-icing salts on the sidewalk or street; some contain chemicals that can lead to vomiting, lethargy, and loss of appetite. Salt also sticks to pets' footpads, which can cause painful cuts.

Stay safe: Avoid using traditional de-icers on your driveway; instead get a nontoxic alternative like Safe Paw Ice Melter (amazon.com, $20). After your pet has been outside, clean her paws with warm, soapy water.

Winter Worry: Shelter

Dangerous details: Cats and short-haired dogs should spend a limited amount of time outside during the winter, while some large, long-haired breeds like German shepherds, Saint Bernards, and huskies can live outdoors year-round. Still, the cold can take a toll if animals don't have a warm place to escape to.

Stay safe: Insulate your pup's house with padding or straw, and cover the doorway with a weatherproof flap. The shelter should be small—just big enough for him to stand, lie down, and turn around—so it holds his body heat. Raise the doghouse a few inches off the ground to prevent moisture caused by rain and snow from seeping inside. When it's freezing and there's wind chill, bring him into your home. If your pet stays indoors, make sure he sleeps in a warm, draft-free area.

Winter Worry: Frostbite

Dangerous details: When your pet is exposed to frigid temps, blood flows to her center to keep her warm, which can result in tissue damage to the extremities—ears, footpads, the tip of the tail. The skin becomes white, cool to the touch, and soft or rubbery, then turns black.

Stay safe: To protect your pet, don't let her be out in the cold longer than you would stay out. If you suspect frostbite, press a tepid—not hot—towel on the affected area for at least 20 minutes or until thawed. Blisters and blackened skin are signs that you should visit your veterinarian, so always check your pet if she's been outdoors for a few hours.

More Tips

  • Pets need extra calories during the winter months to stay warm, especially if they spend time running around outside. When animals don't eat enough, they move slowly, tire quickly, and drop weight, which can lead to a weakened immune system and illness. Talk to your veterinarian to make sure your pet is getting enough exercise and eating the correct amount of food for his age, weight, and activity level.
  • Pets should never be left alone in a car. In the wintertime, cold air can become trapped and put an animal at risk of freezing.

Source: Camille DeClementi, senior director of knowledge management at ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center

Originally published in the January 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine.