In the upper parts of North America, the snow has started to fly. Admittedly, this may make some of us jealous of our Australian friends who are just heading into summer now, and who might not find these winter safety tips quite so relevant at the moment. However, the cold, snowy winter season some of us are heading into does come with its share of challenges for our furry friends, so let’s take a moment to make sure we are all prepared for all Old Man Winter tries to throw at us.
- Keep them inside.
Many people think cats and dogs are more resilient to the cold weather and snow than people are because of their fur, but that isn’t necessarily true. Dogs like Huskies or cats like the Norwegian Forest Cat may have a higher tolerance for the cold and snow, and even enjoy it, but all animals are still at risk for hypothermia and frostbite if they stay outdoors too long. Never force an animal to stay out longer than they should, and encourage your more winter-enthused pets to come inside after a reasonable length of time. Try to keep outdoor cats inside as much as possible.
- Keep them warm outside.
If your pet is an outdoor animal, make sure they have a safe shelter protected from the elements to retreat to. It should be completely dry and draft free, large enough for them to lie down and move around in, but small enough to hold their body heat in. It should be raised off the ground a few inches, have the floor covered with straw and consider adding some cozy blankets to curl up in. The entrance should be watertight and seal itself after the pet has entered or exited. However, be open to allowing your outdoor pet inside if the weather gets very bad or they seem miserable outdoors.
- Dress them up.
Not in the silly costumed way, but many pets become agreeable to wearing a winter coat and boots when they realize it keeps them warmer outside and lets them enjoy their walks and romps that much more. Make sure any coat or sweater fits your pet properly, and that it doesn’t impede their movement, eyesight, or hearing. Ensure that their regular leash and collar/ harness can also still be safety worn under or over the garment to keep them safely controlled.
- Know their limits.
You may have to adjust the length of your daily walk with your dog when it is very cold out. Older pets may have more difficulty walking on snow and ice, and health problems like arthritis may be aggravated by the cold. Young, short-haired, and smaller pets may also feel the cold more acutely and need to shorten the length of time spent outdoors. Be aware of how your pet acts outside, and head back in if they start shivering or acting miserable.
- Feed well.
Make sure your pet has plenty of food and water to keep up energy levels. Maintaining body temperature in the cold can use up more energy. However, that doesn’t mean you should overfeed you pet through the winter, especially if they are getting less outdoor exercise than when it is warmer – they still need to maintain a healthy weight. Ask your veterinarian if you think you may need to adjust your pet’s food through the winter months.
- Announce your presence.
The warm engines of parked cars can attract cats and other wildlife to curl up inside them to get warm, so make sure to bang on the hood of your car to scare them away before starting the engine.
- Protect paws from salt.
The salt and ice melters used on sidewalks, roads and in parking lots can wreak havoc on exposed paws. Smaller and/or daintier pets may especially be sensitive to them. Try to persuade your pet to wear booties if your normal outdoor route takes you on salted paths or sidewalks, to protect their feet both from the roughness of the salts and the chemicals in them that can burn the pads of their paws. Make sure to thoroughly wipe down paws and underbellies after being outside to remove any wayward salt or chemicals.
- Keep antifreeze out of reach.
Antifreeze has a sweet taste and smell that pets are attracted to, but it is a deadly poison for them if consumed. Many manufacturers now add a bittering agent to it to make it less appealing to animals and children, but the safest thing is to keep any bottles of antifreeze high up out of reach and to clean up any spills promptly to discourage accidental ingestion.
- Never leave a pet in a cold car.
Much the same as leaving pets in a hot car in the summer can be deadly, a cold car in the winter can be just as dangerous. Cars can cool down quickly in cold weather and rapidly become like a refrigerator, dangerously lowering your pet’s body temperature in a short amount of time. It is much safer to just leave your pet at home than to risk leaving them in a cold car while you go into the grocery store or the mall. If car travel is necessary, make sure your vehicle is always warm and never leave your pet in the car unattended.
- Steer clear of bodies of water.
Even if it looks frozen and like it could hold your pet’s body weight, it is best to steer clear of any icy bodies of water during walks and outdoor adventures with your pets. Unless it is a body of water used for ice fishing, sledding, etc. that has the ice thickness and safety reported on publicly, it is best to stay far away from the dangers of water and ice during the cold winter months.
- Stock up.
When you stock up on supplies in anticipation of a winter storm keeping you housebound for a few days, remember your pet’s needs too. Make sure you have sufficient food, water, treats, and any medications for your pet for at least a week.
- Watch for changes or issues.
Pay attention to any changes in your pet’s personality, habits or behaviors that could indicate an issue. Watch for signs of hypothermia (whining, shivering, weakness, anxiety), check paws, noses and ears for frostbite, and generally watch for any changes that could indicate the weather is causing a health problem or they may have ingested something they shouldn’t have. Bring your pet to the vet if you notice any signs that are concerning.
With some common sense and easy adjustments, you can make sure that your pet enjoys the winter as much (or as little) as they like!