How to Protect Your Pet in Cold Weather
Peter S. Sakas DVM
Niles Animal Hospital and Bird Medical Center
7278 N. Milwaukee Ave. Niles, IL 60714
(847)-647-9325 FAX (847)-647-8498
Protecting Your Pet from the Winter Weather
Most people believe since dogs and cats have a coat of fur they can tolerate winter cold very well and that they also possess the necessary instincts to protect themselves from the cold. Unfortunately these beliefs are not true. Dogs and cats are subject to the scourges of cold, wind and snow/rain during the winter as we are. Their haircoat does serve as insulation, reducing heat loss, but body heat is still lost, and through prolonged exposure to cold they will begin to demonstrate signs of hypothermia (lowered body temperature).
Some breeds are better suited to colder temperatures than others. Dogs that have a fluffy type hair coat with a thick undercoat are able to tolerate cold due to the insulative properties of this type of coat. Dogs with a short haired or smooth type coat with no undercoat cannot tolerate cold as well and will suffer its effect more rapidly. The age of the dog is a factor as a puppy will chill more rapidly than an adult dog due to its small size, thin hair coat and little or no body fat. Old dogs or dogs that are ill are also at a greater risk for chilling. Even the size of the dog plays a role as a large surface area to volume (as seen in toy or miniature breeds of dogs) leads to increased heat loss. Large breeds of dogs have less surface area to volume and thus lose heat less rapidly.
In addition to the effects of cold dogs and cats are also subject to the dangers of wind chill. Wind passing over the animal will rapidly draw heat from the body despite the insulation of the haircoat. Areas not protected by hair or with a thin covering of hair can suffer the same effects that exposed skin in people can during periods of severe wind chill.
The dangers of cold and wind are heightened if the dog or cat is wet. Wet hair is no longer an effective insulator so cold/wind will cause more rapid chilling. Even dogs with a thick undercoat will chill if both coats are wet. In addition the evaporation of water from the skin/hair leads to further heat loss, producing a further drop in temperature. If your pet is wet after being in the snow or rain dry them off with a towel or a hair dryer set on low. Drying them will minimize the lowering of body temperature through the evaporation of the water.
How do we protect our pets from these dangers? Most importantly-if it is dangerous for us to be outside, the same holds true for our pets. These periodic “Arctic blasts” that we have endured are extremely hazardous for our pets and they should remain indoors only venturing outdoors for necessary short trips. During our “normal” winter temperatures most dogs can do fairly well with short exposures. Dogs that are kept mainly in the house suffer minimal effects if they spend short periods outdoors. Dogs at a risk for chilling, such as shorthaired dogs, will do well if provided with a coat when outdoors. Sweaters provide even more complete protection as they cover the underside as well. Boots should also be used if the dog is to be outside for an extended period of time and especially if their paws show sensitivity to the cold.
Dogs that spend a great deal of time outdoors or are kept outside will be more adapted to the rigors of winter, but certain practices should be followed to insure their comfort. The biggest problem they face is exposure to the cold, wind and rain/snow. They need shelter from the elements. This shelter must be warm, out of the direct wind and raised off the ground. You can make your own shelter or buy commercially available doghouses. To help keep the dog warm the house should not be too large. If the house is too large the dog will not be able to produce enough heat to keep itself and the environment warm. The proper size should be just large enough for the dog to be able to move around inside and lay down comfortably. Keeping the house elevated a few inches off the ground will prevent moisture from entering through the floor. Proper positioning is important. Keeping the opening of the house away from the prevailing wind is a must. Another help is to provide a covering over the door or a “pet door” to further keep the wind and cold out.
Bedding should also be provided for the inside of the doghouse. Straw is commonly used for bedding, but it can harbor parasites and other organisms, and with long term use, loses its insulative properties. The type of bedding used should be cleaned and replaced frequently. Good choices include a blanket or towels. Make sure that they remain clean and dry.
A serious problem dogs kept outdoors face in the winter is dehydration. The water bowl should be constantly checked to be sure that an adequate fresh source is available. Dogs lose fluids in the winter and can dehydrate; it is not just a problem during the summer heat. Frequently check the water bowl to be sure that the water does not freeze. Ice and snow are inadequate to provide for the daily fluid needs and a cold animal is not going to lick or chew ice anyway. A real help would be a heated water bowl, through the usage of a special heater. Do not use metal bowls in the winter as in frigid temperatures the tongue of a dog could stick to the bowl. If this occurs (or if the tongue adheres to any frozen metal surface) do not try to pull the tongue away from the surface. Use lukewarm water to gently warm the surface until the tongue will easily separate.
Another tip is to groom your dog or cat regularly during the winter. Matted hair is a less effective insulator. Regular brushings will remove loose hairs and prevent matting. It will also enable you to dry your pet more easily if it becomes wet.
Take care when playing with your dog on snow and ice. They can fall just as you can and also suffer fractures or sprains of muscles/ligaments. They are not indestructible. Also be careful when you and your dog are near a frozen body of water. Dogs do not know that the ice may be too thin to support their body weight. Avoid getting too close to the edge of the ice as they may fall in or even unknowingly jump in. Practice good common sense with your pet as well as yourself.
In the previous section we discussed techniques on how to protect your pet from the winter weather. In this portion we will cover some particular problems associated with winter.
As mentioned earlier dogs/cats that are exposed to the elements can quite possibly develop hypothermia. Hypothermia is when the body temperature drops below normal. When this occurs the animal is too cold to produce enough heat to maintain their core (internal) body temperature. This leads to impaired function of the internal organs, eventually the loss of function and death.
Hypothermia may occur especially when a dog/cat is wet, cold and exposed to wind. Be careful if your dog is wet after running in the field with snow/rain, placed in the back of a truck and taken on the road. If wet, dry thoroughly before engaging in that activity. Puppies, older dogs and dogs suffering from illness are also more susceptible to hypothermia. It can also occur when a dog that is not accustomed to the cold is left outside for an extended period of time.
As hypothermia develops, the body temperature falls and metabolic processes (body functions) slow down. The skin and extremities are very susceptible to frostbite and freezing. Blood vessels in the skin contract to direct blood to the internal organs to maintain their function. The heart rate slows and the pulse weakens. Breathing becomes shallow and slow. The animal may begin to shiver. They become mentally slow and the pupils may dilate (widen). If the skin or extremities freeze they may turn bluish or pale and show little or no feeling. They may lapse into a coma. In the end the heart goes into ventricular fibrillation and stops.
Treatment begins by trying to return the internal temperature to normal. Bring the animal indoors, dry it if wet and wrap it in blankets/towels. They should be warmed slowly. A hypothermic dog may tend to burn easily if the heat is directly applied to the skin. Warming in blankets may help the mildly hypothermic animal but those that are more severely affected can be warmed with hot water bottles, placed in a tub of warm (not hot) water or on a heating pad/electric blanket. Do not place the hot water bottles or heating pad directly on the animal, wrap them in a towel or blanket to avoid burning the skin. If on a heating pad, turn periodically to prevent overheating or burning of the skin. A hair dryer could be used for warming but set it on the lowest setting. Periodically check the rectal temperature. Normal rectal temperature for a dog/cat ranges from between 100-102 degrees F. A hypothermic animal may have temperatures ranging from 86-90 degrees F to as low as 60 degrees F in severe cases.
As the animal begins to warm, wrap it in blankets or towels and go to your veterinarian for treatment. The doctor will be able to further aid the warming process and provide additional stabilization of the condition.
Frostbite occurs when the body tissue becomes so cold that it actually freezes. Severe cold can lead to lack of circulation to an area of the body. If this continues the tissue is destroyed. The extremities, such as the ears, feet, tail and in males, the scrotum, are susceptible to frostbite. Dogs are especially prone to the freezing of the pads of the feet if in long term contact with deep snow or cold surfaces. Frozen mud, snow or ice, which has accumulated between the toes, can lead to frostbite as well. Long eared dogs occasionally freeze the ends of their ears. However, short-eared dogs and cats can lose portions of their ears due to frostbite.
An animal that is suffering from frostbite should receive veterinary care immediately. Keep the animal warm and try to bring the body temperature back to normal. To thaw the frozen tissues wet heat, not dry heat, is preferred. Do not rub the frozen tissues as they can be easily damaged in this state. As the tissue thaws it will become red and swollen and blisters may develop on the skin. Quite often the animal will scratch or chew at the tissues. Severely damaged tissues may slough (fall) off or require surgical removal, leading to the loss of the tips of the ears, tail or toes. In severe cases of frostbite systemic antibiotics may be needed.
If the case of frostbite is mild recovery may be complete with no after effects. In severe cases tissue may be lost and the affected areas may not regrow hair or if it does regrow it may come in white. Previously frostbitten skin will be especially sensitive to cold due to the damage suffered to the circulatory system in that area.
As mentioned, snow/ice or mud adhering to the paws can lead to foot problems and frostbite. Try to keep the feet free from this material. Another hazard/irritant to the paws is salt used for clearing frozen roads and sidewalks. It is very irritating to the feet (just think what it does to your car!). Small grains may become embedded in the paw leading to the development of sores and infection. Animals may try to lick their paws in an effort to clean this material, leading to oral irritation and/or gastrointestinal disturbances.
To prevent such problems from developing keep your pet away from surfaces that have been heavily treated with salt or thawing chemicals. If these materials are used in your area get in the habit of cleaning (and drying) the feet, getting between the toes to remove any salt and packed snow/mud, after your pet has been outside. Boots may be helpful if your pet is especially sensitive to these products. Feet that have become irritated will benefit from topical or systemic antibiotics, if severe. Seek veterinary care if the feet develop sores or irritations.
Antifreeze (Ethylene Glycol) Toxicity
A serious winter danger is antifreeze poisoning. The problem is not limited only to the winter but most commonly occurs in winter, spring and fall when people are draining and flushing their radiators/coolant systems. Antifreeze has a sweet odor and pleasing taste for animals. However, it is extremely toxic and can produce severe, irreversible kidney damage. Only a small amount can be toxic. High blood levels can be reached in 1-3 hours after ingestion, illness develops within 24 hours and death can occur in less than 2 days. Signs of poisoning include, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, depression, incoordination and staggering. As the disease progresses they may show difficulty breathing, rapid heart rate, lowered body temperature, muscle twitching, convulsions and acute renal failure. The animal becomes drowsy, can go into a coma and die.
If you believe that your pet has been exposed to antifreeze, seek veterinary care immediately. If you wait until symptoms develop irreversible damage may have already occurred and it may be too late. However, this is such a severe condition, that even with proper treatment some animals may not survive. Your veterinarian may have to treat the poisoning with intravenous fluids for 2-3 days and hopefully the treatment will be successful.
The best way to avoid this is to take precautions when using antifreeze and monitor your pet when outside to be sure that it is not lapping up any strange liquids. During the draining of your radiator collect the antifreeze in a container that can be sealed and follow the proper procedure in your community for its disposal. If after changing and filling your radiator check for the presence of antifreeze on the floor or street in your work area. Clean any spills that may have occurred. Such spills are a danger to your pets and any animals that come in contact with it, pet or wildlife. If your neighbor is not following safe practices bring their attention to this potential risk for animals and children. If you have partial containers of unused antifreeze, make sure that they are properly sealed and placed in an area away from pets and children. Antifreezes are now available that are non-toxic and if you are concerned about the potential hazard of antifreeze poisoning these should be used.
During the winter months we hear of numerous unfortunate fires that are started by space heaters. Space heaters can be dangerous when used around pets. They may chew on the electrical cords causing electrical burns or fraying the cords so they pose a fire hazard. Always check the cords for any unusual signs of wear and tear. An even more serious danger is the possibility that your pets may accidentally knock over the heater leading to the development of a fire. If you are not around to monitor your pets or space heater do not leave it turned on.
Hopefully this discussion will prove helpful to you in the prevention of the unfortunate injuries and deaths that occur in pets during the winter. The sad fact is that these occurrences can be avoided with the implementation of proper precautions. The care of our pets is a great responsibility. They provide us with so much love and affection, we should take the proper steps to insure their health and safety.
Two of the references used for this article were A Dog for All Seasons and A Cat for All Seasons by Jane Leon. If you desire further information about seasonal hazards in dogs and cats these books are excellent sources.