An article I had written, providing tips to help protect your pets in cold weather. Very topical right now as the cold weather has descending upon us!
Protect Your Pet in Cold Weather
Peter S. Sakas DVM
Hospital and Bird Medical
Milwaukee Ave. Niles, IL
(847)-647-9325 FAX (847)-647-8498
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
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.
(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
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.