by Mark Asher
Winter storms and frigid temperatures can be a challenge and a hazard to our four-legged family members. Both our feline friends and our canine buddies need to venture outside for play or potty breaks regardless of how cold the temperature gets, which means they may be at risk for cold weather injuries. In this article, we’ll provide precautions to take to ensure your pets stay safe and warm this winter.
Keeping Your Pets Warm
Even though cats and dogs have fur to keep warm, not all breeds will enjoy being outside in extreme cold weather. Each pet will tolerate cold weather differently depending on their:
All dogs have two layers of fur: the undercoat and the outer coat.1 Both work to keep the dog warm during the winter and cool in the summer. Similarly, most cats have a double-coat, but some breeds have triple-coats that provide even more warmth in the winter.
Keep in mind, however, certain cat breeds cannot withstand severe weather, even with shelter. The “oriental” breeds, such as Siamese, Burmese, Tonkinese, and Abyssinians have sleek coats with little undercoat. They love the warmth and would be miserable and at risk in cold weather.
Jackets for Dogs and Cats
Even the heartiest cat or dog may benefit from a sweater or coat when venturing outside in frigid weather. So why not find warm, cozy, and stylish outerwear to help keep your pets warm? Make sure garments fit properly—not too snug and not too loose—with a comfortable lining that doesn’t restrict movement. You should be able to comfortably fit two fingers between the garment and your pet’s neck, similar to fitting a collar.
Winter Play Safety Tips for Pets
Keep an eye on your pet when they are outside and pay attention to how they respond to the cold. A wintery landscape can also cause confusion or be disorienting for pets. Snow can hide familiar scents and sights that pets normally rely on to get home. Therefore, always have an updated identification tag on your pet’s collar. Remember, the best way to retrieve your pet quickly if they get lost is to have your pet micro-chipped.
Hypothermia and Frostbite in Pets
All creatures, including humans, are at risk for hypothermia and frostbite, which is the result of long exposure to the cold. Be aware that air temperature is not the only risk outdoors. Wind chill, ice, and snow can all increase the risk of pets developing hypothermia or frostbite.
When the body temperature decreases to a dangerously low level, this can cause hypothermia. It can come on suddenly depending on the breed and body size. The first signs of hypothermia in pets are:
Preventing Hypothermia in Pets
Older and younger pets, pets with injuries, and thin-skinned breeds are particularly susceptible to hypothermia. Their time outdoors should be limited during the winter. Coats, sweaters, and booties will help, but the best prevention against hypothermia is to avoid extended exposure to the cold.
Pets are also at risk of frostbite, which typically occurs on the nose, ears, tail, or your pet’s paws. Symptoms include:
Pale blue or gray skin color
Pain when the affected area is touched
If you think your dog or cat has frostbite, bring your pet inside and immediately dry their coat. You can use a warm blanket to increase your pet’s body temperature, but do not rub or massage the frostbitten area. The thawing process after frostbite is extremely painful, so a veterinarian should be consulted immediately to avoid shock or permanent damage to limbs.
Other Cold Weather Pet Dangers
Also, chemicals from ice melt or salt, antifreeze (ethylene glycol), and carbon monoxide from idling cars can pose risks to your pets if ingested or exposed in large quantities. Ice melts can cause irritation to pet’s feet. Always wipe your pet’s feet after a trip outdoors to remove any salt or ice melt they may have walked through while outside. Note that even though propylene glycol is sold as “pet safe” antifreeze, it can still be toxic in large amounts.
How Long Should Your Pet Spend Outside?
Unfortunately, there aren’t specific guidelines on how much time outdoors is too much for your pet. For the most part, however, pets will be fine outdoors when the temperature is 45 degrees or above. When the temperature drops to freezing, most pets will require a coat and potentially booties. For temperatures under 20 degrees, keep outdoor activities to a minimum.2 Also, remember that in addition to air temperature, wind chill can impact your pet’s body heat and pose a risk to them when outside.
Leaving Pets in a Cold Car
If the weather is cloudy, overcast, snowy, rainy, or windy, pets can become dangerously cold if left alone in a car. If you plan to bring your pet with you on errands, it’s best to have someone sit in the car with them to gauge the comfort of the inside temperature and turn on the heat if needed.
Cold Weather Tips for Pets That Love the Snow
Winter weather doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the outdoors with your pets. Some dog breeds thrive in cold weather and will be howling to go outside to romp in the snow. Similarly, some breeds of cats love the cold and even enjoy the snow. Outdoor cats should be able to enjoy roaming outside during the winter, however, encourage your cat to spend more time inside or set up a warm shelter outdoors. Use a proper bedding like straw, which doesn’t retain moisture. The floor should be raised enough to remain dry in heavy rain. Depending on the type of pets you have, your routine doesn’t necessarily have to change too much in the winter. If anything, simply spend a bit less time outdoors than you would during the summer and make smart decisions.
If you live in an area that experiences extreme weather in the form of snowstorms, blizzards, or ice storms, you should make sure to be prepared to ensure your pet is safe during an emergency. Stock up on pet food, water, medication, and necessary pet care items as part of the family emergency kit and have a safety plan in case of a power outage or evacuation. Have a spare leash with a proper identification tag in an accessible place and make sure a family member is designated to secure the pets. Of course, in an extreme emergency, make sure human family members are safe before tending to four-legged family members.
When venturing outdoors during extreme winter weather, keep your dog leashed and be attentive. Look out for ice patches that can cause frostbite or injure paws. Never let your dog walk on frozen lakes, ponds, or rivers no matter how thick the ice looks. Use common sense when enjoying the outdoors with your pets and know your pet’s behavior. Be on the lookout for signs of discomfort. With a bit of extra attention and some preparation, you and your pets can weather the winter safely as well as enjoy it.