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Winter weather tips for your pets

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Preparing your pet for harsh winter weather is crucial. Catie Blouin had her young son Nathan strapped beside her in the family’s minivan as they drove to his elementary school on a November morning. “Cars were honking at me,” Blouin said. “I noticed them pointing at something and eventually pulled over.” Initial inspection of the vehicle proved unremarkable until a shrill “meow” brought her attention to the car’s roof. There, shaking and still, sat Laguna, the family’s tabby cat.

As an outdoor cat in California, Laguna was hesitant adjusting to complete enclosure following the family’s recent move to Kansas. The Blouins installed a cat door on their garage, content that Laguna had indoor shelter if he didn’t return before dark. Like many cats, Laguna sought warmth on a recently driven car, which taught Blouin and her son a valuable lesson: Bang loudly on your car before turning on the ignition.

Outdoor dangers

Regardless of how comfortable your pet seems outdoors, domestic animals are not adapted to live outside, and in cold weather, must always be provided shelter. In freezing temperatures, even short periods of overexposure can result in depression, lethargy and weakness. In extreme outdoor weather - anything below zero - hypothermia can set in, resulting in slowed heart and breathing rates and a lack of response to stimuli.

Another danger is frostbite. If a cat gets lost during a snowstorm or if your dog is left outside, body tissues are damaged and frostbite can set in. Veterinarians say that if you suspect frostbite, never rub the affected area, as this can cause additional harm. Pour warm water on the affected area, dry, and cover with a bandage. In severe cases, seek immediate veterinary care.

Particular care must be taken with arthritic animals in the winter months. Cold temperatures cause joints to become stiff and tender, making it harder to get around. “I have to lift Maggie into the car because I noticed she was having trouble jumping onto the seat,” Miriam Rich said of her nine-year-old Labrador retriever. Keep a watchful eye over your pet as it moves around your house; rearrange furniture to restrict its movement, avoiding frequent trips up and down stairs.

You may notice changes in your pet’s coloring, specifically on its nose. A lack of exposure to sunlight will often darken the area, just as it will lighten during the warmer months of the year.

Keeping your pet safe during winter months:

  • Keep your pet indoors. "You want to provide as much shelter as possible. If for whatever reason you absolutely cannot bring your dog inside anytime when the temperatures are getting down as low as it's going to get, with frozen precipitation, make sure the dog has an adequate doghouse or adequate shelter,” said Rex Welton of the Forsyth Humane Society in North Carolina.
  • Supplement your pet’s diet with essential fatty acids, such as canola oil and safflower oil, that helps coats thicken during cold months.
  • Increasing protein in the diet also keeps fur full and healthy.
  • Ensure your pet has a warm place to sleep; set out a basket or bed. If your dog or cat sleeps outside in the garage or dog house, provide straw as bedding, which doesn’t freeze in cold, wet weather.
  • Keep fireplaces screened. If your pet lies too close to the flame, the exposure can dry their skin and cause respiratory problems.
  • Check food and water often to make sure they are not frozen. Using plastic bowls prevents pet tongues from accidentally getting stuck.
  • Bang on your car's hood before turning on the ignition. "If you park your car and your engine is still warm on a cold night, often cats that are roaming around the neighborhood will crawl up in it. If you start your car they can be severely injured,” said veterinarian Dennis Flosi.
  • Keep hair between toes cut short to prevent snow from sticking, which results in painful discomfort. Trimming nails allows for better traction.
  • Buy boots for your dog or wash their paws after walks. Salt used to melt ice can irritate paws.
  • Short-coated animals may require a jacket or sweater to help protect them from extreme temperatures.
  • Antifreeze, a deadly poison, has a sweet taste that attracts animals. Take care to wipe spills and keep supplies out of reach.

As you prepare yourself for winter, don’t forget about your pet.  If you see an animal at risk in the harsh elements, call your local rescue league.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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