Fur coats not always enough to protect animals from cold

Posted: Wednesday, October 13, 2004


  Clarion file photo A young moose lounges in the mess it made while foraging for scraps from a Kenai resident's garbage. Winter is a time when many animals are tempted to Dumpster-dive, a practice that often results in their death. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Clarion file photo A young moose lounges in the mess it made while foraging for scraps from a Kenai resident's garbage. Winter is a time when many animals are tempted to Dumpster-dive, a practice that often results in their death.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Winter in Alaska can present some important health hazards to pets, and special considerations often must be taken to protect them from cold weather injuries and ailments.

Hypothermia and frostbite can occur in some dogs within minutes in below freezing temperatures. The best prevention is to never allow pets to remain outdoors for extended periods during temperatures that are near or below freezing.

Signs of hypothermia include mental dullness, severe mental depression or unresponsiveness, and loss of consciousness in extreme cases.

Frostbite in dogs occurs most frequently on the tips of the ears, tail, feet and the scrotum in males and nipples in lactating females.

Signs of frostbite may include swollen or pinkish skin, which often will turn white to gray. Skin may seem to improve at first, but then blister or slough days afterward.

If frostbite is suspected, keep the area dry and warm and bring them to the veterinarian right away. Areas that sustain frostbite will from then on be even more susceptible to the cold.

Dogs under 4 months of age cannot regulate their own body temperature and should always be brought indoors during cold weather, as should senior animals, those with medical conditions and all of the miniature or thin coated breeds.

If a dog must remain outdoors in cold weather, some basic husbandry criteria must be met. Remember that wind chill can make temperatures even lower than predicted.

Provide heated housing (preferably) or insulated housing that is small enough for your pet's body heat to keep it warm. Putting your pet in an unheated garage or basement is not adequate shelter.

Outside doghouses should face away from the direction of the wind. Ample bedding should be present to keep your pet off the cold ground.

Bedding can be made of cloth or straw, but should be changed often to keep it dry and clean, and to be certain that it maintains its loft which is how it maintains the ability to insulate.

Fresh, not frozen water, must be available at all times to prevent dehydration, which can accelerate hypothermia and frostbite. Snow is not an adequate water source since it requires more body heat to digest and can cause further dehydration.

Pets generate body heat by burning calories from food. Fat is a key ingredient in producing heat. It is important to feed a high calorie diet, such as those provided by premium brands of pet food.

Feeding low priced, generic dog foods often can lead to inadequate body heat production in your dog as a result of the low calories these diets offer.

Bringing you pet indoors is the best way to prevent any problems, but even keeping your pet indoors requires some special care.

Tiled or uncarpeted areas can become extremely cold. Blankets, pads and insulated beds should be used to reduce loss of body heat. Keep pets away from drafty areas of the house.

Some small, short-haired breeds may require a sweater for extra warmth, and medium to long-haired dogs will need regular grooming to ensure their coat provides good insulation.

Take special precautions when using heat sources such as electric blankets, portable heaters, and even fireplaces that could potentially burn your dog.

Pets also should not be left alone in vehicles. It can get too cold too quickly and leaving the engine running can be dangerous. Also, like people, pets need to have adequate supplies in the vehicle in case of an emergency breakdown. Leave a few fleece blankets in the trunk and bring plastic containers with food.

It is an eventuality that dogs will need to go outside to relieve themselves. Some dogs should be allowed to wear warm sweaters and even coats outside. More than one layer may be required, and the system is very similar to what a person would wear.

The layer closest to the body is made of a thin, fleece or wool material to provide insulation and wick moisture away from the body. Outer layers can be thicker and should provide more of a shell, preventing water and moisture from getting in, but breathable enough to allow water molecules and heat leaving the body to escape.

Take off the wet layers immediately upon returning indoors, and towel or blow-dry your dog if they are still wet from the rain or snow.

Booties are great for keeping your dogs feet dry and warm. Several styles are available and booties can be made of Polypropylene, Cordura, fleece, leather and Gortex Selecting the right one depends on your specific needs.

Comfort, durability, ability to repel water and type of fastener (how the bootie is held on the dog's foot) are other important considerations when shopping for booties.

Some dogs will be problematic when wearing their booties for the first few times. Be patient and give them lots of positive reinforcement. Dogs that refuse booties run the risk of frostbite to their footpads.

Rock salt, which is commonly used in winter, can cause irritation, or tiny cuts and cracks to their pads, as well. Some small dogs can even become frozen or stuck to icy areas and injure themselves while trying to break free.

Clean and dry your pet's pads as soon as you're back indoors. A little petroleum jelly applied to the pads can further reduce cracking.

Cold weather months also are a time to pay special attention to avoiding antifreeze. During the winter, antifreeze can be found in excess in driveways and on roads. It smells and tastes good to your pet, but is lethal if swallowed, even in small amounts.

Walking your dog on a leash is a good idea any time of year, but this is especially true during winter. Snow can obscure where the yard or sidewalk ends and the street begins. A dog may un-knowingly run into the road or oncoming traffic because they can't clearly define their usual boundaries.

Walking a dog on a leash also can cut down on injuries related to slips and falls on ice. Playing in the snow is a blast, but playing on ice can lead to injuries that can result in torn ligaments, broken bones and hurt backs.

Be wary of icy river embankments and slopes leading to water, and if dogs do venture onto frozen ponds, pay special attention to thin ice hazards.

Winter becomes a difficult time for many predators, as well, which can increase their interactions with companion animals. Eagles and owls swoop down and fly away with small dogs every year in Alaska.

Homes close to forests and undeveloped land are more prone to visits from coyotes and other predators that may attempt to prey on small pets more frequently during the harsh winter months.

Keeping pets on leashes and staying observant while walking them can help prevent these scenarios.

Also, just because it's winter doesn't mean your dog wants to, or should, play any less. There are many obedience and agility classes offered that can be a good source for indoor exercise and recreation.

Winter can be a wonderful time of year for pets and their care givers, and responsible pet owners should take the necessary steps to provide proper care for their dogs during these challenging times of year.

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