Pets need water, warmth in winter

Posted: Tuesday, October 29, 2002

When the temperature drops, humans can turn up the thermostat, drink some hot chocolate or put on an extra sweater to stay warm. Domesticated pets don't have those options, so they rely on their owners to protect them during the winter months.

"Probably the most important thing is to make sure their water stays thawed and that they have plenty of water," said Jayne Hempstead of Twin Cities Veterinary Clinic.

Outdoor dogs, cats and livestock require plenty of thawed water during the winter. Dehydration in animals can make them more susceptible to hypothermia. In horses, a lack of water can make them colic, Hempstead said. Heated water bowls or frequent waterings is a must for outdoor pets.

Shelter is the other key in maintaining pet health during the winter. For outdoor dogs and cats, some sort of shelter that is insulated, elevated off the ground and that protects against wind and precipitation is recommended.

For livestock, many types of animals like to be outside, but still need a shelter to get out of the wind and precipitation when necessary.

"They tend to have less problems when it's 20 below than when it's 35 and raining because the dampness penetrates their coat," Hempstead said.

Livestock need to be able to get out of the mud as well, so a dry area or higher ground area should be provided in their pens.

Outdoor pets face the risk of being poisoned by common winter-related products like snow removal salt, which can be toxic, and antifreeze, which is highly toxic. Ingesting even a tiny amount of antifreeze can be fatal to an animal, so spills need to be cleaned up immediately and antifreeze needs to be kept tightly sealed and away from animals.

When going to start a car in the winter, it is advisable to honk the horn or bang on the hood since cats sometimes climb into car engines for warmth.

Both livestock and smaller pets burn more calories during the winter to generate heat. This does not mean they need to be fattened up for winter, since overweight pets tend to have more problems in the cold than animals at their optimum weight.

Horses should be fed more grass hay, rather than grain, when the temperature drops, Hempstead said. For smaller pets, making sure they have enough to eat is key, although not so much they gain unnecessary weight. Frequent feedings for outdoor animals can help, as long as the amount of food doesn't increase much from their normal diet.

Indoor pets don't require much change in routine during the winter, as long as they are protected from drafts and the cold. Indoor pets that go outside occasionally can face an increased risk of hypothermia in cold temperatures, so owners walking dogs or letting inside cats out for a brief time, for instance, need to watch them for signs of hypothermia.

"Indoor pets tend to be a little more pampered and may not be as acclimated," Hempstead said. "If they're used to being inside, they're not going to tolerate the cold as well."

Animals with short hair and very old and very young animals also are particularly susceptible to hypothermia. The symptoms of hypothermia are shivering and lethargy, so if an animal isn't as active as normal, something may be wrong.

Arthritis in animals, just as in humans, is exacerbated by cold weather, so owners need to take extra precautions to protect those pets from the cold.

The other main health risk to animals during the winter is frostbite. Frostbitten skin can look reddish, white or gray and can look scaly or sloughing.

If an animal has frostbite, it needs to be taken to a warm place and the frostbitten areas need to be slowly thawed, by using warm moist towels that are changed frequently.

Winter holidays present other dangers to pet health. The added excitement and change of routine inherent with holidays can upset animals, so their walks, feeding times, etc. should be kept as regular as possible.

On Halloween and the days proceeding it, pets, especially black cats, should not be left outside unattended to protect them from pranks.

On Halloween, jack-o-lanterns, candy and candy wrappers should be kept away from pets. When trick-or-treaters come to the door, inside pets should be kept in a separate room or somehow restrained so they don't get outside.

The Christmas season likewise poses health risks to pets. Electrical cords should be covered or tacked down, ribbons shouldn't be put around pets' necks and pets should not be allowed to play with plastic or foil wrappers or six-pack beverage holders.

Several types of holiday foods and decorations are toxic or pose choking risks to animals, including alcoholic beverages, candy and rich holiday treats, mistletoe, holly, poinsettia leaves and stems, Christmas greens, angel hair (spun glass), the fluid in bubbling lights, Christmas tree preservative solution, snow sprays and snow flock, Styrofoam, Christmas tree ornaments, tinsel, model cement, epoxy adhesive, Super Glue, artists' supplies -- like markers, paints and pencils -- and gifts like aftershave, perfumes and colognes.

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