Avoiding winter pet woes

Animals need help from their owners to avoid cold-weather harm

Posted: Sunday, October 29, 2006


  Cory Route keeps her dachshund Pedy warm in a backpack during a backcountry ski trip on Resurrection Pass Trail last winter. Like people, pets need extra care during the winter months. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Cory Route keeps her dachshund Pedy warm in a backpack during a backcountry ski trip on Resurrection Pass Trail last winter. Like people, pets need extra care during the winter months.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Winter can be wonderful for pets and their caregivers, but it presents health hazards to man’s best friends, as well.

· Hypothermia and frostbite can occur in some animals within minutes in below-freezing temperatures, and it’s important to remember that wind chill can make temperatures even lower than predicted.

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

Frostbite in dogs and cats occurs most frequently on the tips of the ears, tail, feet, and the genital areas. Signs of the ailment include swollen or pinkish skin, which will often turn white to gray. Skin may seem to improve at first, but then blister or slough off days afterwards. If frostbite is suspected, keep the area dry and warm and bring the animal to the veterinarian right away. Areas that sustain frostbite will from then on be even more susceptible to the cold.

The best prevention is to never allow pets to remain outdoors for extended periods during temperatures that are near or below freezing.

Young and senior animals, those with medical conditions and all of the miniature or thin-coated breeds of dogs are particularly susceptible to hypothermia and frostbite and should always be brought indoors during cold weather.

· If a pet must remain outdoors in cold weather, some basic husbandry criteria should be met. Provide heated or insulated housing that is small enough for your pet’s body heat to keep it warm. Putting a pet in an unheated garage or basement is not adequate shelter.

Outside doghouses should face away from the direction of the wind, and ample bedding should be present to keep pets 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 to animals that will be in the cold, such as those provided by premium brands of pet food.

Bringing pets indoors is the best way to prevent cold-weather problems, but even keeping pets indoors requires some special care.

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

· Pets should also 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, and while a quick jaunt may not require much, more extended excursions may call for dogs to wear warm sweaters or even coats outside.

Booties are great for keeping a dog’s feet dry and warm. Several styles are available. Comfort, durability, ability to repel water and type of fastener (how the bootie is held on the dog’s foot) are important considerations when shopping for booties.

Rock salt, which is commonly used in winter, can cause irritation or tiny cuts and cracks to an animal’s pads, as well.

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 are also the 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.

· Walking dogs on a leash is a good idea at 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 unknowingly run into the road or oncoming traffic because they can’t clearly define their usual boundaries.

Walking a dog on a leash can also 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 pets every year.

Homes close to forests and undeveloped land are more prone to visits from coyotes, lynx and other predators that may attempt to prey on small pets more frequently during the winter months. Keeping pets on leashes and staying observant while walking them can help prevent these unfortunate scenarios.

Joseph Robertia can be reached at joseph.robertia@peninsulaclarion.com.

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