Pets need special consideration when snow begins to fly

Posted: Tuesday, November 01, 2005

From long walks on the beach to riding shotgun in the truck on the way to town, pet owners enjoy spending lots of time with their furry friends, but winter in Alaska and can present some important health hazards to pets.

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 will often 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-coat 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 longhaired 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.

Cold weather months also are a time to pay special attention to antifreeze.

Antifreeze can be found in excess in driveways and on roads, especially during winter. It smells and tastes good to your pet, but is lethal if swallowed, even in small amounts.

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

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