Dashing through the snow

A few precautions ensure winter fun for man's best friend

Posted: Friday, November 09, 2007


  Paul Garnet, of Kasilof, skijors with two of his dogs late last winter in Soldotna. For many pet owners, the winter weather doesn't pose an obstacle for recreation opportunities. Photo by Joseph Robertia

Paul Garnet, of Kasilof, skijors with two of his dogs late last winter in Soldotna. For many pet owners, the winter weather doesn't pose an obstacle for recreation opportunities.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

The winter weather doesn't mean pet owners need to be any less active with their canine companions, but there are a few special considerations to be aware of as the temperature cools and the snow starts to fall.

One of the most basic principles of recreating with dogs outdoors during the winter is monitoring their weights to ensure they are getting enough nutrition.

"When the temperatures drop, they'll need more food, and perhaps fat, because they will be burning calories just staying warm," said Jill Garnet of Kasilof, who along with her husband Paul, owns 16 dogs that she enjoys skijoring and mushing with during the winter.

This calorie demand will increase as dogs become more active, as well. Wallowing through waste deep snow in an attempt to keep up with a human on skis in temperatures hovering near zero takes a lot more energy than jogging on asphalt or a packed trail in the mild weather of summer. And the more dogs do in the cold, the more food they'll require.

Garnet said there is no "average" amount that she recommends feeding, largely because there can be so much variation in the metabolism of dogs, but also because the weather can fluctuate rapidly at this time of year and the amount of food for 30-degree temperatures will not be adequate for minus 30-degree temperatures that can occur the next week, or occasionally the very next day.

"We increase food individually, and we have to make changes weekly for some dogs," she said.

As to how she knows to make changes, Garnet said she tries to visually and physically inspect each of her dogs at least a few times a week.

"When evaluating by looks, if you can see your dogs ribs on an inhale it's OK, but if you can see their ribs when their just standing there, they probably need to put some weight on. We also put hands on them regularly. While petting the dogs, we're feeling their ribs, spine and hips to make sure no bones are sticking out," she said.

Protruding bones would be a clear indication a dog is too thin, rather than just athletically lean.

In addition to increased food demands in winter, dogs will also require more water as well. As a dog exercises, it exhales more air than when loafing on the sofa. This exhaled air contains water, and the colder and dryer the air is outside, the more water that will be lost.

Rather than relying on them eating snow or licking ice for water which can lead to poor hydration and requires the burning of more calories to warm the water once ingested warm, clean water should be provided so dogs can conserve body heat.

Heated water bowls can be utilized to prevent the water from freezing, and several of the newer models have power cords with safety sheaths over them that dogs can't chew through. Dog food can also, prior to feeding, be soaked for a period of a few minutes to a few hours to also increase a dog's hydration level.

"Foot care is also important," Garnet said.

Snow can build up between a dog's toes, which is uncomfortable to the dog and can cause splits and abrasions if left unchecked. Garnet booties her dog's feet whenever snow starts to stick between their toes.

Booties may be needed more often for smaller breeds dogs, since they typically don't grow hair between the pads on their feet like huskies and other big dogs do. Coats and other warm clothing can also be utilized during extended outings for small dogs, breeds with thin coats, dogs with medical conditions, or very old or very young dogs, since pups under four months cannot regulate their own body temperature.

Garnet also advises those skiing and skijoring with dogs not to use skis with metal edges.

"In cold weather, even bumping a dog with a metal edge can cause a laceration," she said.

Ski materials aren't the only concern for pet owners during the winter months. While some people like to bring a canine companion along while cross-country or backcountry skiing, Larry Lewis said these folks should exercise caution since trapping season opened on Nov. 1.

"If skiing on an unestablished trail, such as following a snowmachine trail, people should bear in mind there's a definite possibility it could be a trapline," he said.

While leg holds and neck snares may actually be set for fox, coyotes, wolves and other animals, the mechanism will work the same way on a pet dog.

"Most of the trappers are conscientious, and will release dogs. They'll usually try and tie a note to them or something to let the owner know, but that's not always the case if the dog is vicious when they try to release it, so pet owners should take responsibility to not let dogs run loose, unsupervised," Lewis said.

To further reduce conflict, Lewis said there is also an upcoming trapping and snaring seminar at the Soldotna Sports Center on Dec. 1, where pet owners could go to become more informed and educated about the process.

"It's free and open to the public, an would be a good opportunity for people to learn the A to Z's of trapping. Even if not interested in trapping, it'll cover where trapping occurs and how to release a dog quickly and safely," he said.

The woods aren't the only place pet owners should be wary of during the winter months. More urban areas can also pose problems as motorists flush or add antifreeze to their vehicles. This fluorescent green radiator additive is sweet to the taste, but deadly when consumed by dogs in even minute amounts.

"We get one or two cases a year," said Curt Wisnewski, a veterinarian at Kenai Veterinary Hospital.

Wisnewski said signs of antifreeze poisoning typically involve the animal having a drunk appearance initially. They may stagger, display a lack of coordination or apparent disorientation. Animals may also vomit or appear listless or depressed.

"The animal will then appear to recover," he said, but this is far from what is really going on internally.

He said instead of getting better, the dog has actually begun metabolizing ethylene glycol the toxic ingredient in antifreeze changing it into more toxic substances, and within 12 to 36 hours of ingestion these metabolites will reach a level that will cause the dog's kidneys to stop functioning.

"That's why you want to treat them right away, definitely within 12 hours, but preferably within eight," he said.

If brought in quickly, pets can be treated with one of two different compounds that will bind to the toxic chemical, reducing damage to the dog's kidneys and other internal organs.

Wisnewski also said pet owners could also use alternative types of antifreeze in their vehicles, to reduce the possibility of pet-related problems.

"People could use propylene glycol, instead of ethylene glycol. It's less toxic, so you don't have to worry as much if there was an accident where some was ingested," he said.

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

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