As winter approaches, we want to make sure our four-legged friends are safe from the snow and cold. After all, we can bundle up more, but our pets can’t add on any more layers (that is, unless you do it for him or her)!
While most Minnesotans are well aware of the dangers of wind chill, their pets are not. As a veterinary specialist who volunteers during the Iditarod Sled Dog Trail Race in Alaska every year, I know how to keep your dog warm while still enjoying the great outdoors!
My general rule is that any temperature less than 20°F warrants dog booties and a dog jacket. That said, keep in mind that some dogs have a very thin hair coat and lack of body fat to insulate them – dogs such as greyhounds, Italian greyhounds, Boxers, pit bulls, etc., may need a protective gear at temperatures less than 30°F.
Here, some cold weather tips on how to keep your pet safe:
- If your dog doesn’t have a thick, plush hair coat, consider a winter jacket as temperatures drop below 20°F. Make sure it’s snug, and that your male dog doesn’t urinate on the bottom belly strap (which can then worsen frostbite or cold injury).
- While ice salt is only mildly poisonous to dogs, it can cause irritation to the skin, paws, and gastrointestinal tract (when directly ingested). Make sure to use pet-friendly ice melters (which don’t contain salt). More importantly, since you don’t know what your neighbors have put down, make sure to use a damp cloth to wipe off your pet’s paws after coming into the house.
- Have an indoor/outdoor cat? Make sure to provide a safe, warm shelter also. More importantly, make sure to “bang” on your car hood before starting the car (this is particularly important if you see paw prints on your hood!). Cats often hide under a car hood when it’s warm, and can develop severe fan belt injuries (including broken jaw bones, severe lacerations, etc.) when the car is started.
- If your dog lives outside, make sure he has appropriate shelter, which should be out of the wind and raised off the ground. Direct contact onto the ground, snow or ice results in conductive cooling, and isn’t appropriate in cold weather. Dry bedding, such as a thick bed of straw or protection should be used within the shelter.
- Make sure to provide a water source, as these can easily freeze. You can use thermal heaters specifically designed to keep water bowls from freezing.
- Avoid the use of space heaters or other sources of external heat, due to the potential for carbon monoxide poisoning, accidental fire, or thermal injury to your pet.
- Keep an eye out for frostbite – 20 minute walks outside are unlikely to result in a problem, but if you take your dog skijoring or running for prolonged hours at a time, ice crystals can develop in peripheral tissues (like the ears, prepuce, vulva, tail tip, and toes). Keep a careful eye out for the following signs:
- coolness to touch
- eventual sloughing of the tissue
- If you do notice any signs of frost-nip (the stage immediately before frostbite) or frost bite, make sure to bring your pet into a sheltered, warm area immediately. Most importantly, avoid touching or actively heating the area aggressively. Rather, slow re-warming of the tissue with lukewarm water is best. This will prevent further injury with rapid thawing of the ice crystals in the tissue. Seek immediate attention from your veterinarian, to make sure pain medication, salves, or antibiotics aren’t necessary. Keep in mind that once tissue has undergone frostbite, that tissue is more susceptible in the future!
- Keep winter poisons away from your dog and cat. Antifreeze has a sweet taste to it, and is very deadly even when ingested in tiny amounts (as little as a few teaspoons can cause fatal kidney failure!). If you suspect your dog or cat has been poisoned, contact your veterinarian, Animal Emergency & Referral Center, or the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center immediately for life-saving care.
Check out some additional cold weather tips here. Winter doesn’t mean that you have to hole up with your pet indoors – you should still enjoy the beautiful, cold outdoors. It provides stimulation, exercise, and fresh air. Just make sure you’re keeping your pet safe from these cold weather dangers!