Preparing Your Pets for Winter

By Krista Williams, BSc, DVM, CCRP; Robin Downing, DVM, DAAPM, DACVSMR, CVPP, CRPP

It's that time of year again. Time to have the oil and coolant mixture changed, the belts and hoses checked, and the snow tires installed. We are used to thinking about winterizing our vehicles, but those of us who share our lives with animals must remember to “winterize" our pets as well. Colder winter months and the busy holiday season can pose special health risks to pets. Help your special furry friends weather the winter by considering a few simple tips.

Is antifreeze really a deadly poison?

Antifreeze (ethylene glycol) has a sweet taste that many animals find irresistible. They may seek it out to drink it. Unfortunately, it only takes a small amount to cause permanent and fatal damage to the kidneys. Never drain antifreeze into the street, be careful to wipe up any spills, and store antifreeze in tightly closed containers far out of the reach of pets (and children). There is no antifreeze product available that is truly safe.

My dog has a thick coat. Do I need to be concerned about windchill?

No matter what the temperature outside, windchill can be devastating. That same windchill combined with dampness, rain, sleet, or heavy, wet snow can be fatal. It is best not to leave any dog outdoors unsupervised when the temperature drops. Cold, wet, windy snowstorms can often come up both quickly and unexpectedly. Shorthaired, very young, and senior dogs are at greatest risk for problems related to exposure to cold.

A dog is happiest and healthiest when kept indoors, going outside to relieve himself, go for a walk, or play a game of fetch with his owner. If however, your dog must live outside, protection from the elements is critical. An insulated doghouse is a must. It should be elevated a few inches above the ground to prevent moisture from accumulating inside.

Carpeting, a blanket, or a padded bed should cover the floor of the doghouse. It must be big enough for your dog to stand up, lie down, and turn around comfortably, but small enough to contain body heat. The doorway of the doghouse should face away from prevailing winds, and burlap or canvas hung over the opening can act as a "door".

"Outdoor dogs need more calories in the winter just to keep warm."

Outdoor dogs need more calories in the winter just to keep warm. Talk to your veterinarian about a specific dietary recommendation (and portion size) in order to ensure that your pet is meeting his energy requirements. Adequate water is just as important to an outdoor dog's health as food. You will need to check the water supply frequently to make sure it does not freeze. Also, use plastic bowls rather than metal. In low temperatures, a warm, wet dog tongue can stick and freeze to metal dishes.

Are pet paws delicate? Do I need to do anything specific to protect them?

Pet paws, like human hands and faces, are susceptible to frostbite. Remove caked ice from your dog's feet as soon as possible. Frostbitten skin may turn color, becoming reddish, gray, or white. It may become scaly and begin peeling. If you suspect frostbite, thaw out the affected areas slowly using warm, moist towels that are changed frequently. Have your pet evaluated by your veterinarian as soon as possible to determine the extent of the damage.

Salt and other chemicals that are used to melt snow and ice have varying degrees of toxicity. Their effects depend upon the ingredients and the amount ingested. These chemicals can burn the pads of a pet's feet. If the pet then licks its feet to clean them, the mouth maybe burned too. Wipe your pet's feet off with a damp towel after any exposure. Read the labels of the products you use, and take all recommended precautions.

Should I bring my outdoor rabbit inside to let her warm up during cold weather?

While it is best for rabbits to be housed indoors at all times, some bunnies do reside outside. It is very tempting, when the weather gets colder, to allow rabbits to spend some time indoors to "give them a break" from the cold. Unfortunately, this is much like a person bundled up in a winter coat, walking into the house and sitting down for dinner without removing his or her parka. After dinner, this same person then leaves the warm house once again to brave the elements. It does not take long for a serious chill to take hold. This is what happens when a rabbit, whose body has adapted to the variations in the weather and that can cope with the cold, is brought into the house. Their body is unable to compensate for the external warmth, becomes overheated, and then succumbs to the cold once returned to the outdoor environment. Pneumonia is a common outcome.

Rabbits that live outdoors must be protected from wind, rain, sleet, and snow. However, rapidly changing temperatures are a dangerous scenario. A viable compromise may be to create a space within a garage for the rabbit's hutch during the cold winter months.

Common sense can guide most of the decisions you make as you keep pets out of harm's way during the upcoming winter months. Consider the consequences as our furry family members face the frigid cold.

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