We all notice the severe drop in temperature around the winter months, but have we really stopped to think about how our pets are affected? After becoming so used to relying on humans for survival, they can find coping with such changes difficult. We need to ensure we protect our pets as much as we can against any harsh weather this winter.
Keeping Pets Warm
A common misconception is that pets are more equipped to face cold temperatures than humans because of their fur coats, when they actually need more protection than you may think. Help your dog to retain body heat by ensuring their coat isn’t shaved as short as usual, and provide a winter jacket for dogs with short fur. A wet jacket will make your pet even colder so when taking your dog for a walk, bring a few just in case. Drying your dog well after walking is also important, and remove any ice or snow stuck to the fur with a towel. If you have bathed your pet, they need to be completely dry before you walk them again. Reduce the length of your dog’s walks during extremely cold weather, as prolonged exposure to snow and ice can cause frostbite and hypothermia.
Frostbite and Hypothermia
Pets are particularly vulnerable to these conditions during the winter months, and both can occur simultaneously. Watch out for any signs of hypothermia including whining, anxiety and shivering. Frostbite can sometimes be harder to spot. The parts of the body that are the least protected by hair, such as the underside of your dog’s paws, are more likely to be affected. Look out for discolouring of the skin to white and blue, eventually turning red and then black. Cutting the hair in between your pet’s paws to minimise the amount of snow and ice they will collect will help to decrease the chance of frostbite. Lameness after a walk is an indication that ice or snow between the paws is causing aggravation.
Darker evenings reduce visibility, making it easier for your pet to become injured by a car or lost. Try to walk your dog during daylight hours if possible. If this in unavoidable then make sure your pet is attached to a lead in areas with any traffic, and that they always remain in sight. Walking your dog near or on top of any ice is a big risk as they could fall through, plus your own life could be endangered by attempting to save them. If there is any frozen water nearby, put your dog on a lead so they won’t go anywhere that could be dangerous for them. Snow and ice disguises familiar scents your pet would use to find their way home if they got lost, so it is vital that your pet always wears a collar with your name and address on it. Also, don’t forget to microchip your pet.
Never leave your pet alone in a car or outside for long periods of time. Although the risks of doing this in summer have been well publicised, many people don’t realise that an animal left in a car during the coldest times of the year can get hypothermia, or even freeze to death. The same can be said of leaving your pet outdoors for a long time so bear this in mind when letting them out. Consider that it may be best to keep your cat indoors during winter weather, as darker nights may make them more vulnerable to traffic accidents. Keep them active by providing plenty of toys for them to play with.
If your pet lives outside, you need to take extra measures to make them warm and comfortable. Raise their shelter off the floor to avoid heat escaping into the ground, and make sure it is warm and dry. Bear in mind that it still needs to be large enough for your pet to sit and lie down in comfortably without very much heat escaping. Spread straw or shavings on the floor of your pet’s shelter, and effectively cover the doorway to keep them warm. Plastic or rubber bowls would be best to feed your pet outside, as their tongue could become stuck to metal during the colder temperatures. If you use upright water bottles, you’ll have to take care to use an insulating bottle cover and ensure the metal spouts are defrosted.
Cats may seek warmth underneath cars during winter, so the risk of them getting seriously injured increases. Many people think that switching on the engine will startle any hiding cats into escaping, but they can actually be injured or killed by a car’s fan belt. Look underneath your car to check for any cats, and banging loudly on your bonnet should encourage any to make a hasty escape.
Changes to Diet
Your pet’s diet may require some adjustment during the coldest times of the year. Feeding your pet more protein will give them the extra energy they need. Some people think they need to give their pet more food than usual to keep them warm, when actually it can cause weight gain that can only lead to health problems. Only do this if your pet spends a lot of time outdoors, as they need more food to create enough body heat and energy.
Your pet may encounter dangerous chemicals such as anti-freeze during winter, whilst salt spreading can cause salt to get caught in between paws. Your dog may pick chemicals up on their body through walking, and ingesting them when licking can be extremely dangerous. Wash or wipe your pet thoroughly after walking, especially their paws, legs and stomach to get rid of anything harmful. Your pet may be tempted to lick spilled chemicals such as anti-freeze so ensure that any you use are pet-friendly, and clean up spillages immediately.
It is also important to think about the needs of pets other than dogs and cats. Guinea pigs need to be brought indoors during the winter months, and rabbits are usually comfortable in low temperatures as long as plenty of warm bedding is provided. Quick temperature changes can prove fatal for rabbits, so if you choose to bring your rabbit inside you must raise their body temperature slowly to prevent shock.
Special care also needs to be taken with horses, as an animal that spends a lot of time outside and is so reliant on human care. A horse’s coat becomes thicker in autumn to better equip them with the ensuing winter, but you still need to make sure your horse’s stable or shelter is warm and comfortable, and check for any draughts. Some breeds will benefit from a blanket or a rug, but bear in mind that extra insulation can be deadly for some breeds. Put water in a rubber bucket to make extracting any ice easier.
Animals most affected by cold weather are the young, elderly and sick, so ensure that you cater appropriately for your animal’s needs. They can find regulating their body temperature more difficult, making them more vulnerable in colder conditions. Furthermore, older pets may be more likely to fall as they can find walking on slippery surfaces challenging.
Consider taking your pet for a veterinary examination, as some conditions may be exacerbated by colder weather. Winter is a good time to check that your pet is healthy, especially if they haven’t been examined for a while.
Insurance is another way to protect your pet. Animal Friends offer a range of policies for dogs, cats and horses, and we also insure puppies, kittens and older pets.