How to Keep Your Pet Safe in Cold Weather

I feel fortunate to live in Southern California where our winter temperature rarely dips below 50°.

Having grown up on the East coast, I am well aware that the winter temperatures I’m now used to in Los Angeles aren’t the norm for the rest of the country.  As a result, the need exists for owners to take extra precautions to prevent pet injury or illness associated with wintry weather or other environmental or man-made factors.

Fortunately, through a common sense approach and proper planning, owners can help ensure their companion canines and felines don’t suffer the potentially adverse effects of frosty weather.

Winter’s Cold Can Cause Frostbite and Hypothermia

When exposed to extreme temperatures, blood flow to skin is restricted.  Delivery of oxygen and nutrients and removal of metabolic waste from body tissues leads to cell damage or death.  Your pet’s skin can become cold to the touch and appear pale pink, white, or blue.  Unresolved frostbite can progress to gangrene requiring veterinary medical and surgical treatment.

Hypothermia occurs when a pet’s body temperature drops below the normal range of 100-102.5 +/- 0.5.  Associated with hypothermia is the reduction of blood flow to the extremities (limbs, feet, ears, etc.) so the vital organs (brain, heart, lungs, kidneys, and liver) and blood flow stay sufficiently preserved.  Hypothermia can also contribute to frostbite.

Being exposed to moisture also increases a pet’s potential to develop frostbite and hypothermia.  A healthy coat of fur or a moisture-repelling fabric pet garment can provide some protection from nature’s assault.  Geriatric, juvenile, mobility-compromised, and sick pets are more likely to suffer health problems associated with exposure to cold and moisture.

The Wintry Pet Dangers Caused by Man

As a society, we battle snow, ice, and freezing weather so that walking, driving, and participating in other outdoor activities is safer.  Unfortunately, while striving to promote human safety, we inadvertently create mild to severe pet health hazards.

Rock salt and other deicing agents that liberally cover our streets and sidewalks can irritate paws or cause digestive tract upset (decreased appetite, diarrhea, vomit, etc.), electrolyte imbalances, and other ailments if consumed.  Sand or pet-safe deicers (Safe Paw, Morton’s Safe-T-Pet, etc.) should be used instead of rock salt.

Antifreeze (ethylene glycol or EG) can leak from car engines and create a toxic pool of tasty, green-tinged liquid that if consumed by your cat or dog will quickly cause kidney failure.  Propylene Glycol (PG) replaces EG in pet-safe antifreeze (AMSOIL Antifreeze and Engine Coolant, Peak’s Sierra, etc.) and has less potential to sicken your pet.  I still don’t recommend letting your pet lick any antifreeze, be it EG or PG.  When preparing your car for winter, hire a professional service to complete the job at a site away from your home to avoid toxic spills in your garage or driveway that could sicken your pet.

When walking your dog this winter (or any season), keep him on a leash and under close observation.  Choose places to walk that are free from rock salt or other deicers instead of sidewalks or roads that are coated with chemicals that inhibit ice formation.   Additionally, avoid sites where antifreeze may collect, such as parking lots and places where cars park on driveways.

Use a soft cloth moistened with warm water to wipe off your pet’s paws before coming indoors.  Light-colored fabric permits you see any substances being wiped off the paws, which helps clue you into what collects on your pet’s feet.

Avoid Low Light Environments

Winter days have fewer hours of light, so the normal time you walk your dog in the early morning or late afternoon may be dark and harbor hidden dangers.

During low-light hours, you may be less visible to cars when walking on or next to a road.  Additionally, snow banks at the end of driveways and along streets can put you and you dog in the path of oncoming vehicles.

Always keep your dog under control using a non-extendable leash and collar or harness.  Most-ideal is if the leash and collar or harness is made with reflective material to alert oncoming drivers.  Additionally, don’t permit your cat to go outside unattended, especially in low-light times of the day.

Prepare Your Pet’s Body for Winter Activity

Spending time outside in the cold and snow puts more stress on your pet’s body than in dry and temperate climates.   Before permitting your pet to vigorously exercise during winter, schedule a wellness exam with your veterinarian.

Consider how challenging it is for you to walk through thick snow or control your tendency to slide on ice.  Our pets experience the same or increased physical challenge when maneuvering in winter’s elements.  Ailments like arthritis, heart and lung disease, hyper-/hypothyroidism, kidney and liver failure, cancer and others can be exacerbated by exercising in inclement weather.

Blood vessel contraction and reduced blood flow to the skin permits less heat to escape the body through the skin.  Heat then exits through the respiratory tract (nose, lungs, trachea, etc.), oral cavity (tongue, gums, etc.), and paw pads.  This causes water loss to occur due to a process called insensible body water loss.

Only a 10% reduction in total body fluids can lead to serious illness, so it’s crucial that owners promote hydration during their pets winter-time exercise.  Take a break at least every 15 minutes and offer a clean, room temperature drink of water.

Have a safe and fun winter.  Take preventive measures to keep your pet free from illness and trauma.

Meet the Author: Patrick Mahaney

Dr. Patrick Mahaney VMD, CVA, CVJ is a veterinarian and certified veterinary acupuncturist providing services to Los Angeles-based clients both on a house call and in-clinic basis. Dr. Mahaney’s unique approach integrating eastern and western medical perspectives has evolved into a concierge house call practice, California Pet Acupuncture and Wellness (CPAW), Inc. Additionally, Dr. Mahaney offers holistic treatment for canine and feline cancer patients at the Veterinary Cancer Group (Culver City, CA).

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