Protecting your furry friends in winter

If you have a pet — or many pets, we aren’t judging — you probably already know the basics of keeping them safe and happy throughout the cold-weather season. Or maybe you’re looking to add a fur baby to your household over the holidays (if so, please send pictures of said baby. For science.) Regardless, it’s always a good idea to refresh your memory on the things that are important to look out for in wintertime — for your pet’s safety, your peace of mind, and to avoid a hefty vet bill. 

Be Prepared

First and foremost, be prepared for cold weather, even if it is still pretty mild outside. If you have a pet that requires grooming, make sure they aren’t getting a summer haircut but rather one that leaves a little more length to act as a winter coat. If you have short-hair breeds and you know they’ll be going outside, invest in a sweater or coat to put on them for their outdoor forays. Added bonus: this is always adorable. (Image from Phillip Island Penguin Foundation)

If you live in a region that’s generally cold in the winter — hello Capital Region — it’s also important to have a plan in place for when winter storms knock out the power. A few suggestions: have an extra emergency food stash and a few bottles of water, a place for them to stay warm if (heaven forbid) the heat goes out, and even a way for them to relieve themselves indoors if necessary. (Piddle pads can be live-savers for small dogs who might get lost in a snowdrift.)

Cold Weather Tips for Dogs

Some dog owners keep their dogs outside. Others sleep with their dogs under the blankets and tell their husband that there just isn’t enough room for him, go sleep on the couch. Ahem. I have no idea who does that. Still, others fall someplace in between. Here are some cold weather tips for wherever you fall as a dog owner.

For outdoor dogs:

  • Caring for your pets in cold weather - outdoor sheltersDogs left outside year-round need — NEED — appropriate shelter. The American Humane Society describes appropriate shelter as: “…a draft-free shelter large enough to stand and turn around in, yet small enough to retain body heat. Use a layer of straw or other bedding material to help insulate them against the cold. Make sure the entrance to the shelter faces away from the direction of incoming wind and snow.”  
  • A word on blankets: While we may think blankets or towels are softer and “nicer” bedding, they are inappropriate for outdoor shelters because they retain moisture and will actually contribute to hypothermia more than straw or another less-absorbent bedding material. 
  • Staying warm in the cold burns more calories, so make sure to feed your outdoor pet a little bit more than usual.
  • Check on their water source: if it is below freezing, the water bowl will need a heat source, or else regular replacement to ensure the animal has access to drinkable water.
  • Regularly check your pets’ extremities for frost-bite if it is really cold outside. Frost-bitten skin appears pale or gray, and if noticed right away can be treated by wrapping in a warm, dry towel.

Tips for dogs that live inside (but still need to go outdoors):

  • Use a leash more regularly if your dog often walks off-leash. During storm conditions, pets are likely to get lost or wander away (so make sure they’re microchipped, too!) Also if you’re walking near bodies of water, a leash will prevent them from breaking through thin ice, which would almost always necessitate a dangerous rescue operation, not to mention put your dog at serious risk of hypothermia and death.
  • Booties help to keep your pet's feet protectAfter a nice romp in the snow, thoroughly clean your pet’s paws and underbelly. Get rid of any snowballs stuck between their pads, which are not only painful but can lead to frostbite, and wipe them down well to make sure they don’t have any remaining salt or other de-icing chemicals you may have used on a patio or sidewalk. These are not only harmful to the pads themselves, but if ingested can lead to poisoning symptoms such as excessive drooling, vomiting, and lethargy.
  • Alternatively, invest in little booties for your dog if they love long treks through the ice and snow. They aren’t very expensive, and the worst-case scenario is your dog never gets over walking in them like they’re dancing on hot coals.

Cold Weather Tips for Cats

Sweaters keep cats warm in the winterAhhh, cats. Our (mostly) benevolent overlords. Most cats are smart enough to know that it’s too cold outside, and will instead occupy prime real estate in front of the fire or on top of a heat source (she says as she tries to push a feline off her keyboard). There are always those slightly feral beasts, though, that insist on hunting through snowdrifts as if they’re some kind of snow leopard, so here are a few things you might try: 

  • If you can’t keep your wild beast inside, take extra precautions before your morning commute. Cats will often seek shelter and heat under the hoods of automobiles and are injured or killed when the ignition gets turned on. It’s a good idea to develop the habit of banging on the car hood a few times before starting it every morning, as other wild animals often get the same idea.
  • Wipe their paws,  if they’ll let you. Snowballs hurt their little toe beans, and de-icing chemicals are equally, if not more, dangerous for cats to ingest because of their smaller size.
  • Try to ensure they’re inside overnight. Train them to come home in the evening by offering extra treats when they come inside.
  • Don’t forget: sweaters are extra adorable on recalcitrant cats. Just watch out for their murder mittens.