How to keep pets safe during the subzero temperatures expected this winter
Keep your cat or dog happy, even as the weather gets cold.
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Winter can be tough on everyone. But it’s especially hard on the quadrupedal creatures we feed, invite into our homes, and integrate into our families—otherwise known as “pets”—who may have more trouble enduring the colder months than you think, despite their fur coats.
But there are things you can do to help. These are the best ways to keep your pets safe, warm, and happy this winter.
Give pets time to acclimate to colder weather
“It takes a dog about 10 days to get adjusted to any drastic temperature change,” says Andrea Y. Tu, DVM, medical director of Behavior Vets of NYC. Weather changes are often more of a concern in the summer, when some dogs who aren’t used to hot weather can overheat, but it’s also important to keep in mind in the winter—especially for dogs that are small or short-haired or both, and any dogs or cats that spend a lot of time outside.
If you usually take your dog out for walks and it gets cold enough for you to need a coat, know that your pooch is probably feeling the chill, too. If you notice them shivering—which is more likely with a small, short-haired dog like a chihuahua or dachshund than a large, double-coated husky—keep the walks brief until they get used to the lower temperatures.
Pets that spend a lot of time outside, like dogs that stay in the backyard during the day or outdoor cats, also need consideration in the winter. If they have a doghouse or some kind of shelter they stay in, make sure it’s insulated (VetStreet recommends using straw or Mylar blankets to do so) or, better yet, relocate them for the season. “A heated garage or a garage that’s connected to a house with heat, that’s going to give you more protection than just the little wood doghouse that’s outside,” says Tu.
If you have a cat that splits their time between inside and outdoors, try to keep them indoors when the temps drop. Full-time outdoor cats may not need (or take kindly to) extra attention. But if you usually put out food for the cat, do so in a plastic or ceramic bowl—metal is more likely to freeze—or, in extra-cold climates, a heated bowl that prevents food and water from freezing. Outdoor cats may also use car hoods as a warm nap spot, so give a knock and open the top before starting your car.
Keep them comfy in the house, too
Making indoor pets happy during the winter is a little simpler than it is with their outdoor compatriots. “If your house is temperature controlled to your comfort, your pet is probably fine,” says Tu.
That said, there is always a possibility of a dog or cat feeling chilly in a way you do not, so it’s important to pay attention to signs that indicate they may be cold. “If you find that your dog is shivering, it can’t be a bad idea to give them a heat source, whether it’s a blanket or a warmer bed,” she says. Any blanket should work—as long as it doesn’t have anything that they can chew off (and you’re OK with it becoming your pet’s exclusive blanket). A cozier bed, like this insulated lounge sleeper—can also give them something to snuggle up in.
But Tu advises staying away from electrically heated blankets and pads, particularly if your pet is very young or very old. “Older dogs and young kittens and puppies may not be able to sense that temperature change as well, or may not be able to move themselves off that heat pad if they get too hot,” she says.
Bundle them up in the right clothes
One of the best things about winter is getting to see dogs all over decked out in sweaters, parkas, and rain coats. (This is a universal joy, right?) And, not only are these coats adorable, they do help keep dogs warm. But for some dogs (and almost all cats), it might not be worth it. “Some dogs love wearing clothing. Some dogs, you put something on them and it looks like they’re trying to wriggle out of it,” Tu says. “If your dog looks like that, don’t force them to wear clothes.”
If you think your dog needs an extra layer, make sure it fits them properly, doesn’t have any dangling, chew-off-able trinkets (especially if it’s something they’re going to wear all the time), and keep an eye on them the first time they wear it. “Don’t leave them at home for eight hours,” says Tu. “Stay around and make sure they’re not going to get it caught somewhere and hurt themselves.”
Take care to avoid salt and antifreeze
In extra-snowy or icy locales, salt and antifreeze are common elements of winter. These may help make sidewalks less icy, but they can “absolutely be dangerous to outdoor pets,” says Tu. This is because they can irritate the skin or prove lethal if ingested.
For this reason, it’s important to wipe their paws when you finish your walk. You can use a special device to do this—Tu likes the Dexas MudBuster Portable Cleaner—but you can also use paw or baby wipes or a regular towel.
No matter your tool, Tu recommends starting this when they’re a puppy, or ease them into your touching their feet. “You really want to train your dog ahead of time to be comfortable with handling and letting you wipe off the paws,” she says. “If your dog doesn’t like that, that can cause a lot of stress and anxiety for your dog.”
Cats may not be as permissive of paw wipe-downs. But you can take care to protect them against dangerous winter chemicals by not using antifreeze in your backyard and cleaning up any antifreeze spills you happen to notice.
Get paw protection with booties
Rubber paw booties are another winter pet protection option, particularly in wet, snowy areas. Not only can they help prevent contact with antifreeze and salt, they keep dampness and snow off the dog’s paws, which could make them feel colder. They may also protect against contact with electrical wires, which, on rare occasions, can degrade due to salt and cause electrocution. And—bonus!—they can keep dogs from tracking the slushy muck into the house after a walk.
But booties may not be necessary for all dogs. This is because dogs’ arteries and veins are so close together that they exchange heat—called a counter-current heat exchanger—and keep the paws temperature-regulated. “Because of this, they don’t lose as much temperature,” Tu says. So, if you have a larger dog, and they generally seem OK out in the snow, you can probably skip the booties.
You’ll also want to use caution with putting booties on older dogs, particularly ones that have never worn shoes before. Paws have a tactile sensation that helps dogs keep their grip on a surface, so if a senior dog is less nimble than they once were, losing some of that grip might make them more prone to slipping. “You don’t want your dog to slip and fall and then have an injury as a result of the booties because they are already compromised because of their age or their arthritis or something else,” says Tu.
Not sure if booties are right for your dog? Check with your vet to see what they recommend.
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