Expert tips on how to keep pets safe in cold weather

BySandee LaMotte, CNN, CNNWire
Thursday, January 11, 2024
Protecting your pets in the frigid temperatures
Protecting your pets in the frigid temperatures. Annie McCormick reports during Action News at 4 p.m. on January 31, 2019.

When 2-year-old Clara dons her four rubber booties to go out into the intense cold of a winter morning, she typically does a hop and a skip before she settles down.

"Clara does the hilarious boot walk - lifting legs super high - but soon forgets them when we get outside," said Clara's owner, Vappu Vansén.

The video featured is from a previous report.

Without the boots, the Alaskan malamute, German shepherd and pit bull rescue from Croatia "would limp from the cold," said Vansén, a copywriter for CNN's sister company HBO Max, via email. "If she didn't have them on, she would try to lift all of her four legs in the air at once, so the boots were a life saver."

Windchill and frostbite

That image may bring a smile, but protecting a pet's extremities from frostbite and the salt used to deice roads is serious business, said Dr. Dana Varble, chief veterinary officer for the North American Veterinary Community, a nonprofit organization that provides support and professional development for the global veterinary health care community.

"When it drops down to the 20s and the 10s (Fahrenheit) and subzero conditions, frostbite can happen pretty quickly," Varble said. (That would be about minus 1.7 degrees Celsius to minus 12 Celsius.)

"Tips of ears and tips of tails are hardest hit, and smaller animals are more quickly affected. First, you'll see the skin get pale, and ears may start to bend or curl because the tissues are being damaged."

There are online frostbite charts that list just how long a person can stay outside unprotected depending on the temperature, and those apply to dogs and cats as well, Varble said.

"Most pets aren't like sled dogs, outside all the time slowly acclimating to the cold over weeks to months. Doing that not only changes their coat, but it also changes their fat and muscle layers and even their metabolism," she said. "Windchill matters, too. Wind cuts through fur just like it cuts through our winter gear as well."

Cats need the same protection, said Holly Sizemore, chief mission officer for Best Friends Animal Society, a leading animal welfare organization working to end the killing of cats and dogs in America's shelters by 2025.

"If the temperatures drop and your cat goes outside, you really have to make sure they are not out unattended for very long," Sizemore said.

Even the inside of homes can be chilly, so it's important to have a warming, supportive bed, especially for dogs and cats with arthritis, Sizemore said. But be sure to read the safety instructions before using any bed or warming blanket.

"A lot of people think 'Oh, we'll make it more cozy by putting a blanket over it.' But that can actually pose a fire hazard," she said. "It's very important to be extra careful with all things that involve heat."

Salted roads

There is another concern: Not all cities use pet-safe products to salt the roads in the battle against ice, Varble said.

"It can cause stomach upset and mouth irritation if they're ingesting or licking their feet that have salts on them," she said. "It's a good idea to just do a quick wipe of those paws when they come in because their natural inclination is to lick their feet at some point."

Having an ice-free area, however, is important, especially for older pets who may have arthritis, experts say.

"Just like people, pets can slip on icy patches," Varble said. "So, stay on top of your shoveling, use pet-safe salts, or consider using a heat mat that keeps the snow and ice melted. If you go for longer walks and there's a lot of ice in your neighborhood, try to choose a grass or dirt surface. It may be a bit harder for your pet to walk through the snow, but it's a good trade-off compared to ice."

Stay away from metal bowls if you put water or food outside, as tongues and paws can stick to ice crystals. And here's something you may not have thought of - windows and doors with bad drafts can become icy as well.

"Dogs who love to look out of windows or doors can get frostbitten from ice crystals that form around the edges of windows and doors," she said. "It's rare but does cause skin injuries."

Danger signs

How do you know whether your pet is in danger from the cold? According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, if your pet is "whining, shivering, seems anxious, slows down or stops moving, seems weak, or starts looking for warm places to burrow, get them back inside quickly because they are showing signs of hypothermia."

Not acting quickly enough can lead to more extreme behavior, Varble said.

"When you see an animal or person that's been in the cold for so long that they've stopped shivering, it's actually a bad sign," Varble said. "Then you'll start to see really bizarre behavior. People can move into delirium and stop seeking warm temperatures, hunkering down or trying to build a fire.

"In animals, we'll see them running around outside, acting confused, and that's literally what is happening - their brain is getting cold as well, and they're not behaving in logical ways anymore."

Another danger to watch out for is spilled antifreeze, which is highly toxic but also enticing to animals, Sizemore said.

"You want to buy antifreeze that has a bittering agent, because antifreeze can be very sweet," she said. "It definitely is very dangerous, and if you ever see an antifreeze spill, you should clean it up right away."

Take care of community animals

Also consider another group of animals that shouldn't be forgotten when it comes to winter safety - stray dogs and cats.

"Many places have community cats - free-roaming cats that many people in the neighborhood take care of. They're used to being outside, but they need extra protection as well," Sizemore said. "Thankfully, there are many easy, affordable options online that you can buy or build yourself. I've seen some pretty fun, do-it-yourself cat patios and cat houses."

It's also a good idea to check your car for stray animals before starting it, Sizemore said.

"Car engines are warm, so sometimes feral or community cats will sense that heat and crawl up in the engine," she said. "So, it's always a good idea to give your hood a little bang before you get into your car.

"It's important to be conscientious because sadly, if you start up your car with a cat by the engine, it can injure or kill them."

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