Snow Dogs (and Cats!): How to Keep Your Pets Warm in Cold Weather
Winter wonderlands can make for some exciting play time with curious pets interested in exploring the endless stretches of snowy goodness. But overexposure to extreme weather conditions (hello bomb cyclones and polar vortexes!) can have adverse effects to your pet’s health – so check out our roundup of tips for how you can keep your furry loved one safe during the winter weather months.
Care for Dogs
Plan to bring outdoor dogs to an inside shelter as often as possible during days and nights with bad weather or freezing temperatures. If it is not possible to move your pup indoors, create a cozy, and ideally enclosed, shelter with warm bedding and blankets where they can escape the elements.
For indoor dogs who may go outside during the winter months for daily walks and exercise time, plan to take the following preparations shared from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) to ensure that time spent in frigid temperatures or inclement weather is safe for your fur baby:
- Always keep your dog on a leash during walks or outside playtime that may occur during inclement winter weather. Ensure your pup’s tags are securely fastened and contain up-to-date information before you head outdoors.
- Bring a towel to clean off stinging paws that may become irritated during walks on icy or snowy terrain.
- Short-haired dogs+ may need some additional coating to help them stay warm during winter walks; consider placing your fur baby in a coat or sweater with a high collar that provides coverage from the neck to the base of their tail and belly.
- Use pet booties or massage petroleum jelly on your pet’s paws before heading out into icy conditions. This protective gear will help prevent irritation to your pup’s paws from salt and other chemical agents.
- Keep walks shorter than normal to ensure that your pet does not experience over-exposure to extreme weather or temperatures. And never, ever leave your pet unattended in a car during freezing temperatures. Cars can simulate refrigerators that hold in the cold and could cause pets to freeze to death.
Upon returning to the warmth of your home after some refreshing time outside, keep the following best practices top of mind to ensure your pup doesn’t track any cold-weather hazards indoors:
- Clean and dry your pet’s paws and underbelly to ensure that you have removed all ice pellets or any salt or ice-melting chemicals they may have picked up on their fur during wintertime walks or outdoor play.
- Frequent trips from freezing temperatures into the heat of your home could cause dry skin symptoms for your dog, including itchy or flaking skin. Try to keep your home humidified so any constant, drastic changes in air temperate aren’t too harsh for your pet.
- Even if your pup is shivering slightly, avoid the tendency to warm them with a full bath. Too many washings can remove the key oils in your dog’s fur that help keep his/her skin from drying out.
- Don’t be afraid to consider feeding your pet a little more during the winter season – even if they aren’t getting as much exercise, dogs burn a little more energy than usual during cold temperatures to keep their body temperatures regulated.
Care for Cats
Though most kitties are likely to stay snuggled up indoors and avoid the cool winter breezes all together, should you be a pet parent to an outdoor cat there are some precautions you can take to help your four-legged furball stay safe and warm during the bitterly cold winter season.
No matter how apt your cat may be to survive in the elements, nothing will better prepare them to take on the frigid temperatures than by providing a shelter that is properly sized and insulated.
According to the Humane Society of the United States of America, one of the key components to creating an effective shelter is to ensure it is the correct size. Shelters that are too large allow crucial heat from your cat’s body to escape from the structure – so you may consider building your own shelter to best fit your kitty’s specific needs.
A few additional considerations:
- Although our first instinct may be to provide blankets or towels to help keep cats warm in their shelter, these materials can actually absorb a cat’s body heat and proceed to chill them. Instead, consider lining your cat’s shelter with straw (not hay – which can trigger allergic reactions!) or pillowcases stuffed with packaging peanuts or shredded newspaper.
In locations with incredibly cold temperatures, the Humane Society recommends lining the shelter with Mylar, a reflective material that can be used to enhance insulation and is safe for cats to lie on.
- Ensure that your cat has easy access to plenty of water and do not place the water too close to or inside the shelter. Should the water accidentally spill and make the shelter wet, it could end up feeling more like a refrigerator for your fur baby rather than a warm oasis.
In areas where temperatures are likely to drop below the freezing point (32°F), you may want to purchase a thermal or solar-heated water bowl to help keep the water in their dish from freezing over.
- To keep your cat’s wet food moist/prevent it from freezing, consider placing his or her food dish inside the shelter – even if the food freezes, the heat from your cat’s body once they are inside the insulated unit will rewarm the food. Note: Should you place your cat’s food inside their shelter, plan to move it away from the entrance.
- Some cats like to crawl into the hoods of cars to sleep near the warmth from a recently running engine. Always check if there may be an unanticipated guest catnapping in the hood of your car before you start the engine.
Cold Weather Medical Emergencies
If you are unable to avoid venturing out into the great (and probably frigid) outdoors during the winter months, plan to closely monitor your pet’s behaviors for signs that they have developed either of the season’s more dangerous medical conditions: frostbite or hypothermia.
Frostbite in Pets
Frostbite occurs when the body can no longer stay warm due to over exposure to frigid temperatures and parts of living tissue begin to freeze. According to Indiana Public Media’s A Moment of Science, animals’ bodies conserve heat during extreme drops in temperature by concentrating the flow of blood to the central, vital organs and by reducing blood flow to extremities and skin.
This process can cause exposed skin to temperatures below freezing to become too cold, resulting in the first stage of frostbite: frostnip. The flow of blood to the frostbitten tissue can completely stop if temperatures become extremely low (about 5°F); a total lack of blood flow can cause tissues in the exposed skin and extremities die and allow for full frostbite to set in.
Signs of Pet Frostbite
Because frostbite may not be immediately noticeable in pets thanks to their hair and coats, plan to be on continued alert for the following symptoms after prolonged periods in extremely cold temperatures:
- Skin discoloration on the feet, tail and ears
- Pain and swelling of the feet, tail or ears
- Sloughing of the skin
- Skin ulcers
Hypothermia in Pets
Hypothermia occurs when a pet’s body temperature drops way below what is normal for that breed and generally occurs as their bodies gradually lose heat faster than they can produce it. Hypothermia can cause circulatory, respiratory, and nervous systems to slow down and, in extreme causes, can result in heart failure or death.
According to the Weld County’s (Colorado) Animal Control Unit, normal body temperatures for dogs can range from 100.5°F to 102.5°F while the normal body temperatures for cats can range from 100°F to 102.5°F. Note: Because puppies and kittens have much lower body temperatures, they are more likely to susceptible to hypothermia than adult pets.
Signs of Pet Hypothermia
- Muscle Stiffness
- Difficulty breathing
- Fixed & dilated pupils
- Low heart & respiratory rate
If you notice any of these signs or symptoms in your pet after prolonged exposure to inclement winter weather, plan to contact your veterinary professional or local animal emergency hospital as soon as possible.
Learn more tips on how to keep your pets safe during the winter months by checking out the following resources: