Local veterinarians share tips on winter pet care

GTNS photo by Isaac Hamlet

Outdoor pets may have an easier time handling cold weather due to thicker fur — for animals that are accustomed to the cold, pet sweaters can actually prove more harmful than helpful.
GTNS photo by Isaac Hamlet Outdoor pets may have an easier time handling cold weather due to thicker fur — for animals that are accustomed to the cold, pet sweaters can actually prove more harmful than helpful.

The start of this winter may have been warm, but there are still more than two months left. With possible cold temperatures on the horizon, pet owners can stay informed about best practices for winter care with helpful tips from local veterinarians.

Both Dr. Travis Van De Berg of Mt. Pleasant’s Northeast Animal Hospital and Shelly Wickham of the Washington Veterinary Clinic highlight keeping pets dry and sheltered as primary concerns during winter.

“The biggest thing for dogs and cats is shelter; protection from the elements,” said Dr. Van De Berg. “As long as they can get out of the wind and out of the weather they can actually take more cold because they have hair all over their bodies.”

For outdoor pet houses, blankets and straw inside can be helpful for insulation, but should be checked and cleaned or changed periodically. If a pet gets wet and goes to sleep in a space that is also wet while temperatures drop, the animal is more likely to freeze.

Doors for outdoor pet shelters should ideally be facing out of the wind. Heating lamps and the like are not recommended as they are fire hazards.

“Another thing with strictly outdoor dogs is you want to make sure they have fresh water,” said Dr. Wickham. “You may have to go out and break up ice several times a day depending how cold it is to make sure they can get water to drink.”

Diets should also be adjusted this time of year. Outdoor dogs will likely need more food since their bodies burn more calories keeping them warm. Dogs going between indoors and outdoors should probably decrease calorie intake since they will likely be spending less time outside than they normally would and be burning fewer calories.

Dr. Wickham also highlighted the importance of keeping pets groomed during the season.

“Snow and ice can get between their toes,” she said. “It can cause matting and issues, especially if they have long hair.”

More frequent short walks during daylight are advised to minimize the cold the pet is exposed to.

“If you get down in 10 degree or even 0, there’s a lot of dogs that — if they’re acclimated and they have a haircoat — they’d do fine as long as they can get out of the wind,” Dr. Van De Berg said. “But if it’s a house dog that gets outside, you get under 20 degrees, they’re not going to live a long time. They’re not used to the weather, they don’t have thick hair.”

According to Dr. Wickham, “If you’re cold, your pet probably is too. They don’t want to be out there any more than you do.” She encourages people to go out with their dogs rather than just letting them out and back in.

Pet owners may put sweaters or windbreakers on their dogs to protect them from the temperature. But even doing this, though, there are things to be aware of. Dr. Van De Berg only recommends sweaters for indoor pets with short hair.

“Actually if you put a sweater on a normal dog that has thick long hair, it could actually make them colder,” he said.

Even for the short hair dogs, he doesn’t recommend leaving the sweater on. Doing so could cause moisture to get trapped underneath, making bacteria form and cause problems.

Both veterinarians also advise pet owners to be aware of toxic ice melt. Even if pet-safe ice melt has been purchased, that doesn’t mean icemelt used throughout the neighborhood is. If pets are exposed to toxic ice melt it can cause chemical burns or — if an animal licks its feet after walking — prove toxic. Pet-safe bootees can be used cover the feet while outside and help prevent exposure to ice melt.

It should also be remembered for pet owners using antifreeze to keep it out of reach of pets. It is sweet tasting but very harmful; if there are spills or leaks nearby, it should be cleaned up as soon as possible.

For primarily indoor animals, pet owners should be mindful of heat sources around their houses. Dr. Wickham pointed out that cats especially are heat-seeking animals which might curl up next to space heaters or furnaces, which might cause burns on the pet.

Dr. Wickham also notes that cats might look for heat under car hoods. “In the morning, before you start up your car, if you have a lot of outdoor cat or barn cats, check under the hood or make a noise by knocking on the hood and if there’s a cat under there they will hopefully hear that and jump out.”

Barn cats can generally get heat and warmth in the barn, but pet owners can buy or make insolated boxes to provide a warm space for the animal for the wintertime.