Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Protect Your Pet From Cold Weather Hazards

Pet Column for the week of January 31, 2005

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Kim Marie Labak
Information Specialist

When the cold winds start blowing, we need to consider how the cold can affect our furry companions. Cold weather hazards range from hypothermia to antifreeze poisoning.

According to Dr. Steven Marks, a veterinarian formerly with the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, pets should be out in the cold only for short periods, especially the very young, old, or sick, which have a decreased ability to retain body heat in cold weather. When your pet is outside, watch for these signs that she is too cold: refusing to walk, lifting her paws, whimpering, or shivering.

Wind and wetness also draw heat from an animal's body, so keep your pet dry and protected from gusts. Dr. Marks explains that although sweaters and windbreakers for pets may provide some protection, they don't necessarily keep pets from getting a chill. Even "cold weather breeds" such as Huskies need to stay warm; if they have been bred and raised in a moderate climate, their fur coats may not be thick enough for freezing temperatures.

Animals that get lost can get hurt or stuck out in the cold, which can lead to hypothermia, or a critical loss of body heat, so make sure your pets stay on a leash. Animals that seem impervious to the cold during short walks can get critically ill if stuck in the cold for hours. An animal that has been left in the cold and appears lethargic should see a veterinarian immediately.

Cats should stay indoors in the winter, and cats that are left to roam outdoors will seek out a warm, though not necessarily safe, place to stay when weather gets extreme. One convenient warm spot is the engine block of a vehicle that has been recently running--it's easy for a cat to crawl under the car and up onto the engine. The Veterinary Teaching Hospital has seen several cases where cats resting under the hood got clipped by engine fans or fan belts when a driver unknowingly started the vehicle. Banging on the hood of your car before starting it can scare away any household or neighborhood cats that may be resting underneath.

Dogs' toes and paw pads present special problems in the winter. Salt, snow, ice, and the resulting moisture can cause irritation of the skin between the toes and on the surface of the pads. "Think or how dry, cracked, and itchy the skin on your hands can get in the winter," says Dr. Marks. "Now think of having that irritated skin on the bottom of your feet."

Dr. Marks says booties are a good way to protect paws from salt and snow if a dog will tolerate them (many sled dogs wear these). Lotions and emollient sprays available from pet stores may keep snow from sticking, but these don't provide full protection from the cold.

Dr. Marks suggests washing dogs' paws with warm water after a walk to wash away salt. Dry the paws thoroughly, especially between the toes, since constant moisture can cause dermatitis (skin inflammation). Be sure to inspect feet for cracks, redness, and bleeding. Cracked foot pads need veterinary care, since dogs may chew at the itchy skin, exacerbating the problem. Left untreated, cracks may widen as the dog bears weight on the feet, interfering with healing.

Other extremities, such as the nose, ear tips, and tail, get less warmth and blood flow in the cold and can get frostbitten--another reason to limit the time your pet is outdoors.

Other winter hazards arise not from the cold but from human activities. Be cautious when using a snow-blower, or when bringing a dog along on a snowmobiling, sledding, or skiing trip. Like people, pets can get hurt by these activities. Also keep in mind that antifreeze is toxic and attractive to pets, so always keep your garage and driveway free of spills and leaks.

For more winter safety tips for your pet, contact your local veterinarian.