Winter Wonderings: Prepping Your Furkids for the Cold Ahead

If you have a dog that spends most of its time romping in your backyard, or a kitty that whiles away the day in a sunny patch on the front porch, winter's arrival may be a rude awakening. Sure, your precious pets are covered in fur. But many just aren’t equipped to be out in frigid temperatures for prolonged periods.

So how can you make sure your four-legged friends are warm and well-cared for when the mercury dips?

 Dog in Teepee

Keeping Warm: Fur Isn't Flawless

We may admire our pets' plush coats, but as beautiful as fur is, it's not a perfect insulator, especially when it's very cold.

In winter, pets can suffer from the weather extremes "for the same reason that mountain climbers can get hypothermia no matter what type of protective clothing they are wearing," says Oregon veterinarian Marla J. McGeorge, DVM. "Mammalian systems for heat retention and regulation can be overwhelmed by excessive cold."

And, if an animal's coat gets wet, the fur loses much of its insulating ability. For cats and dogs with short fur, the protection is even more minimal, "sort of like wearing a T-shirt when it's below freezing." Your pet's toes, nose, and ears are even more vulnerable to chilly temps.

That's why, in winter, pets need protection from extreme temperatures, which includes warm, dry, draft-free shelter; plenty of food; and lots of water. Take precautions any time the temperatures drop below freezing, says Jean Sonnenfield, DVM, an Atlanta veterinarian. And remember, if it’s too cold for you, it’s probably too cold for your pet.

Cat in Sweater

Pet Winter Safety: Should Your Pet Dress for the Weather?

We don coats to face the frigid temps, so it seems natural to think that coats for dogs and cats might offer them similar protection from the elements. The vets we talked to agreed -- to a point.

Coats to protect cats from cold weather are probably not a good idea, say pros we talked to. "Cats generally won't tolerate them well," Sonnenfield says, adding that pet clothes are probably most useful for your pooch.

Yet, as cute as your dog's cold weather coat may be, don't put clothes on your pet and then shoo him outside to wander without supervision, says Susan G. Wynn, DVM, a veterinary nutritionist in Georgia. Not only does your pet risk frostbite and other danger if his canine clothes get wet, he may "try to get out of the sweater or coat and get caught in a way that makes suffocation a risk." Monitoring your dressed-up dog is essential.

While you're at it, keep an eye on your pup's pads too, Sonnenfield says. "It does not take long for snow to freeze on their paws and cause problems." Salt-spread sidewalks can also imperil your pooch's pads by burning them. If you go the route of protective booties for your dog, try slipping baby socks onto his paws to get him used to the feel of something on his feet. Once your pooch accepts the socks, he's probably ready for booty bling.

A quick note about dog boots: Be sure they fit snuggly but not too tight. Otherwise you risk cutting off your dog’s circulation and inviting frostbite.

Dog in Bandana

Wipe Feet to Clean off De-Icer

Spreading de-icer on the sidewalk outside your home can clear snow, but it can pose a hazard to your pets. Make sure that dogs aren't walked where you've spread it and that they can't get into the container. If they do get a little on their paws of fur, wipe them down before they get a chance to lick it off. Signs of a problem can include vomiting, diarrhea, low activity level and seizures.

Cat in Snow

Cats See Dangerous Car Engines as Warm Beds

Veterinary ER has a term for this: 'fan belt' cats. It's a natural instinct in cold weather: finding a warm spot like a car engine to curl up. Once the parts start spinning at 5,000rpm, things can get ugly fast if you're a cat. If you keep your car outside or your cat can get into your garage, make sure there are no cats cozied up to your engine, knock on the hood, or blow the horn before starting up the engine.

Dog in Bandana

Pets Need Lots of Fresh Water in Winter, Too

Make sure the water supply doesn't freeze. A frozen water bowl can lead to thirst and dehydration quickly. There are lots of kinds of commercial water bowls than you can buy at pet stores. Some have a heating element in the bottom, and there are also heated bases that can keep any old bowl warm and unfrozen. Make sure the electrical cords aren't in a place that a bored pup could chew on. The harsh weather and constant moisture means you'll probably have to replace them every other year or so. It will probably be safer to just buy a normal one to prevent malfunction or electrocution. If you're looking for one why not check us out our feeding and watering bowl here?

Dog in Bandana

Avoid Antifreeze & Other Poisons

A lot of people change the antifreeze in their cars in fall and early winter. As a consequence, veterinary ERs see cases of antifreeze poisoning in dogs rise when the mercury dips. Antifreeze is thick, very sweet, and can be irresistible to some pets. Antifreeze is a lethal toxin that causes kidney damage, often irreversible and fatal. It can be treated, but only in the early hours after ingesting it, before the damage has been done. Make sure to thoroughly clean up all spills of antifreeze and keep containers far away from the reach of pets and kids.

Dog in Bandana

Calorie Needs to Go Up as the Mercury Goes Down

Cold weather means more calories burned to keep warm. Make sure your pets have a ready supply of high-quality food, and keep track of their weight. You don't want your dog to pack on pounds to fight the weather, but you don't want your dog to lose weight in the winter. Save the diets for springtime, and make sure your pup gets enough calories to stay warm and maintain a healthy weight.

Cat in Snow

Heartworms May Not Die in Winter

Depending on where you live, your pet may or may not require heartworm prevention year-round. If you're in the South and never get a hard freeze, it's always best to keep it going every month of the calendar. If you live farther up north and are under snow for a good portion of the year, you may be safe skipping a few months when the mosquitoes are all dead.

But the heartworm preventative kills the heartworm larvae that your pet picked up in the previous month. The October 1 pill kills the September larvae. It doesn't work forwards; the Oct 1 pill works on that day only and the November 1 pill kills the October larvae. Because it's so easy to get out of the habit and heartworm prevention is easy and cheap, it's probably best to just continue it year-round rather than try and save a few bucks and risk forgetting to re-start it in spring.

Dry Winter Air Can Mean Itchy Coats

Winter can be dry and uncomfortable for indoor cats, too. The dry air can lead to a dry coat, and that can be itchy. Keep a humidifier going to maintain the right level of humidity and help keep everybody comfortable - maybe even you, too! Cats should be kept indoors in cold, wet weather. For those who have to stay outdoors, the same rules apply as for dogs. Outdoor cats need a place to get out of the wind a rain and stay dry.

Dog Pooping in Winter

Dogs in Cold Weather: Encouraging Potty Breaks

When the snow is deep and the temps plunge, no one wants to go potty outdoors. So how can you encourage your four-legged friend to go outside when the need strikes? 

  •  Shovel it. Keep a small area in the yard shoveled clear of snow; or at least be sure the snow is only an inch or two deep. Then encourage your pet to use this spot. It helps if you shovel a path to this snow-free area.
  •  Buy booties. If your dog is bothered by the snow or ice touching its feet, snow boots donned just before the potty break may make the outdoor journey -- and walking your pet in cold weather -- much easier. A bonus: Pet booties should help the house stay cleaner, too.
  •  Stay close. When it's really cold out, members suggest waiting by the door while your pooch uses its outdoor potty, then letting him back in as soon as he's done.
  •  Make an indoor potty. When the weather outside is truly frightful and you really don't want to let Fido or Fifi out, you do have indoor options for your pet's toilet needs:
  • Pet pee pads resemble a flat, unfolded diaper and are an especially effective option for small, older, or sick dogs. Most pet supply stores carry a range of pee pad sizes, from toy-dog tiny to extra large.
  • Indoor pee patches consist of small swathes of pseudo-grass topping a broad, hollow tray into which urine collects each time a dog goes potty. You can find several inexpensive options with a quick online search.
  • Some smaller dogs can also be litter box-trained; even mature dogs can be taught to use a box inside. Be patient during the process, suggest message board members. Training your pup to use a litter box doesn't happen overnight.

Pet Winter Safety: Know the Signs of Hypothermia and Frostbite

When cats and dogs are exposed to the cold for too long, their body temperature -- which is usually between 101°F and 102.5°F -- can drop fatally. Here's what you need to know as you keep a close eye on your pets in winter.

Hypothermia Symptoms in Dogs and Cats

  • violent shivering, followed by listlessness
  • weak pulse
  • lethargy
  • muscle stiffness
  • problems breathing
  • lack of appetite
  • rectal temperature below 98°F
  • coma
  • cardiac arrest

Hypothermia Treatment

Wrap your pet in a warm blanket or coat (you can warm blankets and coats in the dryer for a few minutes).

  • Bring your pet into a warm room.
  • Give your pet a solution of four teaspoons honey or sugar dissolved in warm water to drink. You can also put 1-2 teaspoons of corn syrup on the gums if your pet is too weak to drink. This provides an immediate energy boost.
  • Place warm, towel-wrapped water bottles against your pet's abdomen or at her armpits and chest, then wrap her in a blanket. Do not use hair dryers, heating pads, or electric blankets to warm up a hypothermic pet as this may result in burns or cause surface blood vessels to dilate, which compromises circulation to vital organs.
  • Call your veterinarian immediately.

The best way to manage hypothermia is to avoid it. Always provide warm, dry shelter for pets when they're outdoors.

Frostbite Signs in Dogs and Cats

Frostbite happens when a part of your pet's body freezes. For cats, that may involve the paws, tail, or ears; for dogs, the tail, ears, foot pads, or scrotum. Severe winter weather, especially when windy or humid, can lead to frostbite. Watch for:

  • pale, gray, or blue skin at first
  • red, puffy skin later
  • pain in ears, tail, or paws when touched
  • skin that stays cold
  • shriveled skin

Frostbite Treatment

  • Apply warm (not hot) water for at least 20 minutes to the frostbitten area. Do not use hair dryers, heating pads, or electric blankets to warm up a frostbitten pet as this may cause burns.
  • Handle the affected areas very carefully; don't rub or massage them as you could cause permanent damage.
  • Call your vet immediately.


Dog on Grass

With a little planning and a lot of common sense, you and your pets can survive winter and emerge into spring like a fresh shoot of grass! We at The Pets Mafia look forward to your healthy furkids next year!