Severe weather affects dogs and cats very much the same way it affects people. In the heat of summer, pets that spend much of their time outdoors need shaded protection from direct sunlight, fresh air, and a constant supply of clean, fresh drinking water. Generally, very hot weather is less of an issue for pets that only go out to relieve themselves, but extreme winter cold can pose serious potential health risks, even for pets that spend most of their time indoors. Some of the dangers of winter weather are direct (such as hypothermia and frostbite) whereas other typical dangers from winter weather are indirect (such as from exposure to salt spread to melt snow or spilled puddles of antifreeze in the garage).
At our veterinary hospital, we occasionally have to treat dogs and cats suffering from hypothermia, from excessive exposure to cold during the winter months and we have to admit dogs and cats every winter to save their lives after they ingest automobile antifreeze from puddles or spilled containers. Antifreeze often tastes very sweet and becomes an irresistible deadly poison to pets, even in very small amounts. Unfortunately, many outdoor cats also suffer serious injury when they are taking shelter under parked cars or in the engine block when those cars are started. If you know that there are any outdoor cats in the area, you should always rap on the hood when you first get into your car to chase away any animals that might be seeking shelter underneath.
If you have cats that spend time outdoors in winter, you should make sure that they have a sheltered place to sleep that provides some protection from the cold. If possible, the shelter should be located under an awning or porch or in a garage where it is somewhat shielded from the cold winds, and it should be slightly elevated to reduce heat loss through the ground. The shelter should have some thermally protective bedding (such as a blanket, quilt, or old coats), but it is extremely important to make sure that it stays dry, because wet bedding can be deadly in winter. A good rule of thumb is to simply check the bedding daily when you check to make sure that their water bowl (equally essential) has not frozen solid. Commercially-made heating pads for outdoor kennels are ideal, as are electric warmers designed to keep water bowls from freezing, but Dr. Sedlacek warns against ever using any other types of electric blankets or warmers.
Most healthy adult dogs that only go outside for walks and to relieve themselves can tolerate brief exposure to cold weather, but they still require some protection. Older dogs, puppies, sick dogs, very small breeds, and those with very short (or very little) fur are much more at risk from the cold and should be exposed to winter weather for as short a time as possible. Thick fur is a good insulator, but only when it is dry; and large body mass maintains body temperature longer and more efficiently than small body mass, mainly because the smaller the dog, the smaller the ratio of body mass to external surface area.
Winter sweaters and boots can offer valuable protection for smaller dogs and shorthair breeds, but do not expect your dog to tolerate them comfortably right away. Most dogs need to get used to new things, so do not expect your dog to accept a winter sweater or (especially) boots the first time. It makes sense to introduce them to their winter clothes a few months before you actually intend to use them, such as by putting them on indoors for short periods of time and rewarding them for accepting them.
You should also clear a path to your dog?s favorite relief spot and try to keep that area clear of snow so that he can get to it easily. If your dog normally stays in your yard after relieving himself, you should monitor him more closely during extremely cold weather to prevent overexposure. Both dogs and cats can get frostbite, especially on exposed areas of skin (including their foot pads) that are not protected by fur. Once inside, you should dry their fur immediately, using warm dry towels, but never hair dryers or heating pads, because they can cause burns. Salt, spread to melt ice, can cause painful sores on foot pads, and in cities, they can also expose pets to electric shocks when spread over areas of asphalt (or metal grates) that carry a small electric charge from embedded electric cables nearby. Pay close attention to any signs of discomfort or (especially) if your dog whimpers or seems to want to avoid walking on certain areas. Report any such incidents to the local authorities and consider putting up a small sign to warn other pet owners in the area.
In many respects, keeping your pets safe during winter means just exercising some of the same common-sense rules for winter that you use for yourself when it is very cold out. If it is too cold for you to remain (or sleep) outdoors without protection, it is no different for most pets.
Dr. Paul has a strong interest in avian and exotic animal medicine and surgery, as well as small animal internal medicine and surgery.
He has provided services for numerous breeders, kennels, aviaries, and mini zoos.