Cold Weather Critter Care

It's winter . . . ice, snow and freezing cold temperatures. Now's the time to snuggle up in front of a fireplace with a warm kitty on your lap or a puppy at your feet. But before you settle down to you long winter's nap, take some time to learn how to keep those animals as warm and comfortable as you are.

Cold weather can be hard on pets, just like it can be hard on people. Sometimes people forget that their pets are just as accustomed to the warm shelter of the indoors as they are. Some people will leave their animals outside for extended periods of time, thinking that all animals are adapted to live outdoors. This can put their pets in danger of serious illness.

These are things you can do to keep your animal warm and safe . . .

Keep your pets inside as much as you can when the mercury drops. If you have to take them out, stay outside with them. When you're cold enough to go inside, they probably are too. If you absolutely must leave them outside for a significant length of time, make sure they have a warm, solid shelter against the wind, thick bedding and plenty of non-frozen water. Try leaving out a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel so it won't burn your pet's skin.

Some animals can remain outside safely longer in the winter than others. In some cases, it is just common sense; long-haired breeds like Huskies and Samoyeds will do better in cold weather than short-haired breeds like Dachshunds and Pugs. Cats and small dogs that have to wade shoulder-deep in the snow will feel the cold sooner than larger animals. Your pet's health will also affect how long he or she can stay out. Very young and very old animals are vulnerable to the cold as well. Regardless of their health, no pets should stay outside for unlimited amounts of time in freezing cold weather. If you have any questions about how long your pet should be out this winter, ask your veterinarian. Cats will curl up against almost anything to stay warm - including car engines. Cats caught in moving engine parts can be seriously hurt or killed. Before you turn your engine on, check beneath the car or make a lot of noise by honking the horn or rapping on the hood.

If you live near a pond or lake, be very cautious about letting your rambunctious dog off the leash. Animals can easily fall through the ice, and it is very difficult for them to escape on their own. If you must let your dogs loose near open water, stay with them at all times.

Pets that go outside can pick up rock salt, ice and chemical ice melts in their foot pads. To keep your pet's pads from getting chapped and raw, wipe their feet with a washcloth when they come inside. This will also keep them from licking the salt off their feet, which could cause an inflammation of their digestive tract.

Cracked paw pad wounds are slow to heal. The healing process is hampered every time the dog walks on the foot (the walking pulls on the healing edges and this delays healing). The pads can easily get infected, and there is contact between blood and the surface where your pet walks. These wounds are best treated by a veterinarian. Your veterinarian can clean the wound, bandage it with antibiotic ointment, give oral antibiotics and re-bandage the wound every three to four days until it is healed.

If left alone outside, dogs and cats can be very resourceful in their search for warm shelter. They can dig into snow banks or hide under porches or in dumpsters, window wells or cellars, and they can occasionally get trapped. Watch them closely when they are loose and provide them with quality, easily accessible shelter.

Animals that don't have access to clean, unfrozen water are more likely to drink out of puddles or gutters, which can be polluted with oil, antifreeze, household cleaners and other chemicals. We hear a lot about how dangerous antifreeze is to pets, especially dogs, since they are more apt to come in contact with antifreeze. It has a sweet taste to pets, they like the way it tastes, and many pets will lap it up from the driveway if it leaks from a car radiator. If a pet walks through a puddle of antifreeze, the pet may lick its paws afterwards. If you're lucky, you'll notice the first sign of antifreeze poisoning when your pet starts acting slightly drunk. Unfortunately, this stage passes in a few hours and is easy to miss. Most often, it isn't until the pet's kidneys start to fail that the guardian realizes something is wrong. The antifreeze must be flushed through the animal's system as fast as possible, and the animal must be thoroughly bathed, especially its paws. If your pet has ingested antifreeze, call your veterinarian immediately.

Be particularly gentle with elderly and arthritic pets during the winter. The cold can leave their joints extremely stiff and tender, and they may become more awkward than usual. Stay directly below these pets when they are climbing stairs or jumping onto furniture. Consider modifying their environment to make it easier for them to get around. Make sure they have a thick, soft bed in a warm room for the chilly nights. Also, watch stiff and arthritic pets if you walk them outside; a bad slip on the ice could be very painful and cause a significant injury.

When you're outside with your pets during the winter, you can watch them for signs of discomfort with the cold. If they whine, shiver, seem anxious, slow down or stop moving or start to look for warm places to burrow, they're saying they want to get back someplace warm.

You can also keep an eye out for two serious conditions caused by cold weather. The first and less common of the two is frostbite. Frostbite happens when an animal's (or a person's) body gets cold and pulls all the blood from the extremities to the center of the body to stay warm. The animal's ears, paws or tail can get cold enough that ice crystals can form in the tissue and damage it. The tricky thing about frostbite is that it's not immediately obvious. The tissue doesn't show signs of the damage to it for several days.

If you suspect your pet may have frostbite, bring them into a warm environment right away. You can soak their extremities in warm water for about 20 minutes to melt the ice crystals and restore circulation. It's important that you don't rub the frostbitten tissue, however, because the ice crystals can do a lot of damage to the tissue. Once your pet is warm, wrap them up in some blankets and take them to the veterinarian. Your veterinarian can assess the damage and, if necessary, treat your pet for pain or infection.

Hypothermia, or a body temperature that is below normal, is a condition that occurs when an animal is not able to keep their body temperature from falling below normal. It happens when animals spend too much time in cold temperatures or when animals with poor health or circulation are exposed to cold. In mild cases, animals will shiver and show signs of depression, lethargy and weakness. As the condition progresses, an animal's muscles will stiffen, their heart and breathing rates will slow down and they will stop responding to stimuli.

If you notice these symptoms, you need to get your pet warm and take them to your veterinarian. You can wrap them in blankets, possibly with a hot water bottle or an electric blanket, as always, wrapped in fabric to prevent against burning the skin. In severe cases, your veterinarian can monitor their heart rate and blood pressure and give warm fluids through an IV.

Winter can be a beautiful time of year. It can be a dangerous time as well, but it certainly doesn't have to be. If you take some precautions, you and your pet can have a fabulous time taking in the icicles, the snow banks and the warm glowing fire at the end of the day.