News Item | PAWS Chicago

Cold Weather Tips For Pets

by Dr. Robert Dann, DVM | Feb 08, 2016

As temperatures fall, pet owners need to take extra precautions to keep their animals healthy and safe. The most important thing to bring with you when taking your pet outside in the winter is a dose of common sense.

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Although many breeds of dogs love going outside in the winter and are adapted for the outdoors, smaller dogs and those with little or no hair should have sweaters or coats to protect them from the weather. If you notice your pet shivering, you have a clear sign that he is cold. Bitter cold can be damaging to the lining of the respiratory tract, a particular problem for pets with a history of heart or lung disease. 

Prolonged exposure to cold can lead to hypothermia (low body temperature) and frostbite, noted mostly at the tips of the ears and tail and characterized by red- or gray-tinged skin. If you suspect frostbite, never rub the affected areas as this will worsen the damage. Instead, gently warm the afflicted areas by immersing them in warm (not hot) water or gently covering them with warm, moist towels. Prompt treatment by a veterinarian will then be required. 

With the onset of wintry weather, special attention needs to be given to your pets’ paws. Clipping any long fur between the toes and pads will prevent uncomfortable ice balls from forming while walking in the snow. When returning from walks, wipe snow and ice off your dog’s belly, legs, and especially paws with a moist rag. Wiping down your dog will remove any salt or other harmful chemicals that could be ingested when licking. 

Although your pet would have to ingest a rather large amount of a salt de-icer to become toxic from it, lesser amounts ingested by licking the paws can inflame the mouth and gastrointestinal tract. A common problem caused by salt is the irritation and drying effect it can have on the paw pads and skin. If this becomes an issue, petroleum jelly or commercially-available organic wax balms for dogs can be applied to the pads for protection. Another alternative would be to use a salt-free ice melter, which is safe for pets to walk on. Finally, although many dogs don’t like to wear them, you can purchase specially made boots to protect the paws. It might be helpful to get your pet used to wearing these before cold weather sets in. 

One of the deadliest problems associated with cold weather is the ingestion by pets of spilled car antifreeze that contains the substance ethylene glycol. Many cats and dogs are attracted to this chemical because of its sweet smell and taste. Unfortunately, consumption of even very small amounts can be fatal! Acute cases (within 12 hours of ingestion) often look as though the animal was intoxicated with alcohol: stumbling, vomiting and depression are common symptoms. Shortly after this, the pet’s kidneys will shut down. 

If you suspect antifreeze has been ingested, take your pet to the veterinarian immediately as there may be time to administer the antidote for this poison. Also, be sure to clean up antifreeze spills right away. It’s possible, too, to switch to a safer car antifreeze, one that contains propylene glycol rather than the more common ethylene glycol. 

When starting a car in the cold weather, beware of any heat-seeking outdoor cats that may have found a comfortable and warm spot under the hood of a car. A cat’s limbs and tail can be severely injured by moving fan belts. Banging on the hood or fender of the car or honking the horn a few times before turning on the engine will startle a cat and prevent a catastrophic event. 

Cold and damp weather can bring on the pain of arthritis, seen usually in middle age to older pets. The most consistent and early signs of arthritis will be stiffness and difficulty rising and navigating stairs, especially after being inactive for a while. If your pet is carrying too much weight and is afflicted with arthritis, now would be a good time to start a weight loss program since being overweight greatly worsens the discomfort. There are many effective treatments for arthritis with which your veterinarian can help, and always remember to consult your veterinarian before giving your pet over-the-counter medications. For instance, just one Tylenol™ tablet can be fatal to a cat.

Indoor Winter Hazards

The onset of cold weather is accompanied by the holiday season which, unfortunately, has its own share of perils for beloved pets. Many dog and cat owners are aware that chocolate can be toxic for their animals. Nonetheless, most cases of chocolate ingestion that I treat are in pets whose caregivers were aware of this danger. It is not hard to imagine a hungry Labrador Retriever snatching a bag of semi-sweet chocolate morsels off the counter top where Christmas cookies are being made or a tenacious terrier ripping open the pockets of a child’s coat left on a chair to get at the candy left in the pocket! Glasses with alcoholic beverages left on coffee tables following holiday parties pose a temptation to pets and are a health hazard, as alcohol toxicity can be fatal. 

Many of the items used to decorate homes during the holidays can also be dangerous to pets. Cats are often attracted to ribbons on packages and tinsel hung on Christmas trees. If enough is swallowed, bowel obstructions can occur. Many of the evergreens used in festive displays contain toxic oils that are irritating to the stomach if ingested. The preservatives utilized for Christmas trees can also be toxic, so make sure you read the package label confirming their safety before adding them to the water in a tree stand. 

Decorative plants may add holiday cheer, but they also pose a danger. Oddly enough, it is not the poinsettia plant that is deadly, even though most people continue to believe that urban myth. (The plant’s sap, however, is an irritant to the mouth and stomach and can cause vomiting.) Ornamental plants that are actually toxic are as follows: Christmas Berry, Christmas Cherry, Christmas Pepper, Christmas Rose, Holly (especially the berries) and Mistletoe. Mistletoe (and again, especially the berries) is the most deadly of the holiday plants for both humans and pets. Denying the opportunity for toxicity to occur is simply a matter of keeping these items out of the house, or safely out of the reach of your pet. 

Winter time, the holidays, and romps in the snow are all things we look forward to as the seasons change. And if you take care to make sure your pets are comfortable and safe this winter, you may even be sorry to see Spring’s warm weather arrive once again.

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