Winter Petcare Dos and Don'ts

Union photo by Jacob Chung

A rescued dog sits at attention for treats at Paws and More Animal Control and Shelter in Washington.
Union photo by Jacob Chung A rescued dog sits at attention for treats at Paws and More Animal Control and Shelter in Washington.

Be they cats or dogs, pets have become more akin to furry family members than mere companions for many. Year over year the number of pets in households have grown by the millions according to a survey by the American Pet Products Association and the American Veterinary Medical Association. And for first time pet owners, or those experienced, keeping animals safe during winter can be tricky especially in southeast Iowa where temperatures can plummet to 20 degrees below freezing.

Good petcare depends heavily on the type of pet according to Wendy Miller, veterinarian at the Town and Country Veterinary Clinic. Whether they’re indoor or outdoor pets, things like breed, age, weight, fur type and even height play a factor.

For outdoor pets and roaming animals it’s essential to have a safe place to keep away from the cold through the night. Food and water also need protecting as they can freeze or go stale once rethawed.

Unlikely as it may seem, severe dehydration for animals is more of an issue during the colder months than summers according to Amber Talbot director of Paw & More Animal Control and Shelter. Ice is not a readily available water source and food gets harder to find as scent tracking diminishes when moisture in the air freezes. Even when food is found, it’s often difficult to access underneath layers of ice.

An easy option is to bring animals inside where it’s warmer, but that’s not always practical.

“Knowing [the] animal’s limits and what that animal is acclimated to is probably the most important thing,” Talbot said. “Has your [pet] always lived outside? Does he have his winter coat established?”

Dogs like Huskies with thicker coats have different cold limits than smaller or thin haired dogs like Chihuahuas or Labradors for instance.

Though there isn’t a specific temperature limit that fits all pets, anything below minus 20 degrees is considered critical according to Travis J. Van De Berg, DVM, at Northeast Animal Hospital.

“They need to be out of the wind and snow,” Van De Berg said.

If bringing your pet inside isn’t a possibility, an outdoor home is a good alternative. One cheap and fast option is recycling old coolers into makeshift homes for the winter.

An ideal shelter keeps the wind chill at bay, retains heat for a long period of time, and has enough room for the animal to sit, stand and lie comfortably. For roaming animals, having a second covered entrance for the home might be a good idea to allow for escape from predators.

Entrance should be facing away from prevailing winds and be just big enough for the animal to come and go. The home should also be kept off the ground with padding added inside for comfort and to keep the cold from seeping in from the floor.

“Straw is the best insulator in the winter for the animals because they can burrow into that,” Talbot said. “Straw does not become a hard rock or brick when wet and frozen.”

It’s also a good idea to have the shelter on a slight angle with a few small holes on the bottom allowing for any liquids to drain as needed.

And, though it may sound like a good idea, avoid using space heaters and electric blankets because they can cause burns and become fire hazards.

For indoor pets, frequently going back and forth from cold outside temperatures to warmer temperatures inside can dry out your pets skin so take that into consideration when going for exercises.

Keeping pets leashed or tagged/microchipped is a good idea when going for walks in the winter, according to the Great Plains Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (GPSPCA), because animals are more prone to getting lost in the cold because snow can disguise familiar scents. For rural areas, it’s a good idea to go for walks during the day and use high visibility gear like reflective collars, leashes, and maybe a jacket.

“Pets must be dry before going outside,” Van De Berg said. And, if the pet has had a haircut or is naturally short-haired it should have outerwear for protection.

While outside, avoid ice, frozen ponds, and heavily salted roads as they can cause irritation and cuts to paws. Take extra precaution avoiding chemicals used to prevent freezing. For use at home, look for pet friendly alternatives.

“Chemicals from the ice melts burns the [pet]’s paws,” Van De Berg said. “And if the [pet] licks it, it can get chemical burns on the tongue.”

For both indoor and outdoor pets, extra precaution is needed for after exercising outdoors.

“The short ones, their bellies and a lot of their undercarriage, which carries the least about of fur, the least dense amount of fur, is right next to the snow,” Miller said.

Back home from walks, clean the pet’s feet and stomach to remove any dirt and ice from the trek. But a full wash is not always necessary, nor recommended, as it removes natural oils that protect your pet’s skin from dry air.

“I wouldn’t wash them unless they physically look dirty,” Miller said.

Feeding a pet may also have to be adjusted especially for outdoor animals. Pets that usually live outside may need extra food to gain weight for warmth. More food with higher fat content could be good, but owners need to be mindful about keeping the diet healthy. Higher fat doesn’t mean adding bacon to their diet. It’s about opting to get higher fat percentage from pet food selections.

“If they’re on a low-fat diet I would put them on a regular diet,” Miller said. “A high quality diet is really important when you’re using a lot of energy.”

And pay attention to how a pet is behaving.

“Healthy active dogs, will still be active even when it’s really cold if they’re maintaining well and staying warm enough,” Miller said. “

Pets can often show us when they need help. Whining, burrowing, weight lose, or odd walking behavior like raising one foot for a longer period of time are all warning signs from your pet telling you something might be wrong. Weakness, lethargy, loss of appetite, or general unresponsive dullness are signs you should talk to a vet.