Cold Weather and Animals

By Jo Marshall, CVT
Senior Veterinary Information Specialist at Pet Poison Helpline

Recently, we have received some questions on cold weather and safety for your pets so I wanted to touch base on some of the safety concerns that we have with the frequent cold snaps and extreme weather that we have had throughout the country this winter season.

Scout Jo MarshallMost animals that are kept outdoors and that are acclimated to the weather conditions of the area where they live do well as long as they have shelter to protect them from extremes. For livestock, this is especially important, both acclimation and shelter. Historically, early winter storms that have occurred in the Dakotas and areas where cattle ranching are predominating are the storms that result in the heaviest loss of livestock. They are generally out on an open range with minimal shelter from the elements and have not yet acclimated to the cold. Many of these storms start out with rain and then change over to a major dump of snow with plummeting temperature. The livestock get wet and then the cold sets in along with the inability to move in the heavy snow and they literally freeze. These types of storms are fortunately very rare, but they do happen. I cannot image being the rancher, with that overwhelming sense of grief and helplessness in trying to save cattle in this situation.

Sundae - Jo MarshallThe other scenario in winter storms with livestock is purely cold, especially with extreme wind chills. With livestock that are acclimated to the cold, they do well with simply being able to get out of the wind or behind a windbreak as long as they have enough nutrition to be able to stay warm. Don’t get me wrong, shelter is always recommended in these types of weather conditions, but sometimes it is not always feasible. Special care should be taken with youngsters and older animals. I have a 26 year old Quarter Horse mare that is healthy and she loves to be outside, even in the cold. But the last couple of years I have not let her outdoors when there were wind chills and this year she has been blanketed when turned out on cold days. I also up her groceries by both quantity and quality during these cold spells. A little extra, high quality nutrition goes a long way in keeping livestock warm!

More typically we get more questions on small animals and the cold, i.e. dogs and cats. Again, shelter is needed. I think the best rule of thumb when deciding to leave a dog or cat outdoors is pretty simple: would you stay outdoors in this temperature without extra clothing or shelter?

The other consideration is breed and acclimation. I have a Vizsla and they are very short coated and she lives indoors. She is very different than the Husky that lives outdoors in Alaska. That Husky has a coat is made to insulate them from the cold. They still need shelter in weather extremes but they are much more comfortable outdoors in the cold than my Vizsla, Remi. For this poor girl, just going out to potty has been stressful in the cold temperatures we have had. When I walk her she has trouble keeping her feet on the ground and I have more than once witnessed her standing on 2 feet, trying to get back to the door as quickly as possible. She hates her coat and booties and honestly, the drama of putting them on for a quick potty break (under 5 minutes), is just not worth it. So we brave it and face the cold with the goal of getting back in the house as quickly as possible. When she needs some exercise and needs to get out for a walk, the booties and coat are on, and for her, it is a necessity if we are going out for anything but a brief potty break. Booties are great protection from getting cold feet but I have found that booties can protect from paw injuries and lacerations from sharp ice along with paw and skin irritation from walking on the various types of ice melts and salt that is frequently used this time of year. The booties come off the minute we are in the door so that Remi is not able to lick or chew the ice melt and salt off of them and they can quickly be cleaned by throwing them in the laundry or rinsing them off under running water.

Frost bite is as real for animal as it is for people. We often see cats and dogs in our neck of the woods that are missing ear tips and chickens missing parts of their combs. How does this happen? They can easily freeze these in extreme cold. We can see frost-bite in animals the same as we can in people. Frost-bite appears initially as pale or even bluish. The damaged tissue may heal but it may also die off. Ears are especially vulnerable to wind-chill and severe cold and that is where much of the damage occurs.

Bringing outdoor dogs inside during inclement weather and cold is another potentially dangerous situation. Many times dogs that are kept outdoors are brought into an area indoors, either the garage or house. There areas are not pet-proofed and we see many toxic exposures occur during these times. Some examples of what we see are dogs that find mouse baits or rodenticides, insecticides, yard chemicals, fertilizer and automotive products including antifreeze. Make sure that if you bring your dog into the garage, the dog is confined or everything in the garage is locked into a safe location. Believe me, they will find it if it is not in a secure location!

The take home message here is to keep your animal well fed, with shelter and acclimated to the temperature and weather that they are exposed to. If they are being moved into shelter, keep in mind that they will find trouble if it is not a pet safe environment. When in doubt, if your pet will have issues with our recent temperature extremes, talk to your veterinarian. They know the weather in your area and best of all, they know your pet and their specific concerns.

For me, I think hibernation with my dog is the best part of this time of the year! I hate the cold and snow and ice, but I love snuggling up with my pup on a cold winter night! May as well make the best of it, as it seems to not be leaving here anytime soon in Minnesota!