You are bundling up for a walk through a winter wonderland. You put on your hat, gloves, scarf and make sure your tootsies are wrapped in the best footwear money can buy. Then you grab a leash and take your dog outside with you. Looking down, you realize your puppy is naked as the day he was born! Doesn’t quite make sense does it?
Most of us see a fur coat on a critter and assume an animal can withstand in the harshest winter winds. Not so. Dr. Marty Becker, veterinary consultant for Good Morning America and contributor to “Chicken Soup for the Pet Lovers’ Soul,” suggests using the same guidelines for pets as you would for children. “Ask yourself,” Becker says, “if I am going to send a child outside, does he or she need to bundle up? Do we need to restrict the amount of time the child spends outside?” If the answer is yes for a kid, says Dr. Becker, it is yes for a critter.
Clearly an Alaskan Malamute is better suited for cold weather than, say a Chihuahua, but there are other considerations besides fur length when dealing with winter weather, for instance. Very young and very old animals can’t regulate their body temperature, so be cautious about leaving pups or old-timers out for long periods. Illness can also play a part. Hyperthyroid pets shouldn’t go outside much and diabetes, heart or kidney disease can also compromise a pet’s ability to deal with the cold.
For healthy adults, it is basically an issue of acclimation. If a pet is accustomed to cold weather, it will probably be fine for short periods. However, even the hardiest breeds need extra care come the wickedest of winter winds.
Clothing can be a big help. Of course, some pets – like some people – are happiest wearing and old sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off. Others wouldn’t be caught dead in such dowdy duds. It is all a matter of personality. “After being a vet for twenty years,” Dr. Becker says, “I can swear that some dog know how to strut their stuff. They just love it!” he declares. So don’t be afraid to dress your animal pal to the nines.
Becker says that, just as humans lose most body heat through the head, pets lose heat from the top of their bodies. So, be it pricey or plain, pet apparel should cover critters from the necks, over the rump. Simply slip a finger between clothing and the surface of the skin to make sure clothing isn’t too tight.
If you have a doghouse, make sure it has covering over the opening – a flap or dog door so animals can get out of the chill. Many people build doghouses too big, thinking that since humans like big houses, dogs will as well. Not so. A dog house should be just big enough so puppy can stand up and turn around inside. Make sure the house is off the ground so moisture from the earth doesn’t get pulled up through the floor. Also include an extra heat source – a blanket or dog heater. If you choose an electric heat source, be sure it has a “pet safe” armored cord so your pooch can’t chew through and get a shocking surprise.
One common winter hazard is frostbite on ears, noses and delicate paw pads. You can tell paws are getting too cold when animals hold one foot off the ground or prance as if walking on eggshells. (Sidewalk salt can also be an irritant. Coating feet with petroleum jelly will offer protection. Once back inside, just wash with warm water.) Symptoms of frostbite include flushing, swelling and itching. Keeping hair between toes well-trimmed will help protect paws by preventing ice balls from forming. If you suspect frostbite has occurred, do not rub the affected area or try to bring the temperature up too quickly. Do not use heat lamp or ovens either. Throw a blanket in the dryer until it gets warm, then wrap it around your dog’s body, hold the pet close to you and call a vet as soon as possible.
Perhaps the biggest danger facing pets in winter is hypothermia. Symptoms of hypothermia include shallow breathing, weak pulse or shivering muscles. If you suspect hypothermia – just as with frostbite – you should apply warm towels or blankets to the entire body and call your vet immediately.
One winter danger applies strictly to cats. Felines are attracted to the residual warmth of car engines and can be seriously injured or killed when the car is started. So, if you keep your cat in a place accessible to neighborhood cats, band a few times on the hood to scare off any snoozers before cranking up the engine.
Of course, there is one simple way to make sure your animal will be safe from all these winter hazards. Just send your pet to Hawaii until the spring thaw. Unfortunately, you will then have to worry about dangers like jet lag and sunburn, but we will save our discussion of those perils for another time.