Whether you reside in sunny California or snowy Alaska, taking the proper precautions can prevent illness or injury to your dog due to cold weather.
Since many dogs give the impression of almost being indestructible, pet parents may neglect to take their safety into account when the winter months arrive. Yet, just like humans, dogs are in need of protection from ailments like hypothermia, frostbite and more.
In a press release, Stephanie Shain of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) warned, “Animals rely solely on their human caregivers for safety and comfort – especially during the winter months. Our pets are particularly vulnerable during this frigid season, and with just a few extra precautions you can help make sure that they stay safe and healthy.”
Be aware of these cold-weather dangers and precautions you can take to keep your woofing buddy safe when the rain and snow begin.
What Are the Signs of Hypothermia?
In an article in DOGWatch, Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine’s newsletter, pet parents are advised to take special precautions for their pets when the wind chill sweeps into town. While it is strongly encouraged to bring all animals into the home and away from the harsh weather, the article acknowledges that many pets, dogs in particular, will find themselves out in the doghouse this winter.
DOGWatch asks that owners be alert and aware of the potential harm of hypothermia. As described in the article, “[All] dogs, no matter how furry and powerful, are susceptible to hypothermia, a potentially fatal drop in body temperature that can result from prolonged exposure to a freezing-cold environment.”
A dog’s normal body temperature ranges between 100.5 to 102.5 degrees Farenheit. “Most dogs can tolerate a temperature decline of five or six degrees (mild hypothermia) without severe or lasting damage,” DOGWatch reports.
If your dog has this level of hypothermia, you can help him return to a normal temperature by bringing him indoors and covering him with blankets. Keeping your dog warm will prevent any further heat loss. He can then naturally regain his natural temperature. However, if your dog’s temperature falls below 95 degrees Farenheit, you should immediately take him to a veterinarian, who will know the best course of action to take.
To spot the signs of hypothermia, pay close attention to your dog’s physical behaviors. According to DOGWatch, the symptoms of hypothermia include:
- Muscle stiffness
- Labored breathing
If your dog is unresponsive, seek veterinary medical attention immediately.
How To Prevent Hypothermia
The No. 1 way to prevent hypothermia is to bring your dog into your home and away from potential cold-weather harm. The HSUS says that bringing your dog indoors is the humane answer to cold-weather woes.
“Dogs and cats are social animals who crave human companionship. Your animal companions deserve to live indoors with you and your family,” says the HSUS.
If your dog must be kept outdoors during the winter months, you should try to keep him as warm as possible. “He must be protected by a dry, draft-free doghouse that is large enough to allow the dog to sit and lie down comfortably, but small enough to hold in his/her body heat,” the HSUS advises.
Tamar Geller, a dog behaviorist and dog trainer to celebrities including Oprah Winfrey, suggests on her website that pet parents also turn the doghouse away from the wind and cover its entrance with something resembling a doggie door. The door can be made out of plastic, burlap or a piece of carpet. She also suggests hanging a thermometer inside the doghouse to monitor whether the temperature is reaching a dangerous level.
Be careful not to use blankets in your doghouse if you live in snow-covered parts of the country. Your dog can track snow inside the doghouse, creating a slushy, icy mess on the blanket and creating a situation where he is sleeping on a freezing-cold blanket. Instead of a blanket, use straw to line the floor of the doghouse.
If your dog can’t come into your house, try to make an area for him in the garage or on the patio, suggests Geller. Again, make sure he has a warmly covered doghouse that is elevated and as insulated as possible, with plenty of warm blankets (if there’s no chance your dog will be tracking in snow). Geller warns not to run a car inside the garage to warm it up if your dog is in the garage, since carbon monoxide is poisonous and could harm your dog.
The HSUS also reminds pet parents that dogs left outdoors during the winter are in need of more nourishment “because keeping warm depletes energy.” Talk to your veterinarian about your dog’s diet during the winter months.
Both Geller and DOGWatch insist that short-haired dogs, puppies and senior dogs should never be left outdoors in cold weather. These dogs are at much higher risk for hypothermia than others. In fact, it’s suggested that these dogs be given extra warmth by dressing them in comfortable, warm sweaters, especially when out on walks.
What Are the Signs of Frostbite?
Hypothermia’s not-so-distant cousin is frostbite. Again, like humans, dogs are at great risk for frostbite in freezing temperatures. DOGWatch describes frostbite as “a condition in which an animal’s tissues — most frequently those on its paws, tail and the tips of its ears — are exposed to freezing temperatures. When the temperature drops below freezing, the blood flow to the outer areas of a dog’s body diminishes, a natural response that ensures an adequate flow of blood to its vital organs.”
When this occurs, ice crystals can build on the outer tissues of a dog’s paws, tail and ears, leading to what DOGWatch calls “tissue death.” The affected areas “will become brittle and discolored — turning white, red or gray —and may peel off.”
A very sensitive condition, frostbite is extremely painful and best left in the hands of an experienced professional. If frostbite is suspected, immediately wrap your dog’s affected extremities with a blanket and take him to a veterinarian.
The veterinarian will cleanse the damaged area, but it may sometimes be necessary to amputate the affected area.
How To Prevent Frostbite
Be sure to constantly check your dog’s paws, tails and ears for frostbite before it advances. Keeping your dog indoors or in a well-shielded dog house will protect from freezing temperatures.
After your dog goes outdoors for a walk or to play, wipe him down with a warm blanket, paying particular attention to those areas most susceptible to frostbite. DOGWatch suggests limiting the amount of time that your dog spends outdoors in freezing weather, and suggests using commercial cooking spray to coat his paws before going out on walks. The spray can add an extra layer of protection against water, which can collect on your dog’s paws and freeze, later leading to frostbite.
On her website, Geller also advises pet parents not to shave their dog’s coats down to the skin during winter months. The coat serves as protection against harsh weather. Geller recommends continuing a regular grooming schedule to keep your dog’s coat healthy and strong. She also advises adding flaxseed oil, olive oil or other supplements to your dog’s diet to maintain a healthy coat.
Pet parents are generally warned not to leave their dogs inside of a closed car in the summer months because of the scorching hot temperatures it can reach. But rarely do you hear the same warning during the wintertime. In the winter months, a car can convert into a huge metal refrigerator in cold temperatures. A dog left in a car in these temperatures has essentially been left to freeze to death. Keep your dog safe and out of your car for prolonged periods of time.
Although dogs can suffer many risks during the winter months, let’s not forget our smaller furry friends, including cats and small wildlife. In the winter, these animals seek refuge in the engines of cars where they can find shelter from cold wind. In the morning, before starting your engine, Geller suggests banging on your car’s hood to scare off any small animals that could suffer serious injuries when the engine is turned on.
Dogs may have great balance thanks to their four legs, but DOGWatch warns against potential winter injuries due to accidental falls over snow embankments or through holes in ice-covered ponds or lakes.
“A dog that tumbles through a hole in the ice is likely to drown if it is not immediately rescued,” DOGWatch reports. “Even if it’s spared from drowning, hypothermia resulting from the accident can prove fatal if emergency care is not provided promptly.” Be aware of and keep an eye on where you walk your dog. Try to stick to dry land or roads where the ice has been swept away for easy access.
Indoors, if you have a fireplace, Geller advises keeping a close eye on it when your dog is around. She suggests using a screen to keep tails from catching fire in an open flame.
Stay aware, heed these precautions and enjoy a pleasant winter with a cup of warm cocoa and a warm doggie at your side!