Pet Health Topic for January 2005: 
Winter Pet Care Tips

Winter is a difficult time for pets. Outdoor animals need extra care in order to cope with the cold weather. Special attention should also be paid to older animals, young puppies, and animals with short coats.

On a sunny day, as long as the temperature is not subzero, many dogs can be left outdoors. An outdoor dog will tolerate the cold much more than a dog accustomed to the comforts of a heated house. Usually the outdoor dog will grow a heavy fur coat containing a thick undercoat. This will insulate and protect him or her much more than the thin coat usually found on most house pets. In general, certain breed are also more adapted for the colder climates. Not only do these dogs have a thicker coat, some of them have a heavy layer of subcutaneous (under the skin) fat for insulation. Shepherds, huskies, Newfoundlands, and other heavy-coated dogs are better adapted for the cooler climates.

Some breeds (such as whippets, Italian Greyhounds, chihuahua, and so on) do not tolerate the cold very well and should not live outdoors. These dogs cannot tolerate the cold for long periods of time and develop hypothermia very quickly.


It is important for all animals to be properly nourished during the winter months. Outdoor animals require about 25% more food during the winter months than during warmer months. The increase in food is necessary to generate enough heat for the body to stay warm. On the other hand, indoor animals often require less food since exercise is generally limited.


Pets require adequate shelter during the cold weather. Outdoor dogs should have an insulated dog house that is protected from the wind. The dog house should not be too large (the dog's own body heat works to keep her or him warm) and the opening should face south or southeast. A plastic flap should cover the entrance, especially during windy days. A thick layer of dry straw or a comfortable blanket makes good bedding material. If moisture is a problem, straw is the better choice. The bedding, along with the sun's rays, will keep your pet warm and protected. If your dog has a short coat or is not used to the cold weather, make sure that you let him in your house before sundown. The heat from the sun's rays are no longer available to keep him warm.

Cats generally do not find dog houses very appealing. A small entrance flap (cat door) to the basement of the house, or to the garage, will provide an access to shelter during the cold weather.

Fresh Water

Outdoor animals cannot eat snow for a source of water. Clean, fresh water must be provided several times each day. A water heater is a practical solution, however it must be safe and installed properly.

Dangers to Avoid

During the cold weather, cats often take shelter under the hood of cars. A warm engine is a comfortable area for a cat to rest. When the car is started, the cat risks severe injuries from the fan belt or blades. Before starting a car, knock on the hood or raise it in order to conduct a safety check.

Antifreeze is extremely toxic if ingested by animals. The sweet taste is often appealing to cats and dogs. Immediately clean up spilled antifreeze to avoid poisoning. Also, as a preventive measure, the next time you have your car radiator flushed, ask the mechanic to replace the old antifreeze with the new non-toxic type.

If you suspect that your pet consumed even the smallest amount of antifreeze, don't wait for symptoms to appear. This is an emergency and you should rush your pet to a veterinary hospital. If it is not possible to obtain immediate veterinary care, induce vomiting and administer activated charcoal. This will reduce the amount of toxin that your pet's body absorbs.

Health Problems to Watch For

Check paws regularly during the winter months. Remove snow and ice from the fur located between the toes. Thoroughly dry damp paws, as moisture that accumulates between the toes can cause sores. De-icing chemicals and salt are common irritants. If these products are commonly used, animals paws should be bathed regularly.

Nail care is also important. In the winter months, trim your dog's nails on a regular basis. Not only do long nails irritate a dog's toes, they force him to walk on the backs of the paws, splaying his toes. Creating more space between the toes will allow more snow to cling to the fur.

Lack of humidity tends to dry the skin, so pets (like people) often experience dry skin during the winter months. Frequent grooming (brushing) helps stimulate the production of oil from the skin glands.

Occasionally an animal is accidently left outdoors for an extended period of time. As a result, frostbite may occur. The most common areas for frostbite are the tips of the ears, paw pads, and the tip of the tail. The frostbite area should be bathed in warm water (not hot) then the animal should be taken to a veterinary hospital.

In Conclusion

Kindness is the best care for animals during the winter months. If the temperature drops below 15 degrees F., the pet should be moved indoors. If an animal is shivering or refuses to play, this generally means that he or she is too cold. This animal should be brought indoors.

Thanks to Dr. Tom Burns and Dr. Robert Labdon of the Veterinary Associates of Cape Cod for permission to use pet care information from their website.


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