As the mercury drops and the winter chill settles in, it's good to have tips on keeping your furry companions comfortable through the winter months. Much of the advice for cold weather pet care is common sense - like making sure your companions have a warm, safe and dry place to rest if they are outdoors or a comfortable place away from drafts if they are indoors. However, it never hurts to review cold weather tips again since last winter was a long time ago - and who knows how much we've forgotten since the balmy days of summer tend to melt those chilly details from our memory.
Fur Coat Care
Winter coat care is important for your furry friends. They depend on you to help keep their coat clean and mat-free so they can stay warm and comfortable. Even kitties that are fastidious about cleaning their own coat need to be brushed regularly and checked for matted fur. Clean fur fluffs and holds air - similar to layering clothes, which will help them stay warm. Matted fur pulls on the skin and can cause discomfort and irritate skin. If mats are left long enough, sores can develop and become infected. A grooming rake is a great tool.
As the heat kicks on in your home, the air gets drier. Regular brushing helps encourage and distribute the natural oils in your pet's skin and coat. Essential fatty acids and daily multi-vitamins help nourish the skin and coat making it healthier and easier to care for. The fuller and longer your pet's coat, the more attention it will need during winter weather - especially after a walk or romp in the snow.
Be sure to thoroughly wipe down your furry friend's paws, legs and underbelly after a walk in winter weather, particularly if you walk near roadways. This is also essential for cats with outdoor access. Slushy snow from sidewalks and roadways can contain a whole host of toxic chemicals including de-icers, salt, antifreeze, and heavy metals from vehicle exhaust. Your pet will ingest these if left to clean his own fur and paws - so be sure to remove the dirt before he does with a wet washcloth. I keep several in a wicker basket just outside the door so I can grab and wipe. If you need an eco-friendly sidewalk de-icer, try Safe Paws; it will keep toxic chemicals off your and your pet's feet and out of your home.
If your pet's fur coat is not sufficient to keep her warm, get her a cozy jacket so she can still enjoy the great outdoors during the winter months. Walks are still a vitally important part of their daily routine for exercise and mental health. In rainy climates a light weight rain coat lets your companion enjoy their walks without getting soaked.
Like their built-in fur coat, pet's paws may need a bit of extra care during winter months. Dogs, especially, become susceptible to dry pads with frequent trips out onto the cold, wet ground and then back into the heated house. Some soothing paw balm is a great way to keep those pads supple and healthy. Trimming the fur between the toes makes keeping the paws clean and healthy a bit easier, as well as helping to prevent those pesky snow balls that can form between the toes. And for those walks in the snow or on cold sidewalks or icy roads, dog boots will keep them comfortable and safe from de-icing salts and other chemicals.
Good nail care is important, too. Long nails can strain tendons in the feet, and make a dog sensitive to walking on hard surfaces. They also lose traction as their nails get long because they walk more on the backs of their feet. Their toes spread out more allowing more snow to get between the toes. Keep nails trimmed monthly with a good quality nail clipper. If your pooch doesn’t like having her nails trimmed, keep the sessions short and only do one paw at a time – or, for smaller dogs, try filing the nails frequently instead. I offer a treat to one of my dogs, for every nail he lets me trim without stress.
As winter settles in, you may need to adjust your pet's food intake to meet his changing fuel needs. Dogs that spend as much time outside in the winter as they do in the summer need extra protein to help their bodies produce the extra energy it takes to keep warm. And for those “less adventurous” dogs and cats who spend a bit more time indoors napping by the fire, you may need to reduce their calorie intake to keep them from getting a bit round in the middle, (which is only appropriate if you wear a red suit and keep a stable of flying reindeer).
Celebrating the holidays with scrumptious meals is tradition for most of us, but be mindful of what you share with your companions. Lean meat, lightly cooked veggies, or a spoonful of mashed yams are a fantastic treat for your canine or feline friend, but skip the turkey skin or ham fat, (and nothing with onions in it). Remember to reduce their regular rations a bit to compensate for the extra helpings of people food. Be sure the trash is well secured after holiday meal cleanup so prying paws can’t “dumpster dive” for the bones and scraps. Veterinarians see more cases of pancreatitis during the holidays than any other time of year because too many pets get too much of a good thing. Please see our article about Holiday Stress Reducers and Safety Tips for more information.
Puppies & Seniors
Thinking of welcoming a puppy into your family this holiday season? (See our article on Giving Pets as Gifts before you do!). Puppies are especially susceptible to the cold and house training is quite a bit more difficult when going outside is unpleasant rather than a treat. Keep a potty area well shoveled if you live in a snowy area, and consider a tarp lean-to or cover if you live in the rainy Northwest. Even though your puppy will grow quickly, get him a jacket for those chilly trips to the potty.
Older animals are also more sensitive to the cold, also and will tolerate less time outdoors in the winter. Consider a coat or sweater for your senior pal even if he has a longer coat. As animals age, they are less efficient at regulating their own body temperature and get cold much more easily. Older dogs are often less steady on their paws as well, so a set of boots may be helpful.
The drier air in our homes in the winter which can make animals more prone to dry noses and nasal passages, upper respiratory infections, dry, itchy skin and other problems. Consider using a humidifier to keep everyone more comfortable. An air purifier may be helpful as well since the windows are closed tight for the season and any toxins in the home have nowhere to go. For animals with extra dry skin don’t forget to increase their intake of essential fatty acids as mentioned above, and include a daily spritz of coat conditioner to soothe itchy skin.
Does your dog or cat spend the day outside while you are at work? Outdoor cats and dogs need special consideration during winter months. Make sure they have an insulated, enclosed “house” to escape the elements, with a flap door that does not face into the wind. Use straw or shavings as bedding rather than old blankets. Old blankets will retain moisture as well as providing a prime breeding ground for molds and parasites, as well as insect pests. A fleece or wool blanket on top of a thick layer of bedding will wick moisture away.
If there are outdoor cats in your area, make sure to bang on the hood of your car before starting it since they like to curl up in a warm engine and may still be there when you return.
More animals are lost during winter months as snow and blustery weather can make it difficult for them to find their way home if they get lost. Make sure your pets wear current ID tags, and be sure to keep them on leash if you are walking in snow and ice.
Those who live where winter can bring severe weather should keep a survival kit in the car in case of emergencies. Don’t forget to include provisions for your companion like an extra blanket and water, a bowl, and snacks. And if you do take your friend for a ride in the winter wonderland, don’t leave her alone in the car. Just as the car acts as an amplifier for heat in the summer, it can easily become a freezer in the winter.
A green (or pink or orange, etc) puddle on your garage floor can be extremely toxic to your dog or cat. If you fill your own radiator or if yours overflows – be sure to clean up thoroughly. Antifreeze has a sweet scent and taste that attracts dogs and cats. If you suspect your animal has ingested antifreeze, contact a veterinarian immediately. There is an antidote available for antifreeze poisoning, but time is of the essence and the longer it takes to obtain the antidote the greater the risk of kidney damage or worse.