Pet Winter Safety: Prepping Your Pet for Winter Weather

By Wendy C. Fries
WebMD Pet Health Feature

Reviewed By Audrey Cook, BVM&S, Dip ACVIM

If you have a dog that spends most of its time romping in your backyard, or a kitty that whiles away the day in a sunny patch on the front porch, winter's arrival may be a rude awakening. Sure, your precious pets are covered in fur. But many just aren't equipped to be out in frigid temperatures for prolonged periods.

So how can you make sure your four-legged friends are warm and well-cared for when the mercury dips? WebMD talked to veterinarians and pet owners and got their top tips on winter safety for pets, from protecting pets that spend a lot of time outdoors to tips on getting your pooch to potty outside when wintry winds blow.

Keeping Warm: Fur Isn't Flawless

We may admire our pets' plush coats, but as beautiful as fur is, it's not a perfect insulator, especially when it's very cold.

In winter, pets can suffer from the weather extremes "for the same reason that mountain climbers can get hypothermia no matter what type of protective clothing they are wearing," says Oregon veterinarian Marla J. McGeorge, DVM. "Mammalian systems for heat retention and regulation can be overwhelmed by excessive cold."

And, if an animal's coat gets wet, the fur loses much of its insulating ability, McGeorge tells WebMD. For cats and dogs with short fur, the protection is even more minimal, "sort of like wearing a T-shirt when it's below freezing." Your pet's toes, nose, and ears are even more vulnerable to chilly temps.

That's why, in winter, pets need protection from extreme temperatures, which includes warm, dry, draft-free shelter; plenty of food; and lots of water. Take precautions any time the temperatures drop below freezing, says Jean Sonnenfield, DVM, an Atlanta veterinarian. And remember, if it's too cold for you, it's probably too cold for your pet.

Pet Winter Safety: Should Your Pet Dress for the Weather?

We don coats to face the frigid temps, so it seems natural to think that coats for dogs and cats might offer them similar protection from the elements. The vets we talked to agreed -- to a point.

Coats to protect cats from cold weather are probably not a good idea, say pros we talked to. "Cats generally won't tolerate them well," Sonnenfield tells WebMD, adding that pet clothes are probably most useful for your pooch.

Yet, as cute as your dog's cold weather coat may be, don't put clothes on your pet and then shoo him outside to wander without supervision, says Susan G. Wynn, DVM, a veterinary nutritionist in Georgia. Not only does your pet risk frostbite and other danger if his canine clothes get wet, he may "try to get out of the sweater or coat and get caught in a way that makes suffocation a risk." Monitoring your dressed-up dog is essential.

While you're at it, keep an eye on your pup's pads too, Sonnenfield says. "It does not take long for snow to freeze on their paws and cause problems." Salt-spread sidewalks can also imperil your pooch's pads by burning them. If you go the route of protective booties for your dog, try slipping baby socks onto his paws to get him used to the feel of something on his feet. Once your pooch accepts the socks, he's probably ready for booty bling.

A quick note about dog boots: Be sure they fit snuggly but not too tight. Otherwise you risk cutting off your dog's circulation and inviting frostbite.