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.


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Pet Winter Safety for Very Young and Older Pets

Dog boots, cute coats, flashy collars, and leashes -- these are all meant to be used with healthy, adult pets in winter.

Puppies and kittens as well as older dogs and cats shouldn't be outside no matter how well-dressed. That's because they just don't have the fat, metabolism, or the full fur coat they need to stay warm when temperatures plunge.

When it's cold or wet out, veterinarians say it's vital to keep younger, older, and sick pets indoors.

Cats and Cold Weather: Transitioning an Outdoor Cat Indoors

Feral, abandoned, and lost cats: Many of us do our best to care for these cats year-round, but winter can be an especially tough time for an outdoor-only feline. Fortunately, some cats can be transitioned to the indoors, but you'll need to "start the transition several months before you anticipate really cold weather," McGeorge says.

The best time to begin the change is late spring or early summer when it's warm enough to leave a door or window open, she says. Then you'll need to "coax the cat in with food or treats. But leave the door or window open so he or she can easily escape."

Once the cat is accustomed to coming inside for food, start giving meals inside. Close the door or window while the cat is eating, but open it immediately if she gets panicked and wants out. The goal, McGeorge says, is to gradually let the cat see that coming indoors is safe and comfortable.

Remember that any cat kept inside needs stimulation, says Wynn, author of Manual of Natural Veterinary Medicine. So make sure your indoor environment offers lots for your cat to do. Wynn suggests regular play with laser pointers and cat toys, as well as cat trees and catwalks.

Cats and Cold Weather: Preparing an Outdoor-Only Cat for Winter

No matter what we do, some cats may only feel safe outside. But you can still keep kitty snug and warm this winter. Once nighttime temps dip into the low 40s, your outdoor pet should have shelter, Sonnenfield says.

"If you're dealing with an outdoor-only cat, be sure kitty has a warm, dry shelter and fresh water," McGeorge says. "If you live in an area where water will freeze, consider using a birdbath heater in the water."

Providing shelter for cats in cold weather doesn't have to be hard. You can use an already-manufactured pet house, a wooden box, even a cardboard box. Insulate all sides of the shelter with foam board, old blankets, or plastic, then line the bottom with an old sleeping bag, coats, fleece, even inexpensive hay. No matter what you use, "check the bedding regularly," Sonnenfield says. Dirty, wet bedding could literally be the death of your cat. So each morning when you check kitty's water to be sure it isn't frozen, also check the bedding to make sure it's dry.

Try to place the shelter in a garage, covered porch, or beneath a carport, all of which can provide a few additional degrees of much-needed warmth. And be sure to raise the refuge off the ground to keep the cold from leeching up through the shelter's bottom while giving your feline friend a sense of security.

You can make any shelter even snugger with electric heating. But to avoid burns or the risk of electrocution, be sure you use pads, blankets, and other heating products specifically made for animals, Sonnenfield says.

Finally, make sure your outdoor-only cat is the one getting the food and water you put out, "not your neighborhood raccoons or squirrels," Sonnenfield says.

Pet Winter Safety: 4 Tips for When the Temperature Drops

Providing all the cold weather needs for indoor-outdoor pets in winter is usually easy, but it can be tougher for outdoor-only pets like abandoned or feral cats. So when the weather outside is frightful, here's how you can protect your feline and canine friends from winter's bite.

Tip # 1: Beware of cats sheltering under cars. In cold weather, cats will seek shelter anywhere they can. Even if you haven't run your car in days, a cat may still seek the nominal protection found in your car's engine compartment.

That's why McGeorge says to, "Always bang on the hood of the car if it is parked outside or even in a garage if your cat has access to it." You can also try giving your car's horn a quick toot or two to shoo kitties away.

Tip # 2: Antifreeze is deadly. Antifreeze is thick, very sweet, and can be irresistible to some pets. "During the winter, the most common toxicity we see is from antifreeze," Sonnenfield says. And it doesn't take lapping up much antifreeze to kill an animal. Antifreeze can be deadly to a pet if the pet is not treated aggressively soon after ingesting it.

"Cats can be poisoned by very small amounts," McGeorge tells WebMD. For example, a cat can be poisoned just by walking through spilled antifreeze and then licking its paws during cleaning. If you suspect your cat or dog has been exposed to antifreeze, don't wait to see if it acts sick, McGeorge says. Take it to a veterinarian for treatment immediately.

To avoid antifreeze exposure:

  • Be sure all antifreeze containers are tightly closed and put away on a high shelf.
  • Make sure your car is not leaking antifreeze. "It takes a very small amount to make animals sick," Sonnenfield says.

Tip # 3: Walking pets in winter? Get reflective. During winter's darker days and longer nights, pets can be hard to see. That's why Sonnenfield recommends reflective collars. Some message board members also give a thumbs up to collars, tags, and leashes embedded with LED lights and blinkers.

Tip # 4: Keep your pet safe during the holidays. Winter holidays bring fun and family, but they also invite exposure to items potentially toxic or dangerous to your pet. Sonnenfield recommends keeping pets away from chocolate, plants, holly berries and leaves, and tinsel. Call the Animal Poison Control Center at (888) 426-4435 or your vet right away if you think your pet has eaten something dangerous.

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Dogs and Cold Weather: Preparing a Warm Space for Your Dog

For a pooch that spends a lot of time outside, you'll need to take the same steps to protect your dog in cold weather as those taken for an outdoor-only cat, including:

  • Making sure your dog has warm, dry, draft-free, covered shelter, preferably in a garage, shed, or beneath a carport or porch awning.
  • Warming that shelter with bedding you check daily -- wet bedding can be fatal to a pet. Look into purchasing electric heating products specifically made for a dog's use.
  • Being sure that fresh unfrozen water is available to your dog every day. You can find inexpensive warmers to keep your pet's water from freezing.
  • Providing your dog plenty of food; pets need even more calories in the winter to help them keep warm.

Always bring your dog inside when the temperatures turn particularly harsh, the pros say. "If you wouldn't want to be out in those conditions in just your clothes and a coat for too long, your pet won't want to be either," Pet owner and Utah social worker Sherri G. says.

Dogs in Cold Weather: Encouraging Potty Breaks

When the snow is deep and the temps plunge, no one wants to go potty outdoors. So how can you encourage your four-legged friend to go outside when the need strikes? WebMD pet message board members and others in the know offer these quick tips:

  • Shovel it. Keep a small area in the yard shoveled clear of snow; or at least be sure the snow is only an inch or two deep. Then encourage your pet to use this spot. It helps if you shovel a path to this snow-free area.
  • Buy booties. If your dog is bothered by the snow or ice touching its feet, snow boots donned just before the potty break may make the outdoor journey -- and walking your pet in cold weather -- much easier. A bonus: Pet booties should help the house stay cleaner, too.
  • Stay close. When it's really cold out, members suggest waiting by the door while your pooch uses its outdoor potty, then letting him back in as soon as he's done.
  • Make an indoor potty. When the weather outside is truly frightful and you really don't want to let Fido or Fifi out, you do have indoor options for your pet's toilet needs:
  • Pet pee pads resemble a flat, unfolded diaper and are an especially effective option for small, older, or sick dogs. Most pet supply stores carry a range of pee pad sizes, from toy-dog tiny to extra large.
  • Indoor pee patches consist of small swathes of pseudo grass topping a broad, hollow tray into which urine collects each time a dog goes potty. You can find several inexpensive options with a quick online search.
  • Some smaller dogs can also be litter box-trained; even mature dogs can be taught to use a box inside. Be patient during the process, suggest message board members. Training your pup to use a litter box doesn't happen overnight.

Pet Winter Safety: Know the Signs of Hypothermia and Frostbite

When cats and dogs are exposed to the cold for too long, their body temperature -- which is usually between 101°F and 102.5°F -- can drop fatally. Here's what you need to know as you keep a close eye on your pets in winter.

Hypothermia Symptoms in Dogs and Cats

  • violent shivering, followed by listlessness
  • weak pulse
  • lethargy
  • muscle stiffness
  • problems breathing
  • lack of appetite
  • rectal temperature below 98°F
  • coma
  • cardiac arrest

Hypothermia Treatment

Wrap your pet in a warm blanket or coat (you can warm blankets and coats in the dryer for a few minutes).

  • Bring your pet into a warm room.
  • Give your pet a solution of four teaspoons honey or sugar dissolved in warm water to drink. You can also put 1-2 teaspoons of corn syrup on the gums if your pet is too weak to drink. This provides an immediate energy boost.
  • Place warm, towel-wrapped water bottles against your pet's abdomen or at her armpits and chest, then wrap her in a blanket. Do not use hair dryers, heating pads, or electric blankets to warm up a hypothermic pet as this may result in burns or cause surface blood vessels to dilate, which compromises circulation to vital organs.
  • Call your veterinarian immediately.

The best way to manage hypothermia is to avoid it. Always provide warm, dry shelter for pets when they're outdoors.

Frostbite Signs in Dogs and Cats

Frostbite happens when a part of your pet's body freezes. For cats, that may involve the paws, tail, or ears; for dogs, the tail, ears, foot pads, or scrotum. Severe winter weather, especially when windy or humid, can lead to frostbite. Watch for:

  • pale, gray, or blue skin at first
  • red, puffy skin later
  • pain in ears, tail, or paws when touched
  • skin that stays cold
  • shriveled skin

Frostbite Treatment

  • Apply warm (not hot) water for at least 20 minutes to the frostbitten area; Do not use hair dryers, heating pads, or electric blankets to warm up a frostbitten pet as this may cause burns.
  • Handle the affected areas very carefully; don't rub or massage them as you could cause permanent damage.
  • Call your vet immediately.

It doesn't take much to keep our pets safe when things get frosty. Just like us, our feline and canine friends need shelter, warmth, food, and care. When winter's chill sends you scurrying indoors, don't forget your furry four-footed pals and their simple needs this season.

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors

SOURCES: Marla J. McGeorge, DVM, Portland, Oregon.

Jean Sonnenfield, DVM, Georgia Veterinary Specialists, Atlanta.

Susan G. Wynn, DVM, nutritionist, Georgia Veterinary Specialists, Atlanta; author, Manual of Natural Veterinary Medicine.

Griffin, J, MD, and Carlson, L, DVM. Dog Owner's Home Veterinary Handbook, 3rd Edition, Howell Book House, 2000. "Hypothermia."

Hotchner, T. The Dog Bible: Everything Your Dog Wants You To Know, Gotham Books, Penguin Group, 2005.

Sherri G. pet owner; social worker, Salt Lake City, Utah.

City of Boston, "Pet Safety Tips."

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