Keeping Your Dog or Cat Safe in the Winter

Dog Winter Image

No matter how much we love the snow, most of us spend less time outdoors when the weather is cold. Exposure to cold temperatures and/or wet, windy winter weather can be more than just uncomfortable; it can be dangerous—for us and for our furry, four-legged friends. Generally, if it's too cold for you, it's also too cold for your pet.

In addition to health concerns like frostbite (freezing of skin and tissue) and hypothermia (a dangerous drop in internal body temperature), companion animals face other risks in cold weather:

  • Unlike other family members, your dog isn't able to tell you that it’s too cold and is time to go inside.
  • Your cat may seek warmth under the hood of a car and can be seriously injured when the car is started.
  • Your dog's sense of smell may be affected by winter weather, and she may not be able to find her way home after venturing off.
  • That spill of antifreeze, coolant, or ice melt in the driveway may smell and/or taste good to your cat—but it may be lethal.
  • The temperature inside your car may drop quickly in extremely cold weather, and your dog could freeze to death while you run a few errands.
  • Mounds of snow and icy roads can make it difficult for a driver to see your cat—and to stop in time if he tries to cross the street.

If possible, keep cats indoors—especially when temperatures are below freezing, and allow dogs outside only for short periods of time—and only on a leash or in a fenced in yard—during severe winter weather.

Winter Safety

Here are some additional winter safety tips for your pet:

Know your pet's tolerance to cold temperatures. Just like people, some animals are able to tolerate winter weather better than others. In general, pets that are very young, very old, or have a chronic health condition like arthritis, diabetes, kidney disease, or heart disease, are less able to tolerate cold, windy, wet weather. If you have questions about winter safety and your pet, talk to your veterinarian.

Larger pets, animals that are very active, and those with more body fat and/or longer, thicker coats may handle the cold better than smaller, short-haired dogs and cats. A dry coat or sweater that covers your pet from the base of the tail to the shoulders can provide additional warmth. Be sure your pet's winter wear doesn't pose a choking or strangulation risk.

Exercise is important—even in the winter—but shorten your dog's walks in very cold weather, perhaps getting him or her outside a little more often. When your pet comes in, dry him or her off and wipe down his or her legs and stomach thoroughly to remove snow and ice, as well as any chemicals (e.g., salt, ice melt) on his or her paws.

When you're outside with your dog, check his or her paws frequently for damage or injury related to the cold, snow and ice, or irritating chemicals. Do not allow your dog to walk out onto frozen ponds, lakes or other standing water. If your pet is very active outdoors in cold temperatures, increase his or her daily supply of healthy food (especially protein) and make sure to provide plenty of fresh, unfrozen water.

When grooming your pet, allow your dog's coat to grow longer during the winter months, and dry him/her thoroughly after bathing. Make sure your pet wears ID tags at all times—in case he or she gets outside.

Provide a warm place for your pet to sleep—away from cold drafts. A dog or cat bed or a blanket works well. If your pet absolutely must spend time outside in cold weather, make sure he or she has adequate shelter from the cold, wind and precipitation; is able to stay warm and dry; and has access to plenty of fresh, unfrozen water and food. Use heating elements around pets (inside your home and outside) only with extreme caution, as they can cause burns and fire.

Remember your pets when preparing your home for winter weather emergencies. While stocking up on bottled water, non-perishable food, extra batteries and blankets, don't forget enough pet food and medicine your pet needs to last several days.

If you park your vehicle outside in the winter, check underneath, bang on the hood, or hit the horn before starting it in case a neighborhood cat or other animal is seeking warmth from the car's engine. Clean up any spills from your vehicle—including oil, coolant, antifreeze, and windshield wiper fluid in your driveway or garage—they're often poisonous. Consider using products that contain propylene glycol instead of ethylene glycol and pet-safe de-icing products.

Learn to recognize signs of hypothermia or frostbite. Get your pet inside and contact your veterinarian immediately if you suspect either condition. The tail, ears, pads of the feet and scrotum are areas of the body most susceptible to frostbite—often indicated by pale, bluish skin color. Signs of hypothermia include the following:

  • Anxious behavior
  • Becoming lethargic or inactive
  • Searching for a warm place to burrow
  • Shivering
  • Weakness
  • Whining, whimpering

By following these important cold weather safety tips, you can help ensure that your beloved companion stays healthy and happy this winter.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at Healthcommunities.com

Published: 09 Jan 2013

Last Modified: 15 Dec 2014