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Keeping pets warm in cold weather

Original Publication Date: December 8, 2014
By C. Sue Furman, Ph.D.

Winter is upon us. It can bring bitter cold days and nights or numbing wetness that make life difficult for a pet.

The American Veterinary Medical Association, the ASPCA, and other experts recommend that dogs and cats be kept inside when temperatures drop. Inside pets are healthiest and happiest.

The cold tolerance of pets varies with age, size, coat type, stores of body fat, activity level, and health.

Short-haired pets feel the cold fastest and are cozier wearing a sweater or coat.

Pets with health challenges like arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, or Cushing's disease may have an especially difficult time regulating their body temperature in cold weather. That is also true of very young and elderly pets.

All dogs, even those with long hair or thick coats fair better with shorter walks and decreased outdoor stays.

It is a good idea to wipe your dog's feet, legs, and belly after a walk to remove antifreeze, deicers, or other toxic chemicals. Snow, sleet, and ice should also be removed from their paws. Feet should be checked frequently for signs of cold-weather injury like cracked pads.

Many believe cats and dogs are more resistant to cold than people. This simply is not true. Just like people, they are susceptible to hypothermia and frostbite if left outside for prolonged periods of time in cold weather. A pet that shivers, whines, seems anxious, or becomes weak is showing signs of hypothermia. He or she should be brought inside and immediately taken to the veterinarian.

Frostbite is more difficult to detect. It tends to involve the tail, ear tips, paw pads, and scrotum, because these parts are least protected by fur. The skin turns pale white or blue, then becomes red and swollen when the pet is warmed and circulation returns.

A suspicion of frostbite should prompt an immediate trip to your veterinarian.

If you are unable to keep your dog inside all day during cold weather, provide him with a warm shelter. It should be several inches off of the ground. The door should face away from prevailing winds and be covered with waterproof burlap or heavy plastic. Supply plenty of dry cedar shavings or straw bedding and change it often.

An unlimited supply of fresh non-frozen water is a must. Change water often or use a pet-safe heated water bowl.

It is just as risky to leave your pet in a car in the winter as in the summer. Temperatures in the car can resemble those of a refrigerator. Young, old, and infirm dogs are especially at risk, but no dog should be left unattended.

An inside cozy warm bed off of the floor and away from drafts fosters good health in your pet. However, dogs and cats are social animals. Snuggling with their human companions is the perfect prescription for happiness.

Sue Furman, Ph.D, has published two books and a DVD on canine massage and teaches classes in pet massage, acupressure, first aid and CPR. See her schedule and submit questions at