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How to Keep Pets Safe in the Winter Cold
By: Brianna Gunter
January and February deliver some of the chilliest temperatures of the year in North America, which means it’s time to be extra vigilant with cold-weather animal safety.
While most cats can stay inside all winter long, the average dog is accustomed to going outdoors throughout the day to get exercise and bathroom breaks. You don’t want to stop your pooch from enjoying the great outdoors, but you also want to make sure your dog is safe in cold weather.
Read on to learn how cold weather affects pets and how you can protect them.
How cold is too cold for pets?
Just how low does the temperature have to be before your pet is at risk? Short answer: it depends.
It’s a common misconception that pets’ fur keeps them safe out in the cold. Relying on fur alone for hours at a time outdoors during winter (specifically when the temperature is below freezing) can lead to dangerous conditions like frostbite and hypothermia in pets.
In fact, your pet’s ability to withstand cold weather depends on both the actual weather conditions and the thickness of their fur.
“Your pet’s coat provides some insulation in cold weather when dry,” says Trupanion veterinarian Dr. Sarah Nold. “Dogs and cats with short hair have less protection.”
In other words, if it’s raining or snowing, Fido won’t be able to stay outdoors for long. He also will be more limited if his fur is short and/or thin. Certain breeds of pets that are naturally hairless or have very little hair (like Sphynx cats or Chinese crested dogs) should be allowed in the cold as little as possible.
On the flip side, certain kinds of dogs (like Alaskan malamutes and Siberian huskies) are built to withstand cold temperatures better than others. However, that still doesn’t mean they’re immune.
Other factors affecting pets in winter
Fur isn’t the only thing that will determine how a pet does in the snow and cold temperatures.
“Very young dogs (under six months of age), elderly dogs, small dogs, and those already in poor health are going to be affected by the cold weather sooner," Nold says. “This is complicated by the fact that, similar to us, each pet will tolerate cold weather to a different degree.”
To recap, these are the main factors affecting your pet’s ability to withstand the winter cold:
- Fur thickness
- Weather conditions
Not sure how your particular pet will do in cold weather? Ask their veterinarian!
Cold weather pet safety tips
In addition to being aware of the things affecting your particular pet this time of year, you’ll want to actively practice cold weather pet safety.
Limit pet exposure to cold temperatures
“With cold weather, it is usually not a matter of what is too cold, but how long they are exposed to it,” says Nold. “The short amount of time to go outside ‘to use the bathroom’ is unlikely to be sufficient to harm them.”
Pet parents should also be mindful of cold temperatures while traveling with their pet. Just as you should be wary of leaving your pet alone in a hot car during the summertime, pets left in cold cars during winter is also a situation that should be avoided. As you probably already know from running errands in cold weather, vehicles can cool down surprisingly fast when left parked with the engine off.
Keep your pet's fur dry
A large part of keeping your pet warm during winter is making sure their fur stays dry. Many dogs like to play outdoors during winter in the snow and mud, but this can quickly lead to a wet fur coat. Dry them off with a clean towel as soon as they come inside, switching out for a new towel if it becomes too wet before you’re done. Don’t let your pet go back outdoors while they’re still wet.
Make sure your pet is hydrated all winter
While you’re keeping their outsides dry, hydration is key to helping your pet regulate their body temperature. Make sure they always have access to clean, liquid water (not ice). You may also want to consider using a heated water dish or carrying lukewarm water with you in a thermos for when you take your dog on walks or play with them outside during winter.
Don’t keep your dog tied up outside
This should be a no-brainer — especially during the cold months of winter — but your pet should be spending the bulk of the season indoors with you. Some pet owners like to keep their dogs tied up outside, but this is ill-advised. Not only will having your dog live outside make them more susceptible to inclement weather, but it will also make it tougher for them to exercise for warmth and dry off as needed. If you cannot keep your dog inside at all during winter, it’s time to look into other housing options for them.
Stock up on pet winter clothes
Some dogs just love playing in the snow, and that’s great. But if they’re going to be outside frequently or for more than just a bathroom break, consider giving them a little extra help keeping warm.
Winter dog jackets and vests come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, and they can provide both cushion and warmth for dogs who like to dive into some flakes. While not all pets will tolerate them, there are also winter dog booties and protective paw balms you can use to help slow how fast their extremities get cold.
Keep in mind, however, that no protective winter pet clothing will make your four-legged friend totally immune to cold. It’s still important to monitor their outdoor playtime and limit their time in the chill. When your pet comes inside, be sure to remove their cold weather clothing quickly to prevent overheating.
Know the signs that your pet is too cold
Even when you are practicing good cold weather precautions for pets, it’s important to be aware of the signs they are too cold. Just like people, individual pets react differently to cold weather, and some may be more stoic than others. That said, your pet may exhibit one or more or the following signs if they are just too chilly:
- Curling up
- Lethargy / Moving slowly
- Limping or walking abnormally
- Pale gums
If you notice any changes in pet behavior or demeanor during the winter, make an appointment with your pet’s veterinarian. Wrap your pet up in a warm blanket and seek medical care immediately if your pet is experiencing any signs of hypothermia.
Want to learn more about keeping your pet healthy and safe all winter? Check out our pet care guides!
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Welcome to the Trupanion blog. A place to celebrate pets, pet health and medical insurance for cats and dogs.
This blog is designed to be a community where pet owners can learn and share. The views expressed in each post are the opinion of the author and not necessarily endorsed by Trupanion. Always consult your veterinarian for professional advice.