January is Washington’s coldest month, and although we don’t get much snow, rain and high humidity combined with below-freezing overnight temperatures often produce hazardous winter conditions that can affect not only our ability to go outside and enjoy nature, but also our pet’s safety.
Despite your pet’s fur coat, they are not impervious to cold, and you need to take extra precautions to protect them during the winter. Our Village Animal Hospital team has compiled a list of the top five winter pet hazards, and preventive methods to keep your pet safe.
#1: Pet hypothermia
Hypothermia (i.e., low body temperature) tops our list as the most life-threatening cold weather hazard. Dogs and cats have a typical body temperature between 99 and 102.5 degrees, and are considered hypothermic if their temperature is lower. Hypothermia most often occurs after prolonged cold exposure, such as being left in a cold car or outside unattended. Ignoring early hypothermia signs in your dog while on an outdoor adventure also can lead to a dangerous hypothermic state.
Sensitive pets, including puppies, seniors, and pets with medical conditions, short or thin fur, little body fat, or small body size, can become hypothermic faster than healthy adult pets or those with thick, double coats. Pay attention to your dog’s individual cold tolerance, and consider a coat, booties, and/or snood to protect them while outdoors. Most importantly, when the temperature drops below freezing or the weather is rainy or windy, monitor your pet closely for these common hypothermia signs:
- Rigid muscles and awkward movements
- Pale gums
- Cool extremities
Hypothermia can progress and become life-threatening if you do not move your pet in early stages to a safe, warm area. Seek emergency veterinary care if your pet has been exposed to cold and shows the following signs:
- No longer shivering
- Unresponsive pupils
- Slow heart rate
#2: Pet frostbite
Pets typically are frostbitten after prolonged cold exposure—usually longer than 30 minutes, but more quickly in extreme cold, wind, or moisture—and cold-sensitive pets are more likely to develop frostbite. Frostbite, which can affect the ears, nose, toes, tail, or scrotum, occurs when peripheral blood vessels constrict to help shunt blood to internal organs to keep the body functioning in extreme cold. Without adequate blood circulation, the tissues can freeze, and may turn dark, blue, or gray, and then red, as the tissue thaws. Mildly affected tissue sometimes recovers, but severe cases may result in dead, infected areas that require amputation. Your pet needs immediate veterinary care if they have discolored areas of skin, because they need to thaw under medical supervision, with adequate pain control.
#3: Pet slips and falls
Frequent rain combined with freezing overnight temperatures means ice can become a problem for your pet. All pets are susceptible to falling on slippery surfaces, but older and arthritic pets with weakened muscles are more likely to fall and sustain serious injuries. Protect your pets by using pet-safe ice-melts around your property, especially if you go outside during the early morning hours when icy conditions are most likely. You can also use boots, socks, or rubber nail grips to provide arthritic pets with an extra layer of protection and traction. If your pet appears dazed or injured after a fall, call your veterinarian right away.
#4: Pet poisonings
Road deicing solutions and chemicals can harm pets if ingested, usually when they lick their feet or fur after a long walk outside. Antifreeze is the most serious concern, because only a small amount can prove deadly if your pet doesn’t get immediate veterinary help. Wipe your pet’s feet and fur when they come in from a snowy or salty walk, keep antifreeze solutions out of reach, and do not allow your pet access to driveways or garages where antifreeze could leak onto the ground. If you suspect your pet has ingested antifreeze, get them to the nearest veterinary emergency hospital immediately, or contact the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center or Pet Poison Helpline.
#5: Pet paw injuries
Your pet’s paws can take a beating during the winter. Chemicals and ice can accumulate on hair between their paw pads and irritate their skin, so keep foot hair trimmed short and wipe your pet’s feet thoroughly after being outside. Paw pads can dry out and crack or tear during activity, so check them frequently and apply a paw butter or other product as needed to keep them supple. Also, cuts from loose or cracking ice should be cleaned and attended to by veterinary staff to determine if sutures or other treatments are required.
Taking extra precautions when the temperature drops can help ensure your pet’s safety. Contact the Village Veterinary Hospital team if your pet has a winter-weather accident, or if you need assistance determining the best ways to safeguard your pet from the cold.
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