How to Protect Pets From Cold Weather

When biting cold hits, pet owners wonder how to keep their animals safe and comfortable. And veterinarians say that it is reasonable to be concerned.

“The risks of extreme cold are equal to the risks of extreme heat,” said Dr. Deborah Mandell, director of emergency service at the Matthew J. Ryan Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

Pets can develop hypothermia and frostbite, she said. They can also slip on ice, or face cold-related paw injuries. Fortunately, a few simple precautions can help pet owners mitigate the risks.

The vets we spoke to were reluctant to offer blanket statements about how long pets could safely be outdoors in the cold. But if the temperature is at or below freezing, no more than 10 to 15 minutes is a good benchmark, Dr. Mandell said. “For most, going outside to go to the bathroom, then back inside, similar to when it’s too hot, is a good rule,” she said.

For a simple gut check, it can help to ask: Am I uncomfortable right now? If so, your pet probably is, too, said Dr. Rebecca Ruch-Gallie, an associate professor at Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

Keep other weather conditions in mind, too: Lounging in the sun for a few minutes on a cold but otherwise dry, calm day is different than being outdoors on a day that is also snowy, wet or windy.

An animal’s ability to comfortably withstand the cold is related to factors like age, overall health and physical makeup. “Look at a greyhound, for example, who has no subcutaneous fat and has very little hair,” Dr. Ruch-Gallie said. “Those guys don’t tolerate cold as much as some of the breeds that have double coats.”

The American Veterinary Medical Association also notes that short-legged pets may become cold faster than those with long legs, as their bodies are more likely to come into contact with the frigid ground.

Very young and very old animals may struggle with body temperature regulation, as can those with underlying health conditions. For instance, an older pet with arthritis or inflammation may feel particularly uncomfortable in the cold, Dr. Ruch-Gallie said, though some find it soothing.

“If they’re shivering, if they’re less willing to walk, if they’re picking their feet up as if they are uncomfortable, those are all signs to look out for,” said Dr. Gabrielle Fadl, senior director of medical programs and projects with Bond Vet in New York City. She urged dog owners in particular to check paws for ice or snow balls that are lodged between their toes while outside, and for cracking or bleeding once you get indoors.

The good news? Mammals will generally let you know when they are uncomfortable in the cold, Dr. Ruch-Gallie said — though not always. “Where we get into difficulties is with that dog that loves to go out and play in the snow,” she said, and “all of a sudden, they realize they can’t feel their feet anymore.”

Indoor pets are generally OK during cold spells, the experts said, even if you keep your home on the colder side. (Of course, animals with very specific temperature and humidity needs, like reptiles, should have their environments closely monitored.)

You might notice your pet seeking warmth, but that is not necessarily a red flag. “Even with my own two cats, I find them snuggling together more than they do in the warmer months,” Dr. Fadl said. Just make sure your animal has a bed, blanket or even a “hidey hole,” she said, and be mindful of the risk that space heaters pose. Animals can tip them over, she said, or burn themselves.

If your pet will tolerate it, a sweater or jacket can be a good option on freezing or below freezing days, the experts said. So can booties, particularly if your pet will be walking on surfaces that have been have been dusted with salt or ice melt, which can damage paws and be dangerous if ingested. If your pet doesn’t tolerate booties, balms can help protect paw pads from cracking, too, Dr. Fadl said. No matter what, be sure to wipe down your pet’s paws when you get home, the vets said.

If your four-legged friend has a lot of fur between the toes, trimming it can help prevent ice balls from forming — but don’t overdo grooming in the colder months.

“Their coats are designed to try to keep them temperature regulated,” Dr. Ruch-Gallie said. “You have the potential to really mess that up.”

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