We winterize our homes and cars and bundle up to brave icy winds outdoors, but too often we fail to do the same for our four-legged friends. Yet regardless of what nature delivers, dogs have to go out and they need regular exercise for their physical and psychological well-being.
Whether urban or rural, dogs may face multiple hazards during the colder months, from cracked paws and dry skin to electrocution or immersion in a frozen pond.
Even pets that escape the cold by heading south with their snowbird owners can encounter unexpected risks that are easily avoided. But let’s focus first on those that stay up north.
When winter cold takes hold, our dogs can’t layer up the way we do without our help. According to Nancy Kay, a Cornell-trained vet whose books include “Your Dog’s Best Health,” unless your dog is a large, thick-coated arctic breed like a Samoyed, husky or malamute, it may need a coat, especially if he has short hair and spends a long time outdoors. Many dog owners pay handsomely for premium dog food, yet may hesitate to invest in a proper winter coat for their canine companions.
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Conserving body heat is especially critical for puppies, small dogs that have a high ratio of surface area to size, and dogs that are thin, old or have chronic health problems like heart disease, diabetes or arthritis.
Dogs, even those with thick hair like my 17-pound Havanese that runs off-leash with his buddies in the park every morning, are best protected by a coat that covers the chest and abdomen. If you’ll be out in rain or snow (all dogs do need to go out several times a day, after all), choose a waterproof coat, and if you have a male dog, select a style that won’t get soaked with urine.
If your dog goes off-leash in a local park or on a hike, consider a brightly colored garment easily seen in the snow.
Some dogs may also need ear protection. Consider buying a dog muff or create one by cutting the top off an acrylic knit human hat, a tip from FIDO in Prospect Park, an off-leash community that promotes responsible dog activities.
Feet nearly always need protection. A walk doesn’t have to be long for a dog’s feet to be hurt by ice balls or the salt and ice melt used on roads and sidewalks. Musher’s wax applied to the paw pads before going out can help protect them. There are also many versions of dog bootees, including multi-packs of disposable ones and more expensive but durable bootees secured with Velcro straps.
Consider asking other dog owners to let you test theirs in case you have trouble getting them on or keeping them on your dog. Sans wax or bootees, you might do a quick wash of your dog’s paws in a basin of warm water when you get home.
While you’re at it, don’t forget your own feet, especially if you have a pooch that tends to pull. Boots with good treads or shoes with added ice grippers will help to keep you upright and in control of your pet.
It’s best to keep your dog leashed near icy ponds. Even if frozen, ponds are likely to have weak areas unable to support your dog’s weight. My husband once did something terribly foolish (yet understandable) by lying down on the ice to rescue our dog after he fell through thin ice into a pond. Fortunately, they both survived!
City or country, dogs — and cats that venture outdoors — risk poisoning from sweet-tasting antifreeze spilled on driveways or roadsides. Even a lick or two of these yellow-green products can cause kidney failure if the animal is not quickly treated.
City dogs may face another relatively rare hazard that can jeopardize their owners as well: electrified manhole covers, sidewalks or lampposts with loose wires. If your dog suffers a disabling shock, someone who tries to rescue it can get electrocuted as well. If your dog tries to avoid walking on a section of sidewalk, there may be a good reason.
Just as human skin tends to get dry and itchy in cold weather, a dog’s skin is also prone to winter itch. Keep winter baths to a minimum and consider adding a small daily dose of olive oil or coconut oil to your dog’s food; it can help to moisturize the dog’s skin. Half a teaspoon is adequate for a dog under 30 pounds, a teaspoon a day for a medium-size dog, and up to a tablespoon for a large dog of 90 pounds.
Now for those dogs and cats who escape winter weather with their owners or who join them on a winter holiday. Dr. Ann Hohenhaus, a veterinarian at the Animal Medical Center in New York, reminds owners that pets heading south are likely to need year-round protection against fleas and tick-borne illness. “Every winter I see dogs and cats coming home from Florida scratching and itching from southern fleas,” she reports. Heartworm, too, is a year-round concern, especially in warmer climes.
Well before you plan to fly with your pet, be sure your animal’s vaccinations are up-to-date. And check the airline’s rules about where and how the animal must be transported lest you be turned away at the airport. Small carry-on pets must fit in a carrier under the seat. Most airlines require an advance reservation for pets whether they are flown in the cabin or the pet hold.