The cold itself can pose a significant hazard to pets who are not acclimated to freezing temperatures. Many factors come into play when determining how long an individual animal can safely remain outside at certain temperatures: age, size, body condition, coat length, wind and precipitation, among others. With no set guideline, a good rule of thumb is to stay outside with your pet and once it feels too cold for you, it is likely too cold for them.
For animals that cannot be brought indoors during periods of intense cold, it is imperative to keep them dry, provide insulated shelter out of the wind, offer thick bedding, feed more calories (more energy is needed to maintain body warmth) and ensure that available water does not freeze over.
If pets do remain outside for too long, cold exposure can result in frostbite or hypothermia.
Frostbite typically affects extremities such as ear tips, toes and the tail, but may not be visible for several days. Hypothermia varies in severity with symptoms including weakness, muscle stiffness, shivering, mental depression, low heart rate, shallow breathing, fixed and dilated pupils, coma and even death.
If either frostbite or hypothermia is suspected, veterinary care should be sought immediately. Attempting to rewarm the animal at home through rubbing/massaging may cause further tissue damage, and the rewarming stage can be very painful. Animals are often treated with specialized rewarming techniques, pain medications and antibiotics while hospitalized. Prognosis is dependent on the extent of exposure and may or may not be reversible if complicated with tissue necrosis or infection.
Although cold exposure is one of the most serious hazards posed by the season, there are many additional safety concerns.
Ice can accumulate between sensitive paw pads and can even lead to cuts. Conversely, salt or de-icing chemicals can irritate foot pads, bellies and the oral cavity (if licked off while grooming). Pets should regularly be checked for injuries upon returning inside, and should have paws and bellies wiped clean.
Cats may curl up for warmth on engine blocks of cars, making it a good habit to “bang” the car hood prior to starting an engine. Antifreeze is plentiful this time of year, and ingesting even a small amount of an ethylene-glycol containing variety can lead to kidney failure and death.
Without any complicating factor, the cold makes it harder on pets with arthritis. Finally, animals can fall through thin ice that occasionally forms atop ponds or other bodies of water. Lakes, ponds, streams and other bodies of water should be avoided during walks, as a rescue attempt can turn deadly for both pets and their owners.
In general, treating pets as the family members they are will keep them safe, happy and healthy. Keep them indoors with you, and have plenty of their food and medications on hand in case of snow-ins!
And if ever there is a question or concern, do not hesitate to contact your veterinarian for additional information or answers.
(About the writer: Laura Catharine M. Brittain, DVM, is a practicing veterinarian associated with Community Animal Hospital in Cleveland. Dr. Brittain is the daughter of Larry McDaris, director of the Bradley County Office of Veterans Affairs. This guest “Viewpoint” was originally written for The Ark of Cleveland Inc. newsletter. The Ark is an established 501(c)(3) nonprofit, faith-based entity, and operates in Cleveland under the coordination of a volunteer board of directors. This submission is being reprinted due to the cold wave currently affecting the Southeast.)