Prevent Pets’ Cold Weather Emergencies

Winter’s freezing temperatures bring snow, ice, and the risk of two serious health hazards for your pets: hypothermia and frostbite. Dr. April Finan, a veterinarian at the University of Illinois Chicago Animal ER, offers owners advice on how to avoid a trip to the emergency clinic caused by exposure to the elements.

“Hypothermia occurs when your pet’s core body temperature drops below the normal range of 99.5 to 100.5 degrees F,” says Dr. Finan. “Animals with hypothermia will show signs such as lethargy and weakness. If you suspect this problem, wrap your pet in a warm blanket and get her to a veterinary hospital quickly.”

Dr. Finan warns against placing anything hot, such as a heating pad or warm water bottle, directly against your pet’s skin. This could cause burns.

For pets that enjoy the outdoors, exposure to extreme cold temperatures—below freezing—should be limited to 10 to 15 minutes. It’s important to factor in the wind chill and how much shelter is provided to your pet. Even with above-freezing temperatures, the wind chill can cause pets, especially short-haired pets, to become chilled and potentially hypothermic faster.

Pets that remain outside longer will need access to a warm shelter away from the snow and ice. You’ll also have to find a way to ensure that their water bowl does not ice over.

Surprisingly, some exotic pets can develop hypothermia even if they don’t go outside.

“Many of these pets come from a desert environment,” says Dr. Finan. “The chilly winter time doesn’t suit them well.”

Especially in the winter it is very important to make sure your exotic pets’ heat sources and/or light sources are providing them with the appropriate temperature. Also, be sure to keep these pets away from drafty windows and cold rooms, which can cause the temperature in their enclosures to drop to levels that are not appropriate for these pets.

For pets that spend a great deal of time outside during the wintertime, frostbite is another common concern.

“You should monitor your animal for signs of cold and numbness of the extremities and ears during the winter, especially after prolonged periods outside,” says Dr. Finan. Typically the ears and paws are the first body parts affected.

Despite these cautions, Dr. Finan still encourages owners to take their dogs for walks in the winter.

“Taking pets for a short walk may result in some temporary cold discomfort, but nothing more,” she says.

“If your dog will wear booties on the walk, those can help protect their feet from cold as well as from the salt spread on sidewalks to melt ice, which can irritate the footpads on dogs’ paws,” says Dr. Finan. “Applying a protective ointment such as ‘Musher’s Secret’ to dogs’ paw pads before walks can also help prevent this irritation.”

And what about those adorable doggy jackets and coats to go along with the booties? Dr. Finan thinks for the most part those are more for show than for actual benefit to the pets. However, she says breeds with low body fat and a short hair coat, such as the greyhound, should wear a coat outside during the winter to help prevent hypothermia.

If you have questions about protecting your animal from the cold, please consult your local veterinarian.

Brittany Way Rose is an Information Specialist at University of Illinois’ College of Veterinary Medicine.