While some pets enjoy living in a winter wonderland, other pets can suffer the same winter woes as people. From dry skin to finding ways to keep warm to packing on a little “winter weight,” some pets can use help to make sure they stay healthy and safe during winter. So we’ve created a winter survival guide for cats and dogs (and their pet parents).
Managing Dry Skin and Protecting Paws
The low-humidity, bone-chilling air of winter can be just as harsh on your pet’s skin as it is on yours. Thick fur and thickened paw pads give pets some protection against winter’s wrath, but winter can still be tough on your pet’s skin. Common winter skin issues include sore paws, dry skin and dandruff.
Snow and ice can collect between your pet’s toes and paw pads, so it’s helpful to keep your pet’s nails and the hair between their paw pads trimmed. If you’re on a walk with your dog, try to stop periodically to remove any snow or ice from their paws. You can also use products like a protective paw wax, a moisture-rich paw salve or booties to help protect their paws.
Dandruff (or seborrhea) consists of dry skin cells that flaked off of the skin’s surface and are visible on your pet’s skin, coat or other household surfaces. Dry skin can be itchy and irritating for pets, but there are things you can do to help make your pet more comfortable — see our dry-skin management tips below.
Avoiding Winter Weight Gain
Many dog parents know the struggle of getting their dog to go potty in the middle of winter and are often greeted with a look that clearly says, “I am not going out there today.” So what are the chances of getting them to go for a walk around the block? Pretty slim (and there’s a good chance you don’t want to go out there either). Similarly, if you have a cat that enjoys spending time in their outdoor cat run, they’re probably not going to venture out there much in winter.
To help avoid winter weight gain, try playing games inside to get your pet moving. Dogs can play fetch in an open area, compete with you in stair races or you could both join an indoor agility class. Cats can play chase the red dot, catch the remote controlled mouse or follow the feather.
Depending on your pet’s activity levels, reducing their calorie intake may also help manage their weight (more on changing food later). Cutting back on treats (like breaking them in half) is another good way to reduce calorie intake, if necessary. You could also put treats in a food puzzle which may help burn a few calories at the same time as keeping them mentally stimulated. However, always check with your veterinarian before making major changes to your pet’s diet.
Staying Warm and Toasty
Most pets can tolerate winter weather if they’re given time to acclimate (e.g., spending time outside during fall) versus abruptly changing climates (e.g., moving from Florida to Maine in January). However, extreme cold and sub-zero wind chills are the exception. Even cold-conditioned dogs who have thick coats and enjoy winter snow sports can get too cold if they don’t have adequate shelter and nutrition.
The general rule is that pets shouldn’t be outside in temperatures below 20 °F for very long without protection, as they can potentially develop frostbite or hypothermia. Your pet’s age, breed, size and overall health can affect how quickly they become too cold.
If you’re wondering if you should put a coat on your dog, the answer is: it depends. This article can help you decide whether you should use a coat on your dog. If you do use a coat, make sure it fits properly, the material is appropriate and it’s easy to get on and off.
If you have an outdoor cat or a primarily outdoor-living dog, it’s important that they have shelter from the wind, cold and snow. This includes bedding that resists moisture and keeps their shelter warm. Straw is a good choice, but don’t use blankets, towels or pet beds as they can freeze if they get wet.
Parasites, Poisons and Other Winter Perils
Some people believe that ticks die during the first frost of the season, but this is actually a myth. Ticks don’t die in winter; instead, they become dormant, hide in leaf litter, move indoors or spend winter on animals. Fleas can also survive temperatures in the mid- to upper 30 °F range and can ride out winter on animals. Similarly, pets can still be infected with intestinal parasites like roundworms and hookworms if they catch and eat an infected animal, and some parasite eggs can survive freezing temperatures. That’s why it’s important to continue using your pet’s internal and external parasite preventatives year-round, as the parasites don’t disappear in winter.
Winter also brings some new hazards for pets. Prolonged contact with snow- and ice-melting products can dry out or irritate paw pads, or cause chemical burns in some cases. These products can also be poisonous when consumed in large amounts, which is why it’s a good idea to only use pet-safe deicers. Or you could use sand or non-clumping kitty litter to provide traction on slippery sidewalks and driveways. Antifreeze is another winter-related pet poison, so keep all bottles out of reach and immediately clean up any leaks.
If your pet likes to eat snow, that’s probably OK, as long as it’s fresh, clean snow in small amounts. Of course, we all know the dangers of “yellow snow,” but dirty snow could also be contaminated with non-pet-safe deicer or other hazards, particularly if it was pushed off the road by snowplows. Generally, it’s OK if your pet eats fresh snow as it falls, but they should avoid “deep dive” snow that could have rocks or other choking hazards in it, and they should also limit how much snow they eat to avoid an upset tummy.
Should You Change Your Pet’s Nutrition in Winter?
If your pet’s activity level stays fairly constant all year, you probably don’t need to adjust their diet in winter. For example, if you live in a temperate climate where winter rarely affects your ability to spend time outside, or your pet spends most of their time indoors, their calorie intake can probably remain the same.
However, if your pet basically acts like they’re hibernating and rarely ventures outside in winter, they may need to be fed less to support a healthy weight. On the other paw, if your dog is an honorary snow bunny or you both enjoy spending time doing winter sports, they may benefit from more food, as they’ll need more calories to stay warm. Similarly, if you have an outdoor cat or a primarily outdoor dog, they can benefit from increased food during winter to help maintain their body temperature. Remember to always check with your veterinarian before making large changes to your pet’s nutrition.
Winter can be challenging for pets (and their pet parents!), but hopefully our winter survival guide will help your pet stay healthy and safe during those cold months. And remember, spring is right around the corner!
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