Cats and Dogs in Winter: Common Cold Weather Pet Illnesses and Preparing for Winter Pet Emergencies

Pet owners should be aware of cold weather conditions this winter when pets are outside. The temperature, weather conditions, and what type of shelter a dog or cat has access to can make a big difference in preventing cold weather pet emergencies. We suggest not leaving animals outside overnight in cold weather and not leaving them unsupervised when you’re not home. If they are outside, provide shelter options and access to water, even if they are only outside for an hour.

3 Common Cold Weather Pet Illnesses

The following are three common cold weather illnesses that are potential pet medical emergencies experienced by cats and dogs, most of which are preventable with proper care:

1. HYPOTHERMIA IN PETS

Hypothermia is one of the most common issues caused by the frosty weather.

As with humans, hypothermia in pets is caused by low body temperature caused by extreme cold. The combination of wet fur and cold weather can be dangerous to dogs and cats and contribute to hypothermia. Other causes of hypothermia include submersion in cold water for an extended period of time, as well as shock.

Anything below a dog’s normal body temperature (between 101°F and 102.5°F; cats should have a body temperature between 100.5°F and 102.5°F) can be considered as hypothermia. Symptoms of hypothermia include paleness of skin, shivering, and listlessness to the point of lethargy. When sustained for too long, hypothermia can be fatal: leading to coma, heart failure, and other organ shutdowns.

As soon as you suspect that your pet has hypothermia, try to keep them warm by wrapping them in warm blankets. You can also wrap a heating pad or a covered hot water bottle and put it near the pet’s body to increase their body temperature. Just make sure it’s not too hot and that it’s not directly on the skin, to avoid the risk of burns.

Rubbing dry can help if the pet is just wet but if you think they might have frostbite, rubbing the area with a towel can damage tissues.

Don’t forget to check your pet’s temperature every 10 minutes. If it is consistently below 98°F (36.7°C), seek immediate emergency veterinary attention. Once it’s above 100°F, remove the hot water bottle to avoid overheating.

 2. FROSTBITE IN PETS

Frostbite is tissue damage that occurs due to the cold. Frostbite in pets can vary from mild to severe, and primarily occurs on the tips of your pet’s tails, ears, and toes. The severity of frostbite depends on the pet’s size, age, fur thickness, and how long they’ve been outside in the cold.

Frostbite and hypothermia usually go hand-in-hand (or paw-in-paw), though frostbite isn’t as commonly life-threatening as hypothermia, unless it goes septic due to infection.

For cat and dogs in winter, a telling sign of frostbite involves pale skin. Watch out for a bluish-white hue, which is a sign of restricted blood flow. This happens because when skin is exposed to extreme cold, the body restricts blood flow to keep only the essential organs functioning.

Ice also usually forms on frostbite-affected areas, and the skin is often cold or brittle to the touch.

Watch out for these symptoms of frostbite, in increasing degrees of severity:

  • First degree: Pale, hard skin at the extremities that turns scaly, red, and swollen when warmed
  • Second degree: Blistering on the skin
  • Third degree: Skin darkening, which may occur over a period of several days; formation of gangrene

If you suspect your pet has frostbite, do much of the same as you would when treating cats and dogs in winter for hypothermia: keep them warm. Just remember not to warm your pet directly from a heat source.

Treat the frostbitten area with a warm (dry) towel. Pat them with the towel — do not massage, as this will cause pain and may cause tissue damage. Contact us for emergency veterinary attention if you suspect severe frostbite.

 3. ANTIFREEZE POISONING

Antifreeze and rock salt and other ice melting chemicals are often used to keep cars running and to melt snow so that it’s easier to navigate wintery sidewalks, driveways, and roads. However, antifreeze can contain ethylene glycol, a substance that is sweet to the taste but is poisonous to pets.

Symptoms of antifreeze poisoning include “drunken” behavior, such as nausea/vomiting and wobbly walking, which can escalate to seizures and coma. If you’ve observed these symptoms or suspect your pet has ingested antifreeze, contact your vet immediately — the sooner, the better.

Meanwhile, prevent antifreeze poisoning by storing antifreeze away from pets.

Clean up puddles of antifreeze that may come from your car or driveway. Protect your pet’s paws from both antifreeze and rock salt by using pet booties and wiping their paws after being outside. As much as possible, try to use “non-toxic” antifreeze, which contains propylene glycol as an active ingredient instead of ethylene glycol.

Cats & Dogs in Winter: Safety Tips for Cold Weather

LIMIT YOUR PET’S EXPOSURE TO THE COLD

It’s best to keep pets indoors, where it’s warm as much as possible during the winter. Different animals have different tolerance levels to the cold. But their paws can get red and irritated with the cold, snow and ice.

Of course, you can still take your pets out for walks — just make them shorter to prevent cold weather illnesses like hypothermia and frostbite. When you’re out, dress your pet in booties and a sweater or jacket to keep their feet and fur clean, dry, and snow-free. Plus, give pets additional protection against the cold by not shaving their fur as wintertime approaches.

It’s difficult to put a time frame on being outside, as it can depend on the temperature, conditions, and what type of shelter a dog or cat may have. We would suggest not having animals outside overnight in cold weather or unsupervised when you’re not home and if they are out, having an option for shelter and access to water, even if they are only outside for an hour.

Signs of being outside too long can include red or irritated paws, paws that have started to bleed because ice has gotten stuck between their toes, shaking/shivering, lethargy, pale, blue or grey gums, and tongue, or the fur or skin is cold to touch. Please contact us if you have any concerns about these potential cold weather pet emergencies.

CHECK-IN, CHECKUP

Since pets can’t exactly articulate if they’re feeling bad, it’s up to you to take notice. Every now and then, check your pet’s paws for signs of cold weather damage or injuries, and take notice of any behavior changes, which could be symptoms of cold weather illnesses.

This may also be a good time for a yearly veterinary checkup since the cold weather can worsen some medical conditions, such as arthritis, in older pets.

KEEP PETS AWAY FROM DANGEROUS SUBSTANCES

Pets can be mischievous, and that gets them into accidents. Keep them away from food that could potentially harm them, as well as other dangerous substances including antifreeze.

In the flurry of winter activity, take time to notice your pet. Just this small act can make all the difference in preventing cold weather issues from developing.

Final Thoughts: Cats and Dogs in Winter and Preventing Cold Weather Pet Emergencies

By keeping your pet safe and warm, you’ll already have fought half the battle when it comes to protecting them from the worst issues brought on by cold weather.

However, if you’re unsure if an issue or illness has become an emergency, call our experts at 303.660.1027 and we’ll help you figure out the best course of action!

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