Jan 20, 2014
09:15 AM
The Connecticut Story

Polar Vortex Alert: How to Keep Your Four-Legged Best Friends (and Others) Warm and Safe

Polar Vortex Alert: How to Keep Your Four-Legged Best Friends (and Others) Warm and Safe

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Here we go, folks—another bout with the polar vortex is due this week. Seems like a good time to talk about keeping our animals safe, warm and healthy. The ASPCA offers some handy cold weather tips, particularly for dog care, when the mercury drops, as well as some specialized advice for keeping your pet's skin and paws winterized. We've added and emphasized certain points with the help of local experts.


Let's begin by emphasizing that no pet should be expected or forced to stay outside during frigid weather—and in fact, if you're in the habit of tethering your dog to a doghouse or other outdoor structure, failing to bring him in during any extreme weather may earn you a stiff fine in Connecticut. Extreme cold is particularly tough on puppies and older dogs, says Dr. Mike Brothers of Middletown Vet Hospital, especially those suffering from arthritis or metabolic diseases (such as diabetes) that affects their ability to regulate body temperature. Temperature tolerance varies greatly between dog breeds, anyway: Your average husky or malamute will take to the cold more readily than, say, a short-haired, lower-to-the-ground beagle. Brothers advises sensitivity to your dog's needs, and dressing them in sweaters and coats even indoors, if necessary. 

Given that all dogs need to go out for at least brief walks in frigid air, use your best judgement as to how long is enough. "Our rule of thumb is that if it's too cold for you, it's too cold for your dog," says Mallory Kerley, media & communications manager for the ASPCA. If your pooch happens to be particularly frolicsome in the snow, notes Brothers, you should consider getting him microchipped—actually, good advice for cats who go outdoors as well. "It's easier for animals to get thrown off scent, and thus lost," he says. An active dog can slip on snow and ice and suffer ACL injuries as well. Whatever you do, never leave a dog (or any animal) alone in a cold car; the car will become a freezer and you'll risk his freezing to death.


Your cat's best quality—her independence—can become vexatious during the winter months, especially if she's accustomed to going outdoors at will. So it's a good idea to practice outwilling her (as you would a small child) when the mercury plummets, and make her stay indoors. Frigid weather presents circumstances that can cause her agility to work against her, says Danielle Cioffi, client-care coordinator at New England Cat Care of Woodbridge: "Cats tend to seek shelter under decks and porches, where they can get trapped and freeze to death." The best way to keep an outdoor cat happy inside is to keep her entertained and active with cat trees and challenging toys such as laser lights. (These are the times when it's clearest that the old adage is right: dogs may have masters, but cats have staff.)

In limited doses, sheer cold is unlikely to cause a healthy cat harm, says Cioffi. Unlike those of us with sweat glands all over, cats have them only in their feet, so they're unlikely to feel much shock when moving from a very warm house to a very cold yard. As with dogs, if your cat does spend time prowling outdoors, she's susceptible to ill effects from the salt and antifreeze agents used on sidewalks and roads all winter long—in fact, more susceptible, given most cats' compulsive habit of grooming themselves (thus ingesting substances that can make them very sick). She may find it distasteful, but cleaning your cat with a damp cloth and towels when she comes back into the house is wise practice. 

Even if we don't have a cat of our own, most—if not all—of us live in a community populated with our neighbors' cats—and, more than ever these days, colonies of feral cats. Unfortunately, if you park your car in an open driveway or parking lot, these cats may become especially attracted to it in the winter. They may sneak up through your car's undercarriage and nestle next to the warm engine (or, if your car leaks antifreeze, they may find its scent, texture and taste irresistible and lick it up despite the toxicity). With this in mind, practice a "good feline neighbor-policy": Keep your car in top form—and before you start it up on cold mornings, bang on the hood or honk your horn to scare away any potential interlopers, in order to avoid what can be a particularly grisly tragedy.

As for those feral kitties, if they show up in your back yard, it's kind to leave food for them at a time when their natural food sources may have become scarce or disappeared altogether. But think long and hard before you invite them into your home, says Mike Brothers of Middletown Vet, "because they tend to be antisocial and even hostile, and may carry disease that will particularly endanger your own pets." If you're terribly worried about them, bring them to a part of the house where they can be safely contained, away from everyone else—or better still, call your local animal shelter or rescue for help.


Of all domesticated animals, horses are probably best adapted to living outdoors in extreme temperatures: If  well-cared for, a good diet and healthy winter coat help insulate your pet from the cold. Says Patty MacKenzie, equine expert at Guilford's Lakeside Feed, "Horses can live outside as long as they have water to drink, good-quality hay to eat--enough to replace all the calories they burn off--and some sort of barn or shed they can run in to to get out of the wind." If you blanket your horse, which is not absolutely necessary, make it a waterproof one; but waterproof or not, leave it on the horse if it gets wet, as the animal's body heat will keep it warm. If you remove it and try to put it back on the horse later, it'll be frozen--and your pet will feel a lot like you do when someone shoves ice cubes down your back.

There's literal truth to the adage, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink"--however, horses need to stay hydrated in the cold, and that can pose a problem. Their water should not be icy, which is why some owners invest in heated buckets and trough heaters to keep it palatable. One of the best new strategies for making sure they get enough, says MacKenzie, is Purina's Hydration Hay. A two-pound brick of that will absorb five gallons of water, enabling an animal to eat and drink at the same time. Water is essential to preventing colic, a painful condition of the intestines that can be fatal.

Without the proper non-slip footwear, you can slip on the snow or ice and experience serious injury. So can your horse—and if he pulls a tendon, he can be laid up for as long as six months. The simple rule is: If you're going to keep your horse shod during the winter months, you need to equip her feet with some sort of anti-slip pads. (Walking on slippery terrain in uncovered shoes is a lot like walking on a lineoleum floor in cleats.) Otherwise, pull the shoes off, as the bottom of your horse's hooves are better equipped to keep him upright. Another foot problem horses deal with is collecting snow and ice balls in their hooves. Anti-balling snow pads can help to prevent that, as can the application of Vaseline or some sort of vegetable-oil solution before your horse ventures out. But should he wind up with frozen stuff clogging his feet, says MacKenzie, there's an even simpler remedy: Bring him in to his barn stall and let him relax and warm up for a half-hour—by that time, the snow or ice should have melted enough that you can pop it out by tapping gently on the front of his hooves with a small hammer or the end of a hoofpick.

Rabbits, birds and reptiles

A number of rabbit-owners keep their bunnies housed in hutches outdoors--a really bad idea for the winter, says Dr. Laurie Hess, owner of The Veterinary Center for Birds & Exotics in Bedford Hills, N.Y. She advises bringing the hutch inside, where there's no risk of hypothermia, a frozen water bottle or extra-hungry wild predators contending with a scarcity of food supply. If your house is not an option, an unused garage or shed may be an acceptable second choice as long as you can keep it warm, but the same garage where you park your cars poses the added, potentially fatal danger of exhaust fumes.

It's never good to let birds like parrots or parakeets get cold at all: They don't tolerate rapid temperature changes, says Hess, especially if they're a species native to tropical climes. And they can be fatally affected by the kind of airborne toxins portable heaters--especially ones lined with Teflon or nonstick coating--can throw off. So now's the time to develop some homemade heating ideas, just in case your power supply goes out, like birdcage covers and plastic bags or rubber gloves filled with warm water that you can place around the cage. Likewise, she recommends that pet reptiles, because they're cold-blooded, always be kept in a warm habitat. "The common wisdom is that these animals should just go into hibernation for the winter, but I don't recommend it," Hess says. "When that happens, metabolism shuts down, which compromises their immune systems and makes them more susceptible to illness. You should add extra heat to their surroundings to keep them active however you can."

Polar Vortex Alert: How to Keep Your Four-Legged Best Friends (and Others) Warm and Safe

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