How Do Animals Keep Their Paws From Freezing?

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Q. How do cats and dogs walk on snow and ice without their paws freezing?

A. Many animals are equipped with an impressive supply of blood vessels under a well-designed layer of soft yet tough padding, which is why they generally don’t need to boot up to take a walk when there’s snow on the ground. But don’t expect cats or dogs to do as well in the cold as their wild relatives such as the lynx or wolf, both of whom have feet that can really stand up to snow and ice. Our domesticated animals, on the other hand, can and do suffer from prolonged exposure to bitter cold.

How Sled Dogs Do It

Two of my books, Why Do Dogs Drink From the Toilet? and Why Do Cats Always Land on their Feet? answer some of the most interesting and offbeat questions about cats and dogs I've collected over the years. For the dog book, I asked my friend Dr. Stu Nelson, chief veterinarian for the Iditarod, about how pets and their paws stand up to extreme weather. If anyone knows about pets in cold weather, it’s Dr. Nelson.

He shared that frostbite strikes the areas of the body that have the slowest circulation and are therefore easily chilled. Pets have greater circulation in their feet than humans do, enabling them to withstand low temperatures without wearing shoes.

So what about those sled dogshe knows so well?

While pet dogs and cats have relatively short-term exposure to walking on ice and snow, that’s certainly not true of sled dogs such as the ones who run the Iditarod. Dr. Nelson says that the thickness of the paw pads help animals go “barefoot” on various types of terrain, including snow and ice. Animals also have two more legs to distribute the weight, which is an advantage on rough, cold ground.

Despite all those evolutionary advantages, these canine athletes can use some help: Sled dogs often wear booties, although on ice they get better traction without them, using their nails like cleats.

While city dogs sometimes wear booties, it’s not something a cat will tolerate. In winter the problem for both dogs and cats isn’t walking on snow and ice so much as exposure to chemicals used for de-icing. It’s always a good idea to rinse pet paws when they come in; this cleans off anything potentially toxic and helps keep the house cleaner too.

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