How to Keep Outdoor Pets Warm in Winter

Happy dog running in the snow
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Winter and summer both present challenges to keeping pets safe and comfortable, but winter is actually easier to prepare for since it’s more about preventing exposure and less about the summer problem of preventing accidents. With one major exception: In cold weather, you always need to be aware of the possibility that a chilly cat could be cuddled against the warm engine of a recently parked car or in the dryer on a pile of warm clothes. Always check your dryer before using it, and thump the hood of your car before starting it to send any sleeping cat on his way.

With very few exceptions, my snow country neighbors would never intentionally cause a pet to suffer in the winter or any other time. But sometimes people just don’t have enough information or are just "doing it the way it has always been done.” Education is always a big part of a doctor’s job, and I pride myself on doing the best I can to offer good advice in a nonjudgmental way that encourages questions and discussion.

Your pet will weather winter better if he’s healthy, so check in with your vet to be sure. Otherwise, here are my winter weather tips for your pets.

Gimme Shelter and Warmth

In my lifetime, many dog and cats have gone from the barnyard to the backyard to the bedroom. I still remember as a boy the day when my dad first allowed our farm dog to sleep in the kitchen during a blizzard. Now I fight for space on my own bed with our pets.

I’m not going to get into a discussion of whether any pet should be outside only, but I will say that small dogs and older pets are ill-equipped to handle extreme cold, and there’s a world of difference between a big, long-haired cat and a near-naked Sphynx or lightly coated Rex cat. Same is true of an Alaskan Malamute or Italian Greyhound.

For animals who are spending time outside, whether just during the day or all the time, it’s essential that they have shelter that protects them from wind, rain and snow, and that it is small and well insulated enough for the pet’s own body heat to keep the temperature up. Even better: Use hay and blankets to keep shelters cozy or talk with a contractor and even your vet about safe options for heating your pet's space.

For inside pets, soft, warm places to snooze are a must, especially if you have tile, stone or wood floors instead of carpeting. Older pets, especially, will appreciate thick beds with egg-crate-type padding.

Protect the Feet and the Fur

Every winter it’s with regret that we clip the fur off our little Quixote’s adorable fuzzy feet, but those long hairs between his pads make it easy for ice balls to form. But even for dogs who don’t have Quixote’s problem, protecting the feet with boots isn’t a bad idea. For small indoor dogs the boots keep feet warm, but for all dogs in snow country boots can protect them from the toxins found in some deicing formulas. Even if you put boots on your pooch, I’d still recommend cleaning his feet when he comes in, just to be safe. (Bonus: It helps keep down tracking!)

And what about clothes for dogs? Again, it depends on the dog. The same kinds of dogs I mentioned as not suitable for life outdoors — small, older or thin-coated — really could use a jacket or sweater when they head out for a walk or to potty.

Fresh Water and Food Adjustments

People aren’t the only ones who put on weight from Thanksgiving to New Year's. Decreased activity and increased availability of goodies have predictable results. I always recommend offering dogs healthy, low-cal treats like carrot sticks (dogs seems to like them better than people do) or breaking bigger biscuits into smaller treats to keep overall consumption down. Outside pets, by contrast, need more food as they burn calories to stay warm.

And don’t forget water! A frozen landscape means frozen water in outdoor dishes. Check with your favorite pet supply retailers for heated bowls so your pet always has a supply of fresh water to drink.

With the basics covered, you can get out and enjoy the season with your pet. Our dogs love playing fetch in the snow, and the chance to dive into a drift makes the game more fun!

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