Written by Dr. Justine A. Lee, DVM, DACVEEC

Since winter is here, we want to make sure our four-legged friends are safe from the elements.  After all, people can bundle up, but our pets can’t add extra layers on a whim.  With living in Montana, we all know how severe cold injures can be to pets.  Here are some cold weather tips that will help to protect dogs and cats this winter.

1.  Bundle Up Your Dog

If your dog doesn’t have a thick, plush hair coat consider a winter jacket when temperatures drop below 20ºF.  Make sure the jacket is snug and that your male dog doesn’t urinate on the bottom belly strap (which can then worsen frostbite or cold injuries.

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3.  Check Under the Hood

There are a myriad of reasons why it’s advisable to keep your cat indoors at all times.  Still, even if you know your cat is in the house, make sure to bang on your car hood before starting the car (this is particularly important if you see paw prints on your hood).  Stray cats often hide under a vehicle’s hood when it’s warm and can develop severe fan belt injuries (including broken jaw bones, severe lacerations, etc.) when the car is started.

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2.  Watch Where You Salt

While ice salt is only mildly poisonous to dogs, it can cause irritation to the skin, paws, and gastrointestinal tract when directly ingested.  Make sure to use pet-friendly ice melts (which don’t contain salt).  More importantly, since you don’t know what your neighbors have put down, make sure to use a damp cloth to wipe off your pet’s paws after coming into the house.

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4.  Keep an Eye Out For Frostbite

20 minute walks outside are unlikely to result in a problem, but if you take your dog skijoring (skiing behind your dog) or running for prolonged  hours at a time, ice crystals an develop in peripheral tissues (like the ears, prepuce, vulva, tail tip and toes).  Keep a careful eye out for the following signs:

  • Redness
  • Coolness to touch
  • Swelling
  • Eventual sloughing of the tissue

If you do notice any signs of frost-nip (the stage immediately before frostbite) or frostbite, make sure to bring your pet into a sheltered, warm area immediately.  Most importantly, avoid touching or actively heating the area aggressively; rather, slow re-warming of the tissue with lukewarm water is best.  This will prevent further injury with rapid thawing of the ice crystals in the tissue.  Do not rewarm the area until it can be kept warm.  Warming then re-exposing the frostbitten area to cold air can cause worse damage.  If no water is nearby, breathe on the area through cupped hands and hold it next to your body.  Seek immediate attention from your veterinarian to make sure pain medication, salves, or antibiotics aren’t necessary.  Keep in mind that once tissue has undergone frostbite, that tissue is more susceptible in the future.