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November 15, 2005 > A pet perscription for winter woes

A pet perscription for winter woes

by Nancy Lyon

It's another freezing cold night and a member of your family is lying in your garage or outside curled up trying to keep warm. Obviously we aren't talking about grandma or grandpa but many people will still unthinkingly put their four-legged family member outside for the night despite the temperature.

This is an all too common scenario and a sad one for your animal friend. Despite their "fur" coats, as domesticated animals, cats, dogs and other animals depend on humans for protection from cold weather, rain and wind.

Because they are no longer creatures of the wild that have the ability to adapt to weather extremes, the majority of dogs and other animals need our help and intervention. As their guardians, they depend on us to understand that they are feeling and social beings and trust we will consider their comfort and well-being as we would any member of our family.

We've already experienced the first taste of what can prove to be a long, hard winter. With this comes great concern for the companion animals who have been forced to live outdoors or in cold quarters because their caregivers erroneously believe that they will somehow adjust to the damp and chilling temperature.

Just as with you or me, indoor accommodations - and this does not mean your garage - for our animal family are always best, especially during cold or stormy weather. Unfortunately, there is a common misconception that they will be "fine" if left outside. This is not true! All creatures need adequate shelter from the elements. In fact, under California law this is required for companion animals.

There are ways to insure your animal's comfort and well-being in chilly times. If you are away a lot, install a doggie door so your dog can take potty breaks and come in out of the cold. Cats should be indoors only, besides any self-respecting cat would not consider venturing out into the cold and wet by choice.

If you must leave your dog outside while you are away, set up a suitable house in an area protected from wind, rain, and in some areas - snow. When outdoors, dogs must be protected by a dry, draft-free doghouse that is large enough to allow the dog to sit and lie down comfortably, but small enough to hold in his or her body heat. The floor should be raised a few inches off the ground and covered with straw or blankets for insulation that will help to keep in body heat. The house should be turned to face away from the prevailing winds, and the doorway should be covered with a flap of heavy waterproof fabric or heavy plastic. Cats, rabbits and other small animals are subject to the same dangers and should be protected in warm and dry indoor areas.

A word of caution - do not use a heat lamp, space heater, or other device not approved for use with animals. This is a burn hazard for your animal and a fire hazard. Pet supply vendors sell heated mats for pets to sleep on or to be placed under a doghouse, but read and follow directions carefully before use.

Pets spending a lot of time outdoors need more food in the winter. Keeping warm depletes energy. Routinely check their water dish to make certain the water is fresh and not frozen. Use plastic water bowls rather than metal; when the temperature is very low, your pet's tongue can stick and freeze to metal.

Winter can be tough on senior animals. Just as with humans, arthritis is worse during cold and damp weather so take special care to handle your pet gently, watch out for icy walks that may cause injuries or chilling, provide soft (and possibly heated) bedding, and administer any necessary medications. See your veterinarian if your pet is arthritic or you suspect arthritis.

While all dogs need outdoor exercise, take care not to keep them out for lengthy periods during very cold weather. Shorthaired or geriatric dogs or those with health problems need the protective warmth of a dog sweater or jacket during outside jaunts. Cats and other small animals need warm bedding to snuggle in when it grows cold.

Companion animals left outside or in unheated areas for long periods in very cold or wet weather - like humans - can suffer from hypothermia and frostbite. Wind-chill can threaten your pet's welfare and life no matter what the temperature, with young and senior animals being especially at risk.

Warm car engines are dangerous for heat-seeking cats and small wildlife. Parked cars attract small animals who may crawl up under the hood looking for warmth. To avoid injuring any hidden animals, bang on your car's hood to scare them away before starting your engine.

We may not have to deal with snow locally but many of us take our dogs with us when visiting the snow. Dogs walking in snowy places can get large ice balls between their pads, causing the dog to limp, so be sure to keep ice clear from this area. For dogs that have a lot of hair between the pads, keeping it clipped shorter will help with ice ball formation. Dog boots offer protection to those dogs that will tolerate wearing them -- try getting them used to them "before the fact."

When in snow country, dogs who walk on sidewalks and roadways that have been "deiced" with salt and chemicals are prone to dry, chapped, and potentially painful paws. This will encourage them to lick their paws, and ingestion may cause gastrointestinal irritation and upset. Wash off your dog's paws and legs after an outing with a warm wet cloth or footbath and dry carefully.

So don't delay in making cold weather provisions to protect your animal family that will help to insure they remain healthy and comfortable. If you have any concerns about their well being and health during the cold months ahead, consult your veterinarian. Keep in mind that prevention is far less costly to your animal friend's health and beats paying a large veterinary bill.

But probably the best prescription for winter's woes is to keep your dog or cat inside with you and your family. The happiest dogs are those who are taken out frequently for walks and exercise but kept inside the rest of the time. Dogs and cats are social animals who crave human companionship. Your animal companions deserve to live indoors with you and the rest of your - and his or her - family.

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