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Winterize your pet

By Barbara A. Besteni
Published On: Dec 20 2011 12:51:33 PM CST
Updated On: Oct 23 2012 11:24:44 AM CDT
beagle, dog, closeup

iStock/NRedmond

As fall gives way to winter, we begin to prepare everything from our cars to our closets for the long, cold days and nights ahead. Don't forget forget that Fido and Fluffy also need to get ready.

"The most important thing people can do for their pets in the winter is to provide adequate shelter," says Dr. William Fortney, assistant professor of diagnostic medicine pathobiology at Kansas State University's College of Veterinary Medicine. The breed and health of a pet have a lot to do with the amount of cold they can stand.

"Arctic breeds would probably be fine in the cold. But a little Dachshund with no hair, no fat and an illness would be a different scenario," Fortney says.

In other words, if Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz left her Cairn terrier Toto (known for their love of cold weather and snow) outside, he'd enjoy it. But Tito the Chihuahua from Topeka would wish he wasn't in Kansas anymore.

While providing shelter may seem like common sense, there are some not-so-obvious winter hazards that pet owners should keep in mind.

Happiness begins with hydration

"Pets need a lot of water, so if you're going to keep them outside, it's very important to put out warm water several times a day to keep it from freezing," Fortney says.

A thirsty animal, or one just out to enjoy a winter wonderland, is just as likely to eat snow as any child having a snowball fight with his pals.

Cute? Perhaps. But it's potentially deadly for pets, especially if the snow is not quite white. Yellow snow is bad for obvious reasons, but it won't kill a pet. Green snow tainted by automotive anti-freeze, however, is lethal.

Anti-freeze is so toxic that pets can die from just a few drops. To make matters worse, anti-freeze containing ethylene glycol has a sweet taste that animals like.

When you change the fluid in your radiator, clean up spills immediately and dispose of everything you used to clean it up. Beware of leaks, not only in your garage and driveway, but along the route on which you take your pets for a walk.

The Humane Society recommends that pet owners use anti-freeze that contains propylene glycol, which is safe for animals if ingested in small amounts.

Snow tires for pets?

"Animals can suffer from frostbite and hypothermia even early in winter," Fortney says. Frostbite is most common on your pet's paws. So, always wipe their paws with a wet cloth after an outing to remove ice between the pads, he suggests.

Veterinarians also caution against walking dogs on heavily salted sidewalks, as it can lead to neurological problems.

Most of these problems have a simple solution. You wouldn't send your kids out to play in the snow without their boots, would you? Then why would you send a barefoot animal outside?

Pet boots, sweaters and coats are more than just accessories.

Most dogs, for instance, develop a thicker coat in the winter. For normal days, that should be enough to protect them if they go outdoors. However, you may want to bundle up a short-haired breed in a warm jacket on extremely cold days.

Even if your pets are used to cold temperatures, make sure there is at least one place with extra insulation for them to cuddle up in if you intend to leave them outdoors for more than just a few minutes.

Winter fat -- not just for humans

If you are decreasing the length and frequency of your dog's walks, make sure he or she still gets adequate exercise.

If your pets are outside a lot in the winter, they will need more calories to produce body heat, so increase the amount you feed them. But don't overfeed an already hefty animal.

Conversely, if your pets get very little exercise during winter, decrease their food intake to avoid excess weight gain.

While looking out for your own pets should be a priority, don't forget to watch for strays or neighborhood animals that also spend their time outdoors.

Honk first

The Humane Society advises you to slap the hood of your car or honk the horn before starting the engine on cold days to startle any animal that may have crawled underneath seeking shelter and warmth.

And just as you wouldn't leave an animal inside a hot car in summer, don't leave your pets in your car in winter.

Finally, if you live in a warm climate, don't think you're off the hook. Even in places such as Florida, winter temperatures, normally in the mid- to high 70s, can plummet 30 degrees or more in the course of a day.

"Don't leave pets outside if you're going to be gone for several hours," says South Florida veterinarian Dr. Amy Balko. "Bring them in the house or make sure they have access to shelter if the temperature suddenly drops.

"All pet experts agree on one thing -- if it's too cold for you to go outside for prolonged periods of time, then it's too cold for your pets.