Below are some of the most common winter issues, what you can do to prevent them, and the best course of treatment should they be unavoidable. Some of these conditions, like dog and cat frostbite and hypothermia, directly result from cold temperatures, highlighting the importance of keeping pets warm when temperatures drop. Bacteria, viruses, or other environmental factors cause other winter pet illnesses and require different prevention strategies.
Preventing dog and cat hypothermia
Hypothermia is a condition of low body temperature caused by excessive exposure to cold. In cats and dogs, hypothermia can result from extended time spent outdoors in cold temperatures, especially if their fur gets wet or frozen in the cold. In the early stages, symptoms of hypothermia generally include shivering, lethargy, and listlessness. If the condition progresses, they may experience fluctuations in heart rate and breathing, seem depressed, or even lose consciousness.
Dogs experience hypothermia when their body temperature dips below 99F. To prevent your dog from getting hypothermia, limit the amount of time you spend outside in the cold, especially for at-risk dogs like short-haired puppies. Consider protecting your dog with booties and cold-weather clothing like sweaters. If your dog does experience hypothermia, get them someplace warm, cover them with blankets and a hot water bottle, and take them to the vet as soon as possible.
Cats experience hypothermia when their body temperature dips below 100F. Some cats may live only indoors, so limiting outside time in the cold isn’t a concern. If your cat is an outdoor cat, ensure that it has access to a safe, warm space outside in case it’s caught outdoors in bad weather. If you know the weather will be cold or wet, keep your cat indoors until conditions improve. The treatment for cat hypothermia is like that for dogs. Get the cat someplace warm, cover it with blankets and possibly a hot water bottle, and take it to the vet as soon as possible.
Preventing dog and cat frostbite
Frostbite is also a result of excessive cold exposure, but it’s not the same as hypothermia. Frostbite is a form of tissue damage. It’s most common in the extremities because the body redirects blood to the animal’s core to prevent hypothermia. First-degree frostbite exhibits pale, hard skin on paws and nose that becomes red and swollen when warm. Second-degree frostbite leads to blisters on the skin, and third-degree frostbite is a darkening of the skin over time, making gangrene a risk.
Frostbite in dogs results from the same conditions leading to hypothermia. The prevention methods are also similar: limit exposure to the cold and consider protective clothing for your pup. If you think you’ve found signs of frostbite on your dog, get your pet someplace warm and contact your vet. Don’t touch, rub, or massage the frostbite spot; don’t use intense, direct heat like a hot water bottle on the affected area. Instead, apply warm water to help promote circulation. Depending on the severity of the frostbite, your vet will suggest a course of treatment that may include antibiotics or other medication.
Frostbite on cats isn’t as common as on dogs. Cats are often indoor animals. However, if your cat has spent time outdoors in cold weather, consider checking for signs of frostbite. Check around the ears, end of the tail, feet, and wherever fur may be thin. If you suspect frostbite on your cat, take it somewhere warm but don’t touch the affected area or apply direct heat. A towel soaked in warm water can help restore blood flow to the site. Contact your vet as soon as possible to get a course of treatment, which may include medication like antibiotics.
Can pets get the flu?
Like humans, animals get colds, and pets can get the flu. They can catch the human variant from infected humans or animal variants like the dog flu from other animals. Flu in pets isn’t usually a serious concern. Like people, they’ll feel under the weather for a while and then get better with proper care. However, you should contact your vet if you suspect your cat or dog has the flu. Your vet can give you treatments to help your pet get well and tell you whether it is the flu or another condition with similar symptoms, such as kennel cough.
Kennel cough is a highly contagious respiratory infection caused by bacteria or viruses. Vaccines exist for Bordetella, the most common cause of kennel cough, making prevention relatively easy. Symptoms of canine flu include a honking cough, sneezing, runny nose, and eye discharge. A vet may prescribe antibiotics, especially if the illness persists. In most cases, though, treatment is palliative and may include steam or humidifier treatments to aid respiration. Infected dogs may also need to be quarantined to prevent transmission to other animals.
Other cold weather tips for pets
Not all cold weather concerns for pets are about infection or cold exposure. Winter presents some other risks for pets that owners should consider. Other cold weather tips for pets include:
Avoid antifreeze poisoning
Antifreeze is one of household pets’ most common forms of poisoning from animals licking or drinking antifreeze. That’s because antifreeze uses a chemical called ethylene glycol. Its sweet taste can attract pets — or if they step in an antifreeze spill, they can ingest it accidentally while grooming themselves. To prevent antifreeze poisoning, keep all antifreeze in a locked cabinet away from curious animals. Clean up spills, consider alternate solutions to winterizing pipes, and protect animals’ paws when walking outside.
Symptoms include unsteady gait, nausea, vomiting, delirium, euphoria, excessive urination, diarrhea, rapid heartbeat, depression, weakness, and seizures. If you suspect your pet has ingested antifreeze, other household substances or foods that can be toxic to dogs, you should call your vet immediately.
Avoid worsening arthritis
Arthritis is chronic joint pain and inflammation. An unstable joint that causes abnormal movement in the surrounding bones can cause arthritis. Over time, the cartilage in the joint erodes, leading to bone-on-bone contact that causes discomfort. While winter doesn’t cause arthritis, it can pose two problems for arthritic pets. First, the cold weather can worsen the pain and inflammation, making the condition more uncomfortable for them. Second, arthritic pets often have more difficulty walking and balancing, making them more prone to slip and fall, especially on ice.
If you see your pet limping, “slowing down,” grooming excessively, or showing difficulty getting into and out of the litter box or bed, consider having them evaluated for arthritis.
Just as we take precautionary measures for our health (read: flu shots), we should take the same precautions with our beloved pets.