Winter Safety – Keeping your pet safe when the thermometer dips

adobestock_12091070With the colder weather staying put, your pets will be feeling the cold, so it is important to take extra care to help keep them safe and healthy.

Here are a few tips to make sure your pet is warm and safe as the thermometer dips. (Do also refer to our advice page on Autumn Safety as much of the cold weather advice within it also applies)

Never leave your pet in a parked car - We have already mentioned that cars can become extremely hot in warm weather, however, leaving a pet in a car in cold weather is also dangerous.

Cars can act as a refrigerator in cold weather and can lock in the cold, rapidly chilling your pet, and in extreme cases cause them to become hypothermic, plus, if the engine is left on to keep the car warm, carbon monoxide can build up and cause carbon monoxide poisoning.

As a result, if it is very cold outside and you are unable to keep your pet with you at all times when you leave home, do not take them with you.

Make some noise – Cars are often found appealing by outdoor and feral cats. They may climb into the wheel arch and, occasionally, into the engine, of vehicles to take advantage of the warmth.

As a result, in very cold weather it is important to check underneath your car, bang on the bonnet, and even honk the horn before starting the engine to encourage any hitchhikers you might have to escape before you set off.

Winter Health Issues

photo-1452447224378-04c089d77aa4Physical Health issues  - Many of our pets don’t have efficient ways of regulating their temperature and so it is best to use this simple rule of thumb - if it’s too cold for you, it’s too cold for your pet!

If you have a pet who is very young, very old or has health problems you should pay particular attention to their needs, they are much less likely to tolerate extreme temperatures and conditions than older, fitter and healthier members of their respective species.

Arthritic joints, for example, are likely to be more sore when the weather is cold, as a result, you should consider visiting a vet to check your pet out just in case they can make the change in temperature less of a problem for them.

If you have a dog, they will still need a walk despite the weather so adjust the length of your usual walk. Also, stick to well worn paths, particularly if it is muddy or snowy, just in case of hidden dangers such as glass or other sharp objects that might hurt you or your pet.

In addition, if you do let your dog off the leash, or your cat without a collar do bear in mind that ice, sleet and snow can have an impact your pet’s sense of smell. As a result, you should try and keep an eye on your dog, and make sure that your cat is microchipped, because if they get lost, they may struggle to find their way back to you.

After every walk, make sure you dry and wipe clean your dog, paying particular attention to their paws, legs, and tummy especially if it has been snowing. If you don’t do this their fur and paws may become irritated by the salt and other nasty chemicals that people use to melt the snow and ice. Your dog will then lick the offending areas and may ingest the potentially poisonous residue.

If it does freeze, ice and snow may matt in dogs fur, most often in between their toes, but also around the legs and tummy. This condition is known as ice or snowballing, and can be very uncomfortable and heavy.

The irritation can lead them to chew at the affected area and occasionally pull out fur causing it to become sore and inflamed. As a result, try keeping the fur between your dog’s toes trimmed, this should reduce the potential for ice balling and the associated problems.

Dog coats can also help reduce the problem, and if you live in a particularly snowy part of the world and your dog is prone to snowballing you could try using dog boots. Unfortunately, dogs often don’t tolerate wearing anything on their feet so make sure you try to acclimatise them well in advance just in case!


adobestock_94387402Preventative measures such as paw balms and moisturising lotion can help too, if you use them as part of your grooming schedule and remember to before every walk and upon every return home your dogs paws should be less prone to damage.

Not only will using a balm help soothe any drying and cracking that has occurred as well as help prevent future issues with their paws your dog will also enjoy the attention and the process should increase the bond between you too!

During cold weather, you may find that your pet’s skin is dry and flaky, a fact that is true for humans too! Due to the constantly changing temperatures; going in and out of the cold from the warm your pet’s skin will struggle to maintain the right balance of moisture in the skin. If dry, flaky skin is left unmanaged, your pet is likely to be itchy and the scratching that occurs may lead to sore and sensitive skin.

To help maintain a healthy skin and coat during cold weather brush your pet regularly. This will help to improve circulation and encourage the natural oils in the skin. See our advice page on grooming your pet for more information.

While your pet's skin might be dry, you might think that giving them more regular baths might solve the problem, unfortunately, the opposite is true. Bathing actually removes essential oils from their skin and increases the chance of it becoming flaky. So, when you do bathe your dog use a moisturising shampoo, and consider drying them using a towel rather than a hairdryer, the latter can be harsh for dry skin.

There are several ways you can help reduce skin problems, firstly, you could increase the humidity in your home. During cold weather the air holds less moisture and so becomes less humid. A possible solution is to introduce a humidifier, this will increase the moisture in the air and help it feel warmer without actually raising the temperature!

Another way to help is via supplements. If you pet is getting the right diet for their breed and you know that there are no other causes such as a flea infestation you can supplement their food with high doses of essential fatty acids which help support their skin and coat, and lessen allergic reactions.

Fatty acids can also support your pet’s joints, which can often become sore and stiff in the cold. Do remember, however, that it might take several weeks before you notice a difference and, if you are concerned about adding something to your pet’s diet, or whether you are feeding them the right food, do seek advice from your vet.

Freezing weather also means frozen ponds and puddles. At a basic level, ice should be avoided because it can cut into your pet’s skin, however, if it covers a large body of water and you are unsure of how thick the ice is your dog could fall through and drown or even become hypothermic.

Psychological Health Issues – we noted in our Autumn Safety advice page that our pets can be psychologically affected by what is going on around them.

The festive season can be very stressful for pets. Not only are there unfamiliar people visiting, there may be more noise and possibly even fireworks to bring in the New Year.

Alternatively, you may travel to see your extended family, which may mean a stressful car journey or being separated from their family - either by being in kennels or because they are being cared for by strangers. See our dedicated advice page on Recognising anxiety in your pet for more information on how to identify and manage an anxious pet.

A source of anxiety for owners, however, is the abundance of sweets and chocolate and other festive delicacies, which can be tempting for our pets. We have described the dangers of various foods here, however, let us remind ourselves of toxic foods and products that might be more common in the winter.

Winter Poisons

Food – We have already discussed the dangers of chocolate, however, food and drink that can also be a source of concern is alcohol, citrus fruits, nuts and the sweetener, xylitol, all of which can harm your pet to a greater or lesser extent. As a result, do try to make sure that they are out of reach if you do bring them out for the family and your guests to enjoy.

Household/Garden – Ornaments, tinsel and decorations are a great draw for our pets. Not only are they interesting because they are unusual, they are also interesting because they make a noise, are brightly coloured and can be batted easily around and played with. Try and affix all decorations and tree furnishings so they cannot fall off, many emergencies that vets see over the season are due to ingesting these harmful items.

In addition, winter is often the time when antifreeze and de-icers are in use, so make sure that if you do use them – or any other chemicals – that you clean up carefully after every use, and if your pet does start to act in an unusual way do take them to the vet

Drugs, and health and beauty products – With the influx of visitors either staying or just visiting it is probable that they would bring with them their own medications, and health and beauty products. If they are not pet owners themselves, they may not realise the dangers of leaving certain items around. As a result, if you do have an inquisitive pet it is best to advise your visitors of the dangers.

It is also possible that you might be given health and/or beauty products for Christmas. Do remember to put them where your inquisitive pet cannot get to them, as soon as you can, just in case. Too often, pet owners leave products opened, and unattended, after receiving them as gifts and, as a result, find themselves with unwell or injured animals, making Christmas, not such a jolly holiday after all!

Winter holly on a snowy London day #2Flowers/Plants/Trees – One might expect winter to be a season where plants and vegetation may not be such a problem because there are few plants still living outside to be concerned about. However, it is the plants and greenery that is brought inside that usually causes problems for our pets.

The poinsettia is a flower that is often associated with Christmas, as is holly, mistletoe and the lily. All of these can harm your pet to a greater or lesser extent. As a result, do try to make sure that they are out of reach if you do bring them into the house.

If in doubt – whether your pet is showing symptoms or not after having ingested something - always make your vet your first port of call for advice.

There are various poisons that can cause rapid heat loss in pets, which can result in hypothermia, including the ingestion of alcohol. However, it is not uncommon for our pets, particularly those with pre-existing health conditions, smaller breeds and the very young or old, to become so badly affected by the cold weather that hypothermia may develop.

Hypothermia – the signs

Once an animal becomes overly cold they may develop hypothermia , a condition where they are unable to increase their body temperature.

Hypothermia has three phases: mild, moderate, and severe.

Mild hypothermia is classified as a body temperature of 90 - 99°F (or 32 - 35°C), moderate hypothermia at 82 - 90°F (28 - 32°C), and severe hypothermia is any temperature less than 82°F (28°C).

Signs of hypothermia include:

  • violent shivering, followed by listlessness
  • weak pulse
  • lethargy
  • muscle stiffness
  • problems breathing
  • lack of appetite

If allowed to progress hypothermia can cause stupor, unconsciousness or coma, and, eventually, death.

What should I do if my pet gets hypothermia?

Once you notice symptoms, it is vital that the animal is treated quickly as otherwise, death is likely to occur. The steps you should take straight away are;

Remove your pet from the cold and wrap them in a warm blanket or coat. Move into a warm room and place warm, towel-wrapped water bottles against their abdomen – Don’t use hair dryers, heating pads, or electric blankets to warm up a hypothermic pet as this may result in burns or cause further damage. Contact your veterinarian straight away.


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