Each year, thousands of pets left out in the cold suffer painful effects of frostbite or hypothermia, or even freeze to death. In freezing and sub-freezing conditions, often exacerbated by rain or snow, experts say it is a myth that dogs and cats can fend for themselves any more than human beings can. In some states failure to take humane precautions for pets is often punishable by fine or imprisonment, though laws vary and do not always fully protect an animal. In winter, a little common sense and compassion on the part of pet owners goes a long way.
For starters, the skin on an animal —particularly ears, nose, foot pads, tails and any exposed areas such as the belly — can freeze in as few as 20 minutes in sub-zero temperatures, and it is not recommended to leave animals outside in temperatures below 40 degrees.
While certain hardy breeds with long, thick coats such as adult Malamutes and German Shepherds may fair better in the cold, most breeds cannot adapt to the elements and need sweaters for insulation and limited exposure time. If it’s too cold for you to be outside, it’s too cold for most domestic animals, and certainly not for hours on end. No matter what the breed, puppies, senior animals, those with arthritis or other frailties, and animals that are typically thin and/or have exhibited significant weight loss for any reason should never be out longer than necessary in winter, per the American Veterinary Association (AVA). According to the SPCA, in cold weather a car’s interior acts like a refrigerator or freezer, so leaving an animal in a vehicle is definitely not recommended.
Finally, after a walk or exposure to snow and ice, clear away little ice balls that may collect between your pet’s toes and cause painful freezing or frostbite. Toxic ice melting products like rock salt may also collect in paws (pet-safe varieties are available at pet stores), and rinsing and wiping well will prevent ingestion of chemicals that can cause irritation, vomiting and diarrhea when licked.
Signs of exposure in animals:
- Fur stands erect (like goose bumps in humans), signaling decreased body temperature;
- Shivering is triggered to generate heat;
- Shivering becomes violent and animal becomes listless and uncoordinated, with hypothermia probable at this point;
- Collapse and coma ensue, with major organs shutting down;
- If frostbite is present, tissues are bright red, followed by pale color and then black (indicating death of tissue).
What to do:
- Immediately seek veterinary help and use 24-hour emergency facilities if after hours; wrap animal in coat or blankets.
- If veterinary care is not available and the animal is wet, immerse in lukewarm (not warm or hot) bath, gradually increasing temperature of water. Rub vigorously with towels for circulation. Apply warm packs such as hot water bottles to animal’s arms if they have less fur, also to chest and abdomen. Warming with a hairdryer on medium heat can also help (wrap animal in blankets as soon as possible), as can a heating pad wrapped in towels (do not expose directly to animal’s skin).