Cold Weather Safety in Dogs and Cats


While winter may be mild in some areas of the United States, in other areas, it’s virtually a wet and windy freezer. We humans have heaters, and special hats and winter clothes but what about our pets? What winter dangers do they face and how can we keep them safe?

Keep Pets Inside and Out of the Cold

The most obvious danger is the cold and as a result, most dogs should stay in the house with the humans, especially at night.

Even if they were bred for cold weather, cold weather can be a problem. Says Suzanne Heath Boskovich, “When I worked in a practice in NE many of the outdoor dogs, even with thick double coats, had frost bitten ears that cauliflowered; and several of our patients had missing toes from frost bite.”

Even mildly cold weather can be bad for cats because cats are resourceful at finding warm places. So if left outside in the cold, they may hide under the hood of your car. As a result when someone starts the motor, the cat gets injured or killed.

A friend of mine who lives in Denver, CO used to have a St. Bernard.  Of course this dog, descendent of those renowned rescuers of travelers and hikers in the Swiss Alps, was primarily kept outdoors. And as is common, my friend was busy with everyday life and didn’t closely monitor his dog. The dog was eating so that was all he needed to know – he thought.  When the dog finally stopped eating and was taken to the vet, the vet found under all that hair that his tail had been frostbitten and was now gangrene. The tail was amputated.

Salt for Street De-icing Can Cause Irritation

A major issue is the salt and chemical alternatives. Says one dog owner, Jean Lessard, from Montreal, Quebec, “It is cold! I'm downtown. Here, the problem is not the snow, nor the weather... But the salt! There is so much salt on sidewalks and streets, it's ridiculous! So the dogs will step on this, get their paws ...wet from melted ice, then walk on ice again and freeze their paws.”

Lessard also points out that the salt can cause some major irritation and veterinarian Rachel Germain of central Pennsylvania agrees, “It’s not extremely cold here,” she says, “but my own dog has significant issues with sidewalk salting. He has to wear booties in the winter because his pads get so burned. I have talked with several clients about the same issue. It's a small thing, but seems to be significant for dogs in my area.”

As Dr. Germain suggested, for many dogs, training them to wear booties is the solution. Many can be trained just by putting a bootie or two on while giving many tiny treats in rapid succession or playing with them in way such that they are engaged in interacting with you. Then keep them distracted as they get used to the feel. When you stop with the play and treats, take the booties off. The goal is that the dog learns to associate the booties with treats, play and later with going out on a walk. Another solution for less salt-sensitive dogs is to just wash the salt off with warm water as soon as you get home. Unfortunately neither of these solutions works as well for cats who traipse in the salt laden streets.

Says Lori Tyler of Ithaca NY. “Several years ago when I worked at the shelter, a person found a cat on the side of the road. She had severe burns/ulcerations throughout her mouth and esophagus from eating from the roadside (and eating lots of road salt in the process). We treated her and nursed her back to health, and she certainly would have died if not noticed by the driver.” This provides yet another reason to keep cats inside.

Pets Can Ingest Snow with Toxic Substances

Cats aren’t the only pet that can ingest something toxic during winter. Pets that eat snow that contains toxic chemicals can become fatally ill. Amos Suguitan, of Massachusetts reports,

“A client I had in daycare a couple years ago had an Airedale puppy who suddenly became very ill after the first major snowstorm for the area. Vomiting, lethargy, stopped eating, etc. That curly hair around his feet had collected a lot of ice around his toes, and a big chunk of chemical ice melt had gotten stuck in there as well. Poor guy had gotten home, chewed the ice melt out and eaten it. He spent a couple days at the hospital, but was fine afterwards, thanks to his mom's quick action!”

Depending on the substance and how quickly the pet is brought to the veterinary hospital, the outcome may not be so good. If the chemical is car antifreeze, the dog may have vomiting later in the day and by the next day may start going into kidney failure. So if you see your dog eating discolored snow, especially if it’s bright green, take him to the veterinarian immediately.

Exercise-related Winter Injuries

Winter is also fraught with physical injuries. Although the snow looks soft, the ice can rip and cut the feet.

Leslie Finnegan Conn gives an example, “I remember our Lab mutt ripped her dew claw out when she was doing a crazy-run-in-circles in the snow. It looked like someone had been murdered in our yard. We had to take her in to get her paw wrapped up.”

Both boots as well as careful and regular trimming of the nails can help prevent such injuries.

Courtenay Watson who lives in British Columbia says, “My dog has sliced his metacarpal pad on the snow crust that forms when the snow melts a bit then freezes hard. That's a pain. We've been using Pad Heal and it helps.”

Not everyone wants to use boots, and one solution that has worked for Courtenay has been to train her dog to play differently.

“He is also a bit of a careless guy, and when there is ice on the ground, he will spin out and slide and hurt himself playing fetch. So I've taught him to run around a pole. He worked up to running around two poles many feet apart. This way, he has a more controlled path and doesn't slide. He does a couple of those laps, then I toss his toy to him to catch instead of chasing it. Much safer.”

Injury related to snow and ice is not limited to dogs. It can extend to those trying to help dogs in winter distress. Leslie Finnegan Conn “My neighbor let his Shih Tzu out in the backyard after a snowstorm that ended in a coating of ice. The dog went to the back of the yard and then couldn't get back to the house because it was too slippery. My neighbor went out to get her and fell on the ice, hitting his head. About six weeks later he had emergency surgery for a subdural hematoma.”

Some situations are even more dangerous to both owner and dog. Says Claudine Sleik, owner of a Border collie (BC), “My husband was cross country skiing with our BC near a small swift moving river. He thought they were on the shoreline. He was, Jak, our BC, wasn't. Jak suddenly fell through the ice. Craig, with his skis on, slid onto the ice, scooped Jak up by his harness and tossed him towards what he hoped was the shore. Without missing a beat, Jak landed on all fours and quickly ran to find a stick in the hopes of playing fetch. They were both very lucky that day.

A similar situation happened to an acquaintance of Courtenay Watson “My mom's boyfriend (from England and not used to snow) tossed a toy onto the ice on the river. The dog fell partway through the ice trying to get the toy. He crawled onto it and got her, both cold and scared but no lasting damage thank goodness!”

An emergency clinic in Denver related that they always see a rise in HBCs (dogs hit by cars) after a snow storm.  For some reason people think it is safe to let their dogs run at large after a snow storm because traffic is somewhat decreased.  What they don’t consider is the stopping time required for those who are out on the slippery streets has greatly increased. The drivers often can’t stop in time to miss that dog who’s been let out to enjoy the snow while the owner shovels the driveway.

Winter: a Dangerous Season

Overall winter can be a dangerous season. However it doesn’t need to be. Keeping pets indoors when temperatures drop, take time to care for their feet or train them to wear booties, avoid letting them eat snow, and be careful to avoid thin ice on lakes. By doing this you’ll avoid most winter dangers to your pet.

To read insights from a top sled dog kennel veterinarian and owner on keeping dogs safe when outdoors in cold weather, read  Cold Weather Safety for Dogs—Insights from a Sled Dog Veterinarian on my website

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Positively Expert: Sophia Yin

Dr. Yin is an internationally-acclaimed veterinarian and applied animal behaviorist who lectures and teaches workshops to dog trainers, shelter workers, and veterinary staff, and is the author of three books including a veterinary textbook and DVD set on behavior. Her "pet-friendly" techniques have set the standard of care for veterinarians.


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