Winter is here, so it’s time to rug up for the colder weather, the wind, the rain, and for the lucky ones, maybe even snow! We all feel the chill and it’s no different for our dogs and cats, despite their furry coats. All seasons bring their own particular hazards to the health and comfort of our companion animals, but we can avoid these and keep them warm and comfortable by adapting their routines slightly.
Ways winter can affect our pets
So how does wintertime affect our pets? You may notice a number of changes in your dog or cat during this season.
Looking for heat
The most obvious is heat seeking behaviour. Unlike during the hotter months, they typically avoid cold floor surfaces such as tiles and will instead lie on carpets and rugs. Favourite cozy spots may include lounges and beds. Some pets even prefer to snuggle under the bedcovers on winter mornings rather than bounding out as usual! If your pet has a tendency to lie close to heaters and open fires, be sure to supervise them and move them away to avoid the risk of dry skin, overheating or burns. Outdoor cats have been known to seek out warmth from climbing onto car engines, so always check under your car bonnet on cold mornings.
Your pet’s appetite may increase during the winter months. This is because they need more energy to regulate their core body temperature during cold weather. Speak to your veterinarian about how much to feed them without causing weight gain, particularly if they are less active.
Skin infections in dogs can be more common during wet winter weather due to moisture from rain becoming trapped in their fur or between wet, muddy paws. You can prevent this by drying their coat completely and wiping down their feet and drying between their toes after outdoor exercise. Wiping their paws with a towel when they come inside also removes pieces of ice or snow that can injure their sensitive pads. It will also help to remove any anti-freeze they may have walked through and avoid them licking it - antifreeze is very toxic and must be kept out of reach.
Additional grooming may be needed
Most dogs and cats develop thicker coats over winter, so regular grooming is important to stimulate circulation and skin health and to reduce shedding. It also prevents matting and knots, which can become a problem, particularly for long haired pets, and helps prevent furballs in cats.
Pets with arthritis typically experience worse symptoms during the cold weather. You may notice they are having more trouble getting up and moving around due to joint pain and stiffness, and they may also lick at their joints, which is a sign of discomfort. A check-up with your veterinarian is important for ongoing management of arthritis. For these pets, who are usually older, being kept warm and comfortable is especially important to ease their condition.
Core body temperature
The main consideration for our pets in wintertime is managing the cold, especially for those who are cold sensitive due to health problems, have shorter coats, are older pets, and even young puppies and kittens. Keeping them warm is essential for their comfort, wellbeing and overall health. The cold can be lethal to pets due to the risk of hypothermia developing after exposure to extremely low temperatures and/or wind and rain. This means their core body temperature falls below normal, which if untreated, can lead to organ failure.
How you can protect your pet in the colder months
The good news is that there are plenty of ways to keep our pets warm in the winter months.
Keep pets indoors
We all crave a cozy bed and shelter from the elements in the cold weather, and our dogs and cats are no different. The safest way to manage the risks of cold weather is to keep pets indoors at night and never leave them unattended outside for long periods at any time. Pets living outdoors or who spend time outside during the day must have a kennel or cat enclosure that is warm, waterproof and windproof, and preferably elevated from the ground. A cat enclosure is generally an entire outdoor enclosure.
Keep this filled with clean, dry bedding and unlimited access to fresh water. These days, dogs and cats are increasingly living indoors and there are many welfare benefits to this, including protection from the elements and of course, more time with their human families. If your pet normally sleeps outside, consider bringing them indoors during winter. Indoor bedding needs to be in a warm spot in the house that is free from draughts or contact with cold floors. Cats particularly love somewhere sunny. For extra warmth, add more blankets but avoid hot water bottles or electric blankets due to the risk of burns or pets chewing electrical cords. Bedding with extra padding and safe heated pet beds can provide relief for pets with arthritis.
Get some winter clothing
Winter clothing is a great way to keep pets warm during the cold, particularly if they are thin, short-haired or older, because they lose body heat more quickly. Remember that not all pets will tolerate winter clothing. It may be possible to slowly introduce your pet to the idea of wearing a winter coat and train them to accept it. However, if you are unable to train your pet to accept winter clothing, don’t force the issue.
A range of dog coats is available, including jackets that are waterproof or padded for extra protection. Dogs with arthritis can be kept warm by special winter coats with padding around the major joints such as hips and shoulders. There are also jumpers to choose from, with some options for cats. Make sure whatever you buy fits well, does not restrict movement, covers your pet from the neck to the tail base and also protects the stomach area. Any clothing should be removed when you return indoors to prevent overheating. It’s also important to remove them quickly if they become wet.
Get enough exercise
Exercise remains important during wintertime, but you will need to change your routines to prevent too much exposure to the cold. For dogs, daily walks can be kept shorter. Fit them with a warm jacket and monitor them for signs of feeling too cold, such as shivering, whining, seeking shelter, body language that suggests discomfort (such as hunching their back or tail tucked between their legs) or refusing to continue their walk.
Also monitor them to make sure that they do not overheat in the jacket, especially if they are running around energetically! In general, it’s best to limit outdoor time for cats and dogs during the chilly weather, particularly when it’s windy and raining. If it feels too cold outside for us, it will most likely feel too cold for them. When outdoor exercise is not possible, there are plenty of options for indoor entertainment to prevent boredom, such as hide and seek games, trick training or more sedate forms of enrichment including food puzzles.
To be sure your pet is feeling comfortable in the wintertime, provide them with choices, such as sleeping locations, which they may change according to their need for more or less warmth. Most importantly, be alert to the signs of hypothermia, and if your pet is unable to stop shivering, appears weak, slows down or stops moving, keep them warm and seek urgent veterinary attention.
Wintertime can be a fun time for you and your pet, and with some variation in your usual routines and careful observation of their behaviour, implementing some of these methods should help to keep your pets warm and comfortable. You should always aim to keep your furry friends warm, comfortable and healthy throughout the cooler months; they’re your best buddies after all!