The weather can be frightful this time of year, even if parts of the country have enjoyed an unusually warm winter so far. Here are some tips to keep your pets safe in the cold and snow:
If it's cold enough outside, dogs and cats can get frostbite. Most susceptible are the tips of their ears. Dogs with long ears, like Basset Hounds and Weimaraners, are especially at risk. Similarly, long, wagging tails can easily become frostbitten.
"If you have a small dog -- 21 pounds or less -- or even a larger dog like a Greyhound with a very short hair coat, your dog needs some extra attention," says certified dog and cat behavior consultant Darlene Arden, author of "Small Dogs, Big Hearts: A Guide to Caring for Your Little Dog" (Howell Book House, New York, NY, 2006; $25.99). "Small dogs lose body heat rapidly because they have a smaller body surface. While you may think that dressing your dog up in clothes is silly, it's purely practical" adds Arden, of Framingham, MA.
Today, there are loads of fashionable choices, from "hoodies" to football or hockey team logo-wear for pets, to faux fur designer dog coats.
Of course, some dogs relish the cold. Breeds like Malamutes, Siberian Huskies and Samoyeds sometimes prefer zero degrees to being indoors. Still, if even an Arctic dog is going to stay outdoors for any period of time, the pet requires unfrozen drinking water (you can buy water bowls with heaters to prevent freezing) and shelter from wind and snow.
Little booties may not appear macho, but even sled dogs wear them. Because dogs perspire some from their paws, little ice balls can form between the paw pads, which can be very uncomfortable. Since it may sting to walk on ordinary street salt, consider "pet friendly" salt (such as Morton Safe-T-Pet Ice Melt). Not only is it far gentler to a dog's paws, but also less damaging to concrete.
Other options to prevent ice balls and salt from sticking to a dog's pads are to spray them with an unflavored no-stick cooking spray (such as Pam) use a product called Musher's Secret (available online and at many pet stores).
As for cats, there are always dangers to being outdoors, particularly when temperatures dip. The good news is, cats are pretty resourceful at finding warmth. But that's also the bad news. To a cat seeking heat, slinking under a warm car hood may seem cozy, but the pets can be seriously mangled (or die) when drivers innocently start their engines. It's not a bad idea to follow Tony Orlando's advice: Knock three times on the hood of your car on winter mornings before turning on the ignition.
Desperate for water that's not frozen, outdoor cats may drink anything they can find. Antifreeze is always tempting for pets, but less than a quarter a cup can kill a Great Dane, and a teaspoon's worth can kill a small dog or a cat. So-called pet-friendly anti-freeze brands are safer. Best of all are antifreeze brands that contain bittering agents, making them taste awful.
Some cats or dogs live in garages (never a good idea), and pets can accidently find their way inside a closed garage when a car is being warmed up. This can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning.
Another concern, particularly when temps hover around freezing, is thin ice on ponds, rivers, lakes and retention ponds. Dogs may venture out on the ice and fall through.
"Dogs are as susceptible to hypothermia as people," notes Chicago veterinarian Dr. Sheldon Rubin. Owners who attempt to rescue their best friends can face additional frustration. A confused dog may take off "in the wrong direction, away from the shore instead of toward the shore," says Rubin.
(Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he'll answer those of general interest in his column Send e-mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is http://www.stevedalepetworld.com; he also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." He's also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.)