Ask the Vet: Winter tips for pets
By Matthew Kearns, DVM
Who knows when the next winter “bomb-cyclone” followed by an arctic cold front will hit Long Island. Here are a few important facts and tips to help our pets get through another winter:
Although dogs and cats have “built-in” fur coats, they are still susceptible to the elements. Prolonged time outside in low temperatures can be as dangerous as it is for us. Certain long-coated dog breeds (huskies, malamutes, German shepherds, golden retrievers, etc.) do much better in the cold weather than short-coated breeds (boxers, Chihuahuas, Boston terriers, etc.).
The very young, the very old and the debilitated have more trouble thermoregulating (maintaining normal body temperature). Frostbite occurs more readily in areas with less hair (e.g., the ear tips, nose, bottom of the feet/pads, etc.). A good tip would be to make sure indoor/outdoor pets should be limited in their time outside unsupervised (especially at night when temperatures drop) and signs of frostbite and exposure should be noted and treated.
The very young, the very old and pets with underlying/debilitating disease should be limited in their time outside altogether. A sudden loss of hair or other irregularities in these areas with known exposure should be examined by a veterinarian (either your regular veterinarian or emergency veterinarian if your regular veterinarian is unavailable). If you have a short-coated breed look for a sweater or coat. These are easily found at pet stores, online or through catalogs.
Arthritis affects older pets more commonly but can affect pets of any age with an arthritic condition. Cold weather will make it more difficult for arthritic pets to get around and icy, slick surfaces make it more difficult to get traction. Care should be taken when going up or down stairs and on slick surfaces. Boots, slings and orthopedic beds can be purchased from pet stores, online or through catalogs. These products will help our pets get a better grip on slick surfaces or icy surfaces and sleep better at night to protect aging bones and joints.
Supplements can be used to protect joints against the effects of arthritis. The most common supplements that are recommended by veterinarians are very similar to the ones we take for ourselves. Glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate are supplements that help to protect the lining of the bones inside joints and maintain the proper amount of joint fluid for lubrication.
Supplements are best started early because they act more as a prophylaxis than a cure. Advanced or severe cases of arthritis may not respond to supplements, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, are used in pets for these cases. The newer prescription-strength anti-inflammatories are safer in older pets and do not have some of the disturbing side effects of steroid- or cortisone-based anti-inflammatories. Talk to your vet.
Over-the-counter anti-inflammatories should be used with caution and only under the supervision of a veterinarian. Pets metabolize these medications differently than humans and some are poisonous at any dose (i.e., acetaminophen and acetaminophen-containing products are toxic at any dose to a cat).
Skin and nails become dry and brittle in the cold, dry winter weather. This makes them more likely to crack, tear or break off. The rock salt used to melt ice can be very irritating to our pet’s feet. Also the snow can cover broken glass or other sharp objects that our pets may run through without seeing it. Try to confine your pets to a safe portion of your yard when playing or walk them on a leash only.
Cut nails regularly to prevent overgrowth. Try to cover your pets’ feet with something or gently wipe or rinse off the bottom of their feet when they come inside if you know they stepped in the salt (the same type of boots made to help geriatric, arthritic patients get a grip on slick surfaces can also protect our pets from sharp objects or irritating materials).
Cold weather can be very difficult on pets with diagnosed respiratory or cardiac conditions. The cold air causes constriction of the airway, and this can exacerbate any underlying conditions as well as indirectly put an added strain on the heart. Older pets or pets diagnosed with either of these conditions should be limited in the time spent outdoors or not let out at all on very cold days. Most pet stores sell Wee-Wee Pads, and I have met many owners that were able to train their pets to use them indoors.
I hope these tips help to get our pets through the rest of this wicked winter we are experiencing.
Dr. Kearns practices veterinary medicine from his Port Jefferson office and is pictured with his son Matthew and his dog Jasmine.