Cold Winter Weather Hurts Pets11 min read

 In Cats, Dogs, Weather



Cold winter weather is tough on people and pets. Writing this from Miami, FL it is difficult to fathom the cold weather up north.  Most Floridians think it is cold when it gets below 70 degrees.  I have seen people wear gloves and hats and it is just 65 degrees out.  Totally ridiculous!  To tell you the truth, it gets so hot down here that we pray for ANY cold front to make it down the peninsula!  Cloudy winter days in the low 60’s are a gift from God.

Cold winter weather is not the only thing that can hurt dogs and cats.  The brisk northern winds can wick any warmth out of any unprotected dog or cat.  The combination of the two that brings the wind chill down below zero can be life threatening if not dealt with properly.




The number one problem associated with winter is excessive exposure to the cold.  Dogs and cats that are unprotected can easily feel the effects of cold weather.  Yes, they do have a higher corporal body temperature than people do (102.0 F.) but they will act the same way as people when exposed to cold temperatures. I have treated dogs for hypothermia that had been trapped in a snow bank!  As the body starts to chill, involuntary muscle contractions known as the shivering reflex begin.  This shivering causes muscle contractions which then generate internal body heat.

Everybody knows how excessive heat from exercise in the summer makes them miserable.  In cold winter weather this heat generation is life saving.  If exposure is limited, shivering will rapidly jack up the body temperature to normal.  If exposure continues the shivering reflex stops and the body continues to fall into the abyss of temperature loss.  Without medical intervention animals can perish.  Body temperature parallels the heart and respiratory rate.  As a result, the heart and lungs can barely function as the body cools.  Hypothermia can lead to cardiac arrest, coma, renal failure and death.




Older dogs and cats also suffer from cold winter weather due to a pre-existing medical condition.  Arthritis is one of the most commonly seen conditions in older animals. Cats are lucky as they rarely show problems with musculoskeletal issues until they are about 16 years of age!  The average dog will show some signs of hip (coxofemoral joint) dysplasia/arthritis as early as 8 years of age depending upon the size of the dog.  Tiny breeds of dogs develop arthritis much later than the giant breeds of dogs.  Damp, cold winter weather causes joint capsules to swell and indirectly causes more intense pain.  In all mammals the hip joint is not composed of a nice joint capsule full of joint fluid (synovia).  Instead, the long bone of the hind leg (femur) is held in place in the hip socket (acetabulum) by just a bunch of tendons.  That is why it is so easy for a dog or cat to dislocate a hip joint just by falling off of a bed onto a tile surface.  It is not the distance fallen but the angle that the body hits the floor that determines whether it is a good day or a bad day.

As the animal ages those tendons tend to loosen up.  Adding that to cartilage degeneration in both the femoral head and the hip socket, older dogs will feel greater discomfort in cold weather.  Senior dogs often become “downer dogs”.  They collapse and the poor animals are unable to stand.  They are unable to get up to get to the food bowl or even to go outside to void.  This is bad news.  This is the number one cause of euthanasia in older dogs from the northern months of November through February.




Like their human counterparts, dogs and cats may be clinically managed for an internal medical problem such as renal, heart or pulmonary disease during cold winter weather.  Hypothermia, as mentioned above, can devastate these animals as body temperature drops.  Hypothermia can be fatal even to the healthiest animal!  Dogs with internal medical problems may not drink the appropriate amount of fluids to keep the kidneys functioning adequately or find it extremely painful to breathe with a lung condition.  If you are healthy, try taking a deep breath of cold, dry winter air and see how painful it feels.  Imagine this in an animal suffering from primary or secondary pulmonary disease!



Everybody knows how dangerous it is to fall down on black ice or anything that looks like ice.  In most cases it hurts just a bit since thick winter jackets or coats absorb a lot of the force associated with falling onto a hard surface.  The biggest problems for pets are those whose homes are situated on inclines.  A layer of snow melts a bit during the day and refreezes at night producing an ice skating rink.  Many a dog has injured itself by sliding down embankments into trees or other fixed objects.  If they don’t fall, they can easily splay their legs causing intense hip pain.

People and their pets develop cabin fever as the winter wears on.  The best thing is to get outdoors and take a brisk walk.  Be extremely careful walking on the road in snowy, icy weather with your dog. If the road is not clear of snow or ice, cars can slide your way so use common sense and get out of the way if you are walking on the road in such conditions.  Road salt can also play havoc with your dog’s paws.  Salt dries thing out and can be an irritant if exposed to the skin. It will crack your pet’s paw pads causing intense pain.  If salt gets lodged in the paw, the animal will lick or chew at its paw leading to infection.  They do sell dog “paw ware”.  They sort of look like the tiny shoes you would put on a 2 month old baby.  If it is not wet outdoors, pull an old gym sock over each paw of the dog and tie it up with string that is snug, but not too tight, against the body.  Regardless, rinse all four paws off with warm running water after you return home to rid the paws of salt.

To prevent injuries to dogs make sure you shovel an area where the dog can play without getting stuck in the snow.  It will make toilet training much easier for the Christmas puppies that were bought last month for the kids! Dogs lose their sense of where to go once the ground is constantly covered with snow or ice.  Shoveling a walk way works wonders for young dogs.  If you have an older dog to teach the younger puppy what to do, great!  The older “mentor” makes training easier and quicker during the cold winter weather.




Many breeds of dogs love living outdoors in the winter if housing conditions are adequate.  Beagles and sled dogs are just a few breeds that enjoy living in outdoor winter environments.  If you take a dog that is acclimated to winter weather and put it indoors, it will just sit there and pant and act miserable!  It wants to go back outside!

Preparation for winter living starts in the fall by ensuring that the dog develops an extra thick hair-coat.  This thick hair-coat helps to insulate the animal from cold.  It is no different than the thick jackets we put on in the winter to keep us warm.  The hair-coat that develops during late fall must be shampooed and combed routinely to prevent matts from developing.  Proper hair-coat preparation before cold winter weather hits will layer the hairs so that the insulating properties of the coat are at their maximum.  For added luster to the coat, add a teaspoon or so of olive oil over the dog’s food daily. In several months you will notice a big difference.

A dog house must be solid enough to prevent the roof from caving in due to the excessive weight of snow. It must be elevated off the ground to prevent the loss of heat from the animal to the cold, damp ground.  The interior space must be the right size.  If too small, the animal cannot turn around in it adequately.  Too big and it is too large an area for the animal to keep warm just with body heat.  Face the entry of the dog house to the southeast.  This will block cold northwest winds plus warm the opening of the dog house.  During winter the sun in the morning is rising in the lower part of the southern sky.  Fill the house with a thick layer of dry hay or cedar chips.  Make sure that it stays dry and change it frequently.

Dogs that live outdoors will need many more calories to stay warm.  A maintenance diet is not enough. Hills® High Energy dog food may be all that is required.  It is higher in fats and carbohydrates to provide more energy for outdoor, active animals.  Animals need to drink water every day but they can’t drink it if it is frozen!  Either change the water daily and ensure it doesn’t freeze or purchase an electric water dish warmer that prevents ice from forming.




Most disasters in life can be prevented by taking action before a situation swallows us up and spits us out!  The simplest recommendation is to know where your pets are at all times during nasty winter weather. Make sure they are all indoors and have not accidentally escaped when you went outside to take the trash out.  If you do take them out for a walk put a dog jacket on them to keep them warm.  This is important for short-haired dogs.  If you own a Newfoundland or Husky do nothing.  They revel in snowy, cold weather.  Put appropriate paw ware on or gym socks to prevent road salt accumulation and to provide some comfort to the animal.  Than come home to a nice, warm, blazing wood burner!  That is about the only thing I personally miss about winter!

FUN TIME:  Web designers always love throwing curve balls to readers on certain pages.  Somewhere on this page is an “Easter egg”.  These are small inclusions that make reading fun.  It should be easy.  For those that find it Twitter me @petvetoasis and use the hashtag #Easteregg.  Happy hunting!

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