Winter Weather Brings Seasonal Challenges for Pet Owners

How to keep your dog and cat safe in cold, snow and during the holidays

The early cold snaps of the past few weeks should serve as a reminder to pet owners that special precautions should be made for health and welfare of their dogs and cats as winter gets under way.

Dr. Donna Alexander, Administrator of the Cook County Department of Animal and Rabies Control, offered a number of tips for pet owners to keep in mind during winter and the upcoming holidays.

“Given that this is only December, and we realistically have several months of severe weather ahead of us, it is important for pet owners to remember that they should adjust their pets’ normal routine,” Alexander said. “Prolonged exposure to cold, snow and ice can be as dangerous for dogs and cats as it is for humans.”

Among her recommendations:

  • Bring all pets indoors.  All dogs and cats, whether acclimated to outdoor living, must be brought indoors during sub-zero weather. Even creatures of the wild seek shelter when temperatures plummet. As the responsible caregiver of a pet, you should provide an indoor heated shelter for your animal. Despite their abundance of hair, all domesticated dogs and cats are subject to frostbite and hypothermia.

  • Salt and ice. Both salt and ice can irritate your dog’s footpads. If your dog will tolerate them, foot coverings are advised. If your dog will not tolerate foot coverings, avoid the salt when possible and wash their paws with warm water when you return home.  Walking the dog in the snow as opposed to the salted sidewalk may be advisable, but in extreme low temperatures this could add to frostbite concerns.

  • Frostbite. Dogs and cats may have fur coats but they also have exposed areas that are susceptible to frostbite. Limit their time outdoors for waste elimination only. Walks should not exceed 10 minutes in sub-zero temperatures. Check their pads when you get home and wash with warm (not hot) moist towels.  If you suspect frostbite on any extremity (don’t forget the nose or the tips of the ears) contact your veterinarian.

  • Properly secure potentially poisonous material, such as antifreeze. Antifreeze is extremely toxic to all living creatures. It is sweet to the taste but even a drop can be lethal. Keep antifreeze bottles out of the reach of animals and clean up all antifreeze spills immediately.

Feral cats and wild animals will seek refuge and warmth wherever they can, Dr. Alexander said. A car’s engine, for example, may provide a warm spot to “hole up” in sub-zero conditions.

“Honk your horn before you start your car to give a wake-up call to any critters before you turn on the ignition,” she advised. “If an animal has chosen your attic, your garage or even space under a deck as refuge, close off access to the rest of the house. Contact local officials for their removal but be prepared for an assessment of your home for its accessibility to wildlife intrusion.”

Dr. Alexander also reminded pet owners that they should have an established doctor-patient-client relationship with a veterinarian close to home and establish an emergency protocol.

“If your pet is receiving ongoing prescription treatment, make sure you have adequate amounts in case of closures due to weather,” Alexander said. “Know where your closest emergency veterinary clinic is located or the policies of your primary care veterinarian regarding emergencies.”


  • No treats from the table:  There are many food items consumed by humans that may prove toxic to animals.  No chocolate, stuffing containing sage, grapes or raisins should be given to any pets.

  • Keep Christmas decorations safe:  Tinsel and poinsettias can be toxic.  If you are able, elevate your Christmas decorations above the grasp of your pet.  Better yet, surround your tree with animal barricade such as child-proof fencing.

  • Provide a safe haven for pets:  Create a quiet spot for your pets where they can get away from the seasonal merriment.  Acclimate them to their safe haven by placing familiar smells (blankets, pillows) or toys in the area you have designated.  When guests arrive, make sure they are aware that this “pet secure” area should not be disturbed.

  • Display rabies tags on collars and secure egress:  Dogs and cats can become bewildered by the increase number of holiday guests and often try to escape.  Remind your guests to close doors when entering or leaving and to secure gates.  Make sure that your animal is wearing identification in case of escape.


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