Winter hazards for pets

Here we are fresh off the holidays, and winter has made its presence known. There has been lots of information and tips for people to keep safe in cold weather but we also need to remember our pets during the winter months. Has your pet had his/her preventive-care exam (wellness exam) yet? Cold weather may worsen some medical conditions such as arthritis. Your pet should be examined by a veterinarian at least twice a year, and it’s as good a time as any to get him/her checked out to make sure (s)he is ready and as healthy as possible for cold weather. In this article we will review some of the winter-weather hazards that our pets face.


Common winter chemicals like ice-melting salts, windshield-wiper fluids and antifreeze can be deadly for cats and dogs. Methanol and ethylene glycol, the toxic ingredients in windshield-wiper fluid and antifreeze, are dangerous to pets; ethylene glycol can cause permanent kidney damage, while ingestion of methanol will usually result in lethargy, vomiting and seizures. Pets may be attracted to the sweet smell and taste of antifreeze, and their bodies absorb the chemical rapidly. Symptoms like vomiting and loss of coordination can appear within an hour. If you think your pet has consumed even the smallest amount of antifreeze, take them to the veterinarian immediately.

Ice-melting salts can stick to your pet’s paws; dogs and cats who walk on streets and sidewalks that have been “de-iced” can suffer from chapped, painful paws that often require medications to treat. Licking their paws also puts your pet at risk for consuming the chemicals found in ice melts. Look for pet-safe ice-melting products, and wash your pet’s feet with a warm cloth after they come in from outside.

Hypothermia and frostbite

Your dog may love to romp in the snow, but that doesn’t mean he/she is exempt from the effects of cold weather. Just like people, pets’ cold tolerance can vary from pet to pet based on their coat, body-fat stores, activity level and health status. Be aware of your pet’s tolerance for cold weather and adjust accordingly. You will probably need to shorten your dog’s walks in very cold weather to protect you both from weather-associated health risks. Arthritic and elderly pets may have more difficulty walking on snow and ice, and may be more prone to slipping and falling. Long-haired or thick-coated dogs tend to be more cold-tolerant, but are still at risk in cold weather. Short-haired pets feel the cold faster because they have less insulation and short-legged pets may become cold faster because their bellies and bodies are more likely to come into contact with snow-covered ground. Pets with diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease or hormonal imbalances (such as Cushing’s disease) may have a harder time regulating their body temperatures, and may be more susceptible to problems from temperature extremes. The same goes for very young and very old pets. If you need help determining your pet’s temperature limits, consult your veterinarian. Small, old or thin-coated dogs are especially susceptible to hypothermia and frostbite. These dogs can benefit from a winter wardrobe that includes boots, coats and sweaters. Dogs who spend much of their time outside need a well-insulated dog house or igloo. Blankets, hay and even a pet-safe heated mat can help your dog maintain a healthy body temperature in their dog house. And don’t overlook a pet’s need for fresh, unfrozen water — invest in a heated bowl so your cat’s or dog’s water doesn’t freeze. Outdoor cats should be provided shelter and regular food and water. At any time if you notice skin lesions, limping or other problems with a pet that has been outside, please seek veterinary care as soon as possible.

Cold cars and warm engines

Cold cars in winter can be almost as dangerous as hot cars in the summer. If the temperature is below 40 degrees, then pets should not be allowed to remain in the car for more than just a few minutes. Also, never leave a pet in a car with the heater/defrosters running as they could overheat and/or suffer from carbon-monoxide toxicity.

In addition, outside cats and small wildlife begin to hunt for warm places to curl up in that gets them out of the weather. A parked car with a warm engine is a perfect spot in the mind of a cold animal. Cats and kittens are killed or severely injured every year when a car’s engine is started up while they are still under the hood of the car. If you live in a neighborhood with outdoor cats roaming, it’s a good idea to open up the hood and look inside, knock on the hood and listen for signs of life before getting into the car or honk the horn a couple of times and wait a few seconds before starting the engine. Even if you don’t have outside cats around, it’s still a good idea to knock on the hood or honk your horn just in case a squirrel or any other small animal is hiding under the hood.

As always, be sure to have proper identification on your pet at all times and report any lost pets as soon as possible to local veterinarians, police and shelters. And always remember that the winter will go fast and soon we will be worrying about heat-related concerns.

Dr. David McCrork is an associate veterinarian at Society Hill Veterinary Hospital. For more information, visit or call 215-627-5955.

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