Top Tips: Caring for Animals in the Cold

While anyone who was completely surprised by the freezing weather and snowstorms of the last couple of days obviously wasn’t paying attention (!), I think it’s fair to say that a lot of us were startled at how bad it actually got. Down here on Dartmoor, we haven’t seen weather like this for a decade or more. So, I thought it was a good idea to put up a quick blog on caring for animals in the snow.

First things first…

Do NOT put yourself in danger! While we’ll all do stupid things for our own animals, if you get stuck, hypothermic or frost-bitten, you’re not helping them. So if you can, stay indoors, stay warm, and stay safe.

If you must go outside – as everyone with horses or stock or, for that matter, dogs, has to – then be out for the shortest time possible, and make sure you’re wearing suitable clothing. In the cold and wind, you need a wind- and waterproof outer, layers of warm clothes underneath, a hat, and gloves. Make sure that you’re wearing suitable footwear too – waterproof boots or similar with a good grip to minimise the change of slipping on ice.

If your animals are a long way from where you live, and the snow or ice is severe, consider asking a neighbour, friend or farmer living closer to care for them.

Paws are more sensitive than they appear

This is something that comes up time and again… It isn’t possible to keep a dog cooped up indefinitely, they do have to go out to go to the toilet. If the cold snap lasts longer than a few days – as it often does in the upland areas of the country – then they also need to keep getting out for exercise. Fortunately, dogs are descended from wolves, and most breeds have kept the cold-weather tolerance of their ancestors (see below for those advice on caring who haven’t!). However, their pads are always in contact with the frozen ground, and can easily develop abrasions or frostnip.

Ice and the grit we use to give us grip can easily abrade or even lacerate a paw, so if a foot suddenly seems very painful, consider the possibility that there’s a proper injury. To make matters worse, the grit we tend to use is rock-salt… and no-one wants salt in a wound! Wash it carefully with warm non-salty water and then seek veterinary advice for the wound.

In really cold weather, the paws may get so cold that the circulation to the pads is shut down, leading to frostnip. The usual symptoms include pain, a change in colour (often becoming paler) and a “dead”, rubbery feeling to the affected tissue. Most cases can be managed by bathing gently in lukewarm (NOT hot!) water to restore the circulation, but if the colour doesn’t return to normal rapidly, the pain seems extreme, or the area remains numb, contact your vet urgently for advice.

Another common problem is little balls of snow or ice forming in between the toes or pads. These can be very irritating or even painful to the dog… but of course, as soon as we get home and look for the problem, it’s melted…

All in all, if you have to walk your dog in snow or on ice, especially if they have sensitive toes, I’d strongly recommend getting them a set of boots to wear when out and about!

More Cold = More Energy

Most of our pets are warm blooded, meaning they burn energy to stay warm. The colder the outside temperature, the more energy they need. For small pets like rodents or cage birds, this cold weather can rapidly be fatal, as they lose heat faster than larger animals, and soon exhaust their energy reserves. For other animals, you may notice them being much hungrier than usual, or even visibly losing weight.

It’s important to make sure you feed them enough to compensate for the cold – in some cases, animals may actually double, or more, their calorie requirement! That said, don’t overdo it – if your cat spends all his time sitting by the fire, increasing his food will just give you a fatter cat – but if they’re losing weight, feed more!

For those of you with reptiles, amphibians or other cold-blooded pets, the key is of course to make sure the environmental temperature is kept at a constant comfortable level. However, beware of heat-source burns – make sure the heat lamp or mat isn’t hot enough to injure tissue of your pet chooses to curl up on it for hours at a time!

Insulate your Pet

For thinner skinned or coated dogs, cats and horses, some sort of additional insulation is required. There are a wide range of dog coats and jumpers now available, which act as a fleecy jumper to keep them warm, sometimes with a waterproof outer layer.

Of course, most horse owners are very used to rugging horses – but even tough native types might appreciate a rug when it’s really cold and windy! Anyone with sheep – I hope you’re not lambing yet… If you are, try and lamb indoors, and consider wind-breakers for the lambs (aka plastic macs; in emergencies, you can even make them out of bailer twine and a carrier bag) before you turn them out, if you have to.

It is generally harder to put a coat or jumper on a cat (!), but in my experience, cats are very adept at finding the warmest spot by themselves, so make sure there’s somewhere snug for them to warm up.

Again, small pets and birds (with a higher body temperature, they lose heat faster) are likely to be the most severely affected by this cold weather. So, make sure their houses or hutches are warm, without draughts, and ideally are in shelter, not exposed to the elements. Make sure as well that small furries have plenty of bedding to snuggle up in, and consider bringing cage birds into the house, if you haven’t already – a greenhouse or conservatory can be a death-trap at night!

Beware of the Ice!

Already there has been at least one tragedy, as a man died falling through ice, trying to rescue his dog. Don’t be the next person! AVOID frozen ponds or rivers. Once you or your pet are soaked in frozen water, hypothermia can develop in minutes, and may rapidly be fatal. If your pet does get soaked and frozen, get them to a vet as soon as you possibly can, even if they seem to have passed away – there’s a saying that “no animal is dead until they are warm and dead”, because the final stages of hypothermia can easily be mistaken for death, even though they are often treatable.

Remember, winter weather can kill, especially if you don’t take suitable precautions. Fortunately, in most of the UK severe weather like this is unlikely to last for long. Keep yourself and your animals tucked up warm and well fed, and wait it out! In emergencies, your local vets will have a bad-weather protocol – and you can always call them for advice.

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