Protect Your Pets from Winter Hazards

Oh the weather outside is frightful, but cuddling with our animal companions is so delightful. As the temperature drops and people and pets alike must face winter weather, the following precautions can help to keep animals safe and comfortable.

Walking Woes

In climates where winter weather requires the application of road and sidewalk salt, outdoor walks can become uncomfortable for dogs. Salt and other ice melt products can irritate paws and, if licked off of the feet or fur and ingested, can cause gastrointestinal upset and irritate the mouth, says UW School of Veterinary Medicine (SVM) clinical instructor Calico Schmidt.

Black dog in snow

Be aware of your pet’s tolerance for cold weather and consult your veterinarian if you need help determining your pet’s temperature limits. When walking dogs where road and sidewalk salt have been applied, avoid visible salt whenever possible and wipe down or wash Fido’s feet, legs and belly upon returning home.

When walking dogs, owners should avoid visible salt whenever possible and wipe down or wash Fido’s feet, legs and belly upon returning home. Also check paw pads for cracks, bleeding or ice accumulation.

“Number one, just be careful where you walk your dog,” Schmidt says. “It’s also a good idea to rinse and dry paws carefully when you come in from outside.”

At home, the use of chemical-free deicing salts branded as pet-friendly can help to minimize paw irritation.

And while your dog may love a romp in the snow, be careful letting pets off leash. The snow and cold of winter hampers your pup’s personal GPS: their nose. Make sure your dog always wears a collar with proper identification. A microchip can also increase the chance you’re reunited should your pet get loose or lost.

Feeling the Chill

Be aware of your pet’s tolerance for cold weather, advises the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), and consult your veterinarian if you need help determining your pet’s temperature limits. Cold tolerance can vary based on age, coat (long-haired or thick-coated pets tend to be more cold-tolerant than short-haired and short-legged pets), body fat stores, activity level and health. Diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease or hormonal imbalances can affect a pet’s ability to regulate their body temperature, and cold weather may worsen some conditions, such as arthritis.

Pony in snow wearing blanket
If your horse is wearing a blanket this winter, remove the blanket frequently to check for rub marks or injuries. For horses, livestock and other outdoor animals, a thick layer of straw, shelter from the wind and access to fresh water and extra food are all important in cold weather.

Walks should be shortened in very cold weather and the AVMA recommends that no pet be outside for long periods of time in below-freezing weather.

Frostbite is the biggest concern for animals outside during frigid temperatures, Nigel Cook, clinical associate professor and chair of the SVM Department of Medical Sciences, told the Wisconsin State Journal. For horses, livestock and other outdoor animals, a thick layer of straw, shelter from the wind, and access to fresh water and extra food to provide energy to keep warm are all important, he says. “What we’re worried about are frostbitten ears, tails and feet. Their extremities are susceptible.”

Even with padded feet and hair on their paws, dogs can still get frostbit quickly, explains Sandi Sawchuk, primary care veterinarian at UW Veterinary Care and SVM clinical instructor. “No dog can be outside in very frigid temperatures without shelter and appropriate housing,” she told Channel 3000.

Coats and boots can help to protect dogs from the cold, ice and salt, Sawchuk adds. “If they’ll tolerate it I think it is a good idea, especially for short-haired dogs, really slender dogs and elderly dogs.”

If your horse is wearing a blanket this winter, remember that rub marks or injuries that need your attention could be out of sight under the blanket, so remove the blanket frequently and give your horse a good all-over grooming.

Car Concerns

During winter’s chill, outdoor cats may look for heat in dangerous places, such as near your car’s engine. If there are outdoor cats in your area, bang on your vehicle’s hood or honk the horn before starting the engine to alert any animals and give them a head start to depart.

Cat outside in winter
If there are outdoor cats in your area, bang on your vehicle’s hood or honk the horn before starting the engine to alert any animals that may be seeking warmth. Antifreeze is another potentially lethal winter hazard; keep antifreeze inaccessible to animals, clean spills and consider purchasing pet-safe brands.

And, like in the summer, don’t leave your pet unattended in a vehicle in winter. In cold weather months, your car acts like a refrigerator, stealing your pet’s body heat.

Antifreeze, with its sweet taste that is pleasant to animals, is another potentially lethal cold weather hazard. Store antifreeze in an area that is inaccessible to pets, promptly and thoroughly clean any spills and consider purchasing pet-safe brands of antifreeze.

Holiday Hazards

Many holiday plants, including amaryllis, holly and mistletoe, contain substances that are toxic to both dogs and cats. Decorations such as tinsel and light cords, as well as bones and specific foods from holiday feasts, can also be dangerous to pets. Review our additional tips for a safe and happy holiday season.

Other winter resources featuring the expertise of UW SVM faculty and alumni:

Meghan Lepisto


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