It's cold today in Miami. OK, maybe not according to the standards held by anyone who happens to live north of Florida, but chilly for us nonetheless. This is perhaps why we’re so weird about our pets and cold weather. We're just not used to it, so we get a tad freaky about it.
As in this question asked by a Miami Herald reader, followed by my answer, published over the weekend in advance of this sub-freezing-temp cold front:
Q: I take care of a number of outdoor cats, who aren’t always around for me to bring in when it gets cold outside. When the news media tells us to bring all our pets indoors on chilly nights, I worry desperately for my babies. I’ve been wondering whether they’re suffering, and what your opinion is on what temperature is absolutely too low for cats.
A: I’ve often wondered the same. To what extent does inclement weather — hot, cold, windy or wet — truly affect the cats who make the out of doors their permanent homes? The answer will vary tremendously based on a variety of circumstances. Here’s a short list:
1. Overall health
2. Regular access to food and water
3. Familiarity with surroundings
4. Access to an appropriate shelter
All will play into how desperately lousy the weather can be before an animal’s health will be affected (the metric for suffering I’ve chosen to apply in this case).
So it is that a healthy, well-fed cat who lives under the crawl space of an old Coral Gables home may not care whether it’s 100 or 20 degrees outside; she’s always going to be comfortable. But the old girl who lives on your porch and sleeps in the bushes under your window may not fare so well if the temperature dips below fifty.
As you can see, there is no magic number on the thermometric scale that should lead anyone — except perhaps the meteorology people who seem to love to talk about pets — to conclude that a 40 degree night is deadly.
Indeed, it could be for a debilitated animal, but truth be told, only the sickest and most exposed animals are seriously at risk, as long as temperatures remain above freezing (32°F). The rule of thumb is that when temps dip below 32 degrees, frostbite and severe hypothermia become more pressing concerns.
Thankfully, frozen nights are very few and far between around these parts, so I would tend to think your outdoor cats are finding themselves cozy places to hide that would likely surprise you for their ingenuity.
If optimum comfort is what you seek, nothing beats indoor living. But if this proves elusive, keeping cats sheltered from the cold and wind is doable in the confines of your own back yard. Taking a simple bale of hay to a windless spot should provide ample opportunity for winter-long safety.
I normally get at least a handful of e-mails after any given weekend's Miami Herald column. This one, however, earned me about twenty, most of which were decrying the confusion my words cultivated in a community already given to allowing their poor pets to freeze in this inclement weather. My inability to commit to a hard and fast temperature at which animals absolutely cannot live outside was even considered "animal welfare unfriendly."
Wow. Who knew I'd get so much heat for this topic? But then, I guess I shouldn't be too surprised. After all, the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) went through several revisions to their in-flight acclimation standards for pets before managing to find one that suited everyone. Sticking to a hard and fast safe temperature zone, it would seem, eludes all of us. It seems you'll never get everyone to agree.
Still, I thought it would be fun to take this Herald column and hand it over to my more cold-hardened readers so that I might perhaps learn where in the heck I went wrong. But maybe — just maybe — you'll think I wasn't too hard on our pets; your call.
Dr. Patty Khuly
P.S. - I'll take all your outdoor pet cold-weather tips, too, while you're at it. I need more fodder in case I'm ever tasked with a cold weather column again.