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The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

As we progress through winter, some parts of the country have been exposed to harsher climates than others. Having grown up on the East coast, I much prefer to live in the consistently warm temperatures found in Southern California. Actually, my seemingly seasonal bouts of bronchitis are much less prevalent now that I’m minimally exposed to "real winter."

But enough about my health. Let’s discuss how freezing temperatures, accumulation of ice and snow, and man’s attempts to combat winter’s assault put our companion canines and felines at risk for a variety of health problems.

Wintry Climate Changes

Frostbite happens when the skin is exposed to extreme temperatures, which restricts blood flow to the body’s surfaces. Reduced delivery of oxygen and nutrients and removal of metabolic waste contributes to cell damage or death. Body tissues become cold to the touch and appear pale pink, white, or even blue. Unresolved frostbite can progress to gangrene, which requires ongoing and costly veterinary medical and surgical treatment.

Hypothermia occurs when body temperature drops below the normal range of 100-102.5 +/- 0.5 in a healthy cat or dog. In order to preserve the vital organs (brain, heart, kidneys, liver, and lungs), blood flow to the extremities (limbs, feet, ears, etc.) is restricted. Hypothermia also contributes to frostbite.

Exposure to moisture increases your pet’s likelihood of developing frostbite and hypothermia. A healthy fur pelt or moisture repelling-fabric coat can provide limited protection from nature’s assault. Geriatric, juvenile, mobility compromised, and sick pets are more prone to suffering negative health consequences of exposure to wintry weather.

Man-Made Dangers

Frozen water and frigid temperatures motivate man’s attempts to promote safer walking and driving. Unfortunately, while striving to promote human safety we inadvertently create pet health hazards.

Rock salt and other deicing agents applied to streets and sidewalks can irritate paws or cause digestive tract upset (decreased appetite, diarrhea, vomit, etc.) if consumed.

Antifreeze (ethylene glycol) leaking from car engines creates a toxic pool of palatable liquid that quickly causes kidney failure or even death if ingested.

Keep Your Pets Safe from Winter’s Climate Changes and Man-Made Dangers

Schedule a wellness exam so your veterinarian can evaluate your pet’s body for disease conditions that can be exacerbated by inclement weather (arthritis, heart and lung disease, hyper-/hypothyroidism, kidney and liver failure, etc.).

Keep cats indoors instead of roaming free. Cold, ice, snow, and increased hours of darkness makes finding the way home more challenging.

Walk your dog on a leash and under close observation. Choose sidewalks (free from deicers, of course), lawns, or paths instead of roads where visibility may be limited for oncoming drivers. Avoid areas where antifreeze and rock salt may collect, such as sidewalks and parking spots. Use sand or pet-safe deicers (Safe Paw, Morton’s Safe-T-Pet, etc.) instead of salt.

Have your car professionally serviced away from your home to avoid spills of toxic substances like antifreeze. Fill your vehicle with pet-safe antifreeze (propylene glycol, just like the ingredient found in many moist, "faux meat" pet treats … YUCK).

Use a warm-water moistened soft cloth to wipe off your pet’s paws before coming indoors (light colored fabric lets you see the substances coming off your pet’s paws).

Properly identify your canine and feline companions with a collar, tag, and microchip. Choose accessories that have reflective properties to reflect the glare of a car’s lights.


Have you or your pet suffered any health problems associated with wintry climate or man-made hazards? Please share your story in the comments section.

Dr. Patrick Mahaney

Image: Boxing Day Snowstorm by Paul-W / via Flickr

Comments  4

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  • winter temps
    01/22/2013 08:39am

    I'm wondering just how cold it needs to be to have a dog get frostbite on his feet. My dog is pretty savvy and won't do anything more than go out to potty on REALLY cold mornings. If it's above 15 degrees I try to get him out for a walk and he'll usually go. Sometimes he just says no and I respect his decision. He sure doesn't mind being a "snow otter" though..even on cold mornings.

  • 01/24/2013 02:25pm

    It's really hard to say how long it will take for frostbite to develop in an otherwise healthy pooch. Certainly, the longer a pet's feet come in contact with cold, snow, ice, rain, etc. without a break or being warmed, the more likely lack of circulation will occur.
    Download your dog is sending his own message and not wanting to get outside and have his feet come in contact with cold surfaces. Smart pooch!
    As wintertime activity can invigorating, fun, and a vital means of preventing seasonal weight gain, I'd consider putting some dog appropriate booties on his feet so that he can go on a wintertime walk/hike with you.
    Thank you for your comments.
    Dr. PM

  • Good Information
    01/22/2013 06:07pm

    "Use a warm-water moistened soft cloth to wipe off your pet’s paws before coming indoors (light colored fabric lets you see the substances coming off your pet’s paws)"

    What a great idea to use a fabric that will let you see the stuff coming from a pet's paws to be sure you're getting it all.

    Thanks for the suggestion.

  • 01/24/2013 02:27pm

    Yes, I always want to know what kind of "stuff" comes off of my pet's feet. Sometimes, Cardiff's paws will leave dirty marks on my bathroom mat during episodes of "shower time" when he excitedly likes to lick the dripping water from the door. I'm always amazed by how much stuff accumulates on paws that seem clean otherwise!
    Thank you for your comments.
    Dr. PM

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