Utah’s winter climate is relatively mild compared to many other states, but temperatures still drop below freezing overnight, snow and ice can accumulate, trails become dangerous, and pets can suffer from cold-related injuries or illness. Some pets were built for the cold, but most need extra protection, and any pet can encounter hazardous winter chemicals or fall and be injured. The Desert Vet team knows how important outdoor activity can be for many pets, and we provide guidance on enjoying winter safely.

Here are our top cold weather pet safety tips:

#1: Determine your pet’s cold tolerance

Pets were bred for various purposes, and each pet has a different coat type, coat color, and body type that lead to vastly different cold tolerance levels. Pets bred to live or work in cold weather, including Siberian huskies, Alaskan malamutes, Saint Bernards, and Samoyeds, and Maine coons, Siberians, or Norwegian forest cats, have high cold tolerance and often enjoy spending extra time outdoors. But, most other pets feel the cold similar to humans and require protection and precautions to stay warm. Factors that can affect your pet’s cold tolerance include:

  • Coat type — Dense, curly, and double coats trap heat better than short, single, or fine coats. 
  • Coat color — Dark colors absorb heat from sunlight, while light colors reflect UV rays.
  • Size — Small pets have a higher surface area-to-mass ratio, and lose heat faster than larger pets. 
  • Leg length — Pets with short legs are more exposed to cold from the ground.
  • Age — Puppies and senior pets have difficulty regulating body temperature and may get cold faster than adults.
  • Health status — Endocrine and metabolic disorders (e.g., thyroid disease, diabetes, Cushing’s syndrome), and heart and kidney disease make body temperature regulation more difficult. Extremely thin pets lack insulating body fat and feel the chill much faster than normal or overweight pets.

If you suspect your pet is cold intolerant, plan to spend most of your time indoors. Otherwise, use our tips to protect and monitor your pet.

#2: Provide your pet with a coat or sweater

A sweater is not only super-cute, but also functional for keeping a chilly pet warm. Doggie—and kitty—outerwear comes in different shapes, sizes, materials, and statement-making fashions that help keep thin, short-coated furballs warm in the cold wind. 

#3: When in doubt, stay inside with your pet

When is it too cold to go outside? The answer is different for each pet, but this is a good rule of thumb—when you are uncomfortably cold, your pet likely is also too cold. Temperatures below freezing are uncomfortable for most pets, and heavy moisture or high wind can make them feel even worse. When in doubt, stay inside, and go outdoors only for potty breaks.

#4: Don’t leave pets unattended outside or in vehicles

Pets left outdoors or in a vehicle can quickly succumb to hypothermia, and with no one to notice, your pet could get into trouble quickly. Try to ensure you go outside with your pet each time, so you can use your own comfort as a guide to how your dog may be feeling. If you have a mischievous nordic breed who refuses to come inside from the cold, ensure you check on them every few minutes.

#5: Periodically assess your pet for hypothermia signs

Watch for discomfort and early hypothermia signs when you’re outside walking or playing with your pet. Cold pets may shiver, hold up their feet, limp, or seek you out for warmth, which indicates it’s time to go inside. A cold pet who stays outside too long and becomes hypothermic will stop shivering, move slowly, and act confused, and eventually their heart rate and breathing will slow down or stop. Seek immediate veterinary care if your pet shows hypothermia signs.

#6: Clean your pet’s paws and fur after outdoor activity

Most municipalities use chemical-based ice melters to keep sidewalks and trails safe, but these can irritate your pet’s skin and cause illness if licked and ingested. Ice and salt can accumulate on the fur between your pet’s toes, and stick to longer fur on their legs and belly. Wipe your pet down thoroughly after walks to remove debris and ice, and keep foot and leg hair trimmed short to reduce accumulation.

#7: Provide extra paw pad care

Your pet’s paw pads can crack or tear during the winter, especially if they walk extensively. Plus, injured paw pads are slow to heal because of poor blood supply, so these injuries can sideline pets for weeks. Paw pad butters can keep feet moisturized and prevent cracking, and booties can provide extra protection on hard surfaces.

#8: Clean up antifreeze spills

Antifreeze contains ethylene glycol, an unfortunately sweet and attractive compound that can poison your pet. Pets may be attracted to leaks or spills in your driveway or garage, try a sample, and then experience kidney failure, blood cell damage, and often death. Seek immediate veterinary attention if you think your pet has contacted antifreeze.

#9: Watch out for frozen lakes or ponds

Keep pets on-leash on unfamiliar trails, as a frozen body of water can look solid, but result in a deadly fall through the ice. Ice that doesn’t hold your pet won’t hold you, and you’ll both be in grave danger. 

#10: Take precautions for arthritic pets

Arthritis tends to worsen in the cold weather, causing more stiffness and decreased mobility, so arthritic pets are more likely to slip and fall on slick surfaces, and injure their already damaged joints. Use a pet-safe ice-melter to keep your home pavement and sidewalks ice-free to prevent an accident. You can also consider toe grips or booties for extra traction.

Winter weather doesn’t have to slow your pet down if you take the proper precautions to ensure their safety. If you have questions about cold safety, or would like a wellness exam to determine your pet’s cold tolerance, call us to schedule a visit with our knowledgeable Desert Vet team. If you think your pet is hypothermic or has frostbite, bring them inside immediately, and contact our team or a local emergency veterinary hospital for assistance.