Feeling the cold? Don’t forget to protect your pets this winter - Veterinary Practice
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Feeling the cold? Don’t forget to protect your pets this winter

With temperatures forecast to plummet in many parts of the country, vets are advising pet owners to take extra precautions to protect their dogs, cats and other small pets from the cold and other potentially fatal winter hazards

As with humans, exposure to extremely cold temperatures for extended periods can cause illness in pets. To avoid this, vets are asking owners to consider putting a coat on old dogs or those with thin fur to keep them warm.

In the event of snow or ice it is also important to wipe dogs’ paws and belly on returning home to remove any traces of ice or grit, and to regularly check for cracks in paw-pads or for redness between the toes. Older cats should be kept inside during extreme cold snaps and even healthy, young cats must have easy access to shelter and warmth.

Cats are also especially at risk of antifreeze poisoning at this time of the year, which can be fatal even in small amounts. Over half (51 percent) of vets who treated toxic ingestion in cats over the 2019 festive period saw cases caused by antifreeze. Store and use antifreeze products carefully, clean any spillages thoroughly and contact your vet immediately if your cat develops any changes to their behaviour or worrying symptoms such as vomiting, depression or seizures. 

Owners with small pets, such as rabbits and guinea pigs living in outdoor hutches, should make sure that their pets’ living space is well-protected from snow, provide extra bedding for warmth and consider moving their pets inside during colder spells. Outside water bottles or bowls should be regularly checked for frost and ice.

British Veterinary Association (BVA) President Justine Shotton said: “Most of us will be wrapping up a little warmer over the coming weeks and it’s important to remember that freezing temperatures and icy conditions also call for extra precautions to protect pets.

“During the coldest months, dogs and cats need easy access to shelter and warmth, and while dogs will still need exercise, owners should take precautions to protect them from the cold. Antifreeze is a huge hazard for cats, so contact your vet immediately if you see signs of poisoning such as vomiting, depression, lack of coordination, seizures and difficulty breathing.

“Small pets, such as domestic rabbits and guinea pigs, are also vulnerable to hypothermia despite their warm coats, so owners should take steps to ensure any outdoor hutches are well protected from the snow, cold draughts and winter rain.

“If you have any concerns about your pet in this cold weather, please consult your local vet for advice.”

BVA’s top tips to keep pets safe from the cold

  • Provide a warm, draught-free shelter: make sure your pet’s bed is in a draught-free, warm spot insulated from the floor in the house. For outdoor pets, the hutch or run should be in a sheltered position, away from wind, rain and snow, and at least 10cm off the ground
  • Take precautions during and after walks: dogs still need to be exercised, but consider putting a coat on older dogs or those with thin fur to keep them warm during walks. Wipe your dog’s paws and belly on returning home from a snowy walk to remove any ice or salt, and regularly check for cracks in paw-pads or for redness between the toes
  • Avoid antifreeze poisoning: wiping your pets’ paws can prevent them from ingesting toxins that they may have walked through whilst outside. Antifreeze in particular is highly toxic for cats, even in small amounts. Apart from use in car radiators, some cases that vets see are thought to be from ingesting diluted antifreeze used in ornamental water features to protect the pumps. Store and use antifreeze products carefully and clean any spillages thoroughly
  • Take care near frozen water bodies: when walking your dog in ice and snow, do not let them off the lead, and avoid walking in areas where ponds or lakes may have frozen over – animals often do not understand the difference between solid ground and ice, and can fall through. In this situation, we urge owners to call the emergency services for professional help rather than going in after their pet themselves
  • Temperature control for small pets: keep the temperature of rabbit and guinea pig homes between 10 ⁰C and 20 ⁰C for rabbits (the lower temperature assumes rabbits are healthy and kept with other rabbits, with lots of bedding for warmth) and between 5 ⁰C to 20 ⁰C for guinea pigs, avoiding significant fluctuations in temperature. Also check their water bottle or bowl regularly, as these can freeze when the temperature drops
  • Provide extra bedding for rabbits and guinea pigs: make sure your rabbits and guinea pigs have extra bedding to keep warm during colder weather – line hutches with plenty of newspaper, provide lots of hay and cover the hutch with an old duvet, blanket or tarpaulin. If the weather becomes very severe, consider moving outdoor pets inside to a well-ventilated space with light and room to exercise – but never place them inside a garage which is in-use, as vehicle exhaust fumes are harmful to rabbits and guinea pigs

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