Storm windows in place? Check. Sweaters and mittens at the ready? Check. But your four-legged pal needs some preseason prep too. The onset of the chilly months coincides with one of the busiest times of year. And that can throw us off our game with our pets — leaving them literally out in the cold, or worse, stuck indoors, with oodles of extra energy to focus on that fascinating new tree in the living room (with all those shiny balls!). Luckily, all it takes is a few vet‐tested ideas to keep your companion active and happy all winter long.
1. Keep 'Em Comfy
We humans pile on layers for walks once the temperature dips below 50 degrees, but dogs generally fend for themselves — and in many cases, that's okay. "Barring any medical conditions, your average furry breed does just fine without our intervention," says Susan O'Bell, DVM, director of the General Medicine Service at Angell Animal Medical Center, in Boston. But particularly thin‐skinned and short‐haired breeds (such as greyhounds and Weimaraners) may benefit from a man‐made coat. "If your dog is shivering after a brief stint outdoors, that's a sign," says Joanna Krol, DVM, owner of Animal Care Center of Chicago. When selecting one, make sure she appears comfortable and unrestricted in it.
[DIY: Make a Soft, Cozy Doggy Coat]
2. Protect Their Paws
It's not clear which harms dogs' feet more: ice and snow, or the salt used to melt them. So invest in a pet‐safe commercial deicing product, such as Safe Paw Ice Melter (from $23, jet.com) for the area around your own driveway, or just use sand, dirt, or a mixture of both. Keep your dog's nails and the hair around his pads trimmed and groomed, and remove any salt and debris after each walk: Have a bowl of tepid water and a cloth by the front door, or take a moist cloth with you in a bag. If you notice your dog picking up his paw, you might be able to just wipe it and carry on, says O'Bell — but if he seems to be in pain, or continues raising the paw, it's time to head home.
Check paws regularly once you get home, too — especially after walks in very icy conditions. If you find superficial wounds, O'Bell suggests applying direct pressure with a soft bandage or paper towel; if there's a little bleeding, dip the paw in cornstarch to stop it. "But if you see skin redness, hair loss or cracks in the pads, or significant and persistent bleeding, seek medical attention," says Krol.
As for booties, O’Bell warns that some dogs may be prone to injuries in footwear they're unaccustomed to, but they do make sense for animals whose feet are so sensitive that they won't take walks without them. Krol recommends the kind with Velcro straps, which tend to fit better and last longer than the "balloon" variety. Otherwise, topical ointments like Musher's Secret (from $12.50, amazon.com) and Aquaphor (from $5, at drugstores) can protect against the elements.
3. See Daisy Run
"We should strive for an hour of exercise for the average healthy dog," says O'Bell. "That can be tough when there are fewer hours of daylight." The good news is there are plenty of ways to keep track of her when it's dark out; Krol likes flashing‐light collars and harnesses with reflectors, but adds that some of her clients simply put bells on collars so their pets are always in earshot.
If you have an older dog that suffers from arthritis, cold temperatures can exacerbate the condition. But "it's important to continue to provide regular exercise to keep those joints moving," says O'Bell. "Maybe he'll do better with three shorter walks a day instead of one or two longer ones."
Don't overlook opportunities to give your dog a workout inside, too — a long hallway makes an excellent spot for playing fetch, for instance. Try doing training exercises with younger pups (or even with older ones — they can learn new tricks!). Or turn mealtimes into a chance to tire them out a little. O'Bell says she finds even small changes in her own pets' routines help rev up their energy: "Try putting your dog's kibble in a treat‐dispensing toy or puzzle feeder one morning, instead of in her bowl." Krol also recommends playing hide‐and‐seek with treats placed around your home.
[RECIPE: Paw-Print Dog Treats]
4. Watch Their Weight
Just as with us humans, dogs' energy requirements can fluctuate over the course of a year. So during this season, when your pooch may be less active because of the colder weather, you might want to scale back that two‐cups‐a‐day habit. "Talk to your vet about a healthy feeding reduction and how to help your dog cope with it," O'Bell says. One solution she suggests is teaching your pet to like vegetables such as green beans, which contain fewer calories for their volume than kibble.
But this being the holidays, your trusty companion deserves to be indulged sometimes. Krol and O’Bell confess to treating their own pets to people food on occasion, and that’s fine so long as you avoid nibbles that can do dogs harm, including chocolate, raisins and grapes, raw onions and garlic, and tree nuts (particularly macadamias). Krol also advises against ever giving dogs anything labeled "sugar‐free." These products contain sweeteners like xylitol, which can lead to low blood sugar or liver failure.
[DON'T MISS: 6 Foods You Should Never Feed Your Dog]
5. Pet-Proof Holiday Décor
"Every year, we treat animals that have chewed on ornaments and electric cords," says Krol. So take precautions: Avoid low‐hanging decorations and lights strung on the bottom branches of your Christmas tree, tape up cords or use a cord protector, sweep up pine needles (if eaten, they can cause digestive problems, depending on the amount), and secure your tree to prevent it from getting knocked over. (If you have cats as well, skip tinsel and similar stringy decorations: Many felines can't resist eating them, which can lead to serious GI obstructions.)
A lot of plants that are popular during the holidays, including mistletoe, holly, and poinsettia, can be toxic in large amounts, so keep those out of reach, too. And be especially mindful of counter‐surfers when entertaining, since much of the bounty on offer can be harmful to pets. "Make sure plates are cleared after meals, and move trash and recycling bins out of reach," says O'Bell.
Speaking of the holidays, have you thought to take your pet's Christmas photo for a card?