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How to Care For Your Pets In the Brutal Cold

Your dog doesn’t want to be outside either.

French bulldog wearing a sweater in the snow.
Photography by: Getty Images

You wouldn’t leave the house without bundling up -- and it’s important to remember our pets need more than their own fur coats to survive the frigid season. But how cold is too cold? There’s no one answer.

 

“Generally speaking, pets should stay indoors as much as possible during the winter months, while still getting bathroom breaks, enrichment and exercise,” says Dr. Erin Wilson, medical director of the ASPCA Adoption Center. 

 

We spoke to Dr. Wilson about some specifics of caring for your four-legged family members during the brutal cold.

 

Keep them snug in a sweater

“The biggest concern in winter is cold -- low temperatures can be very dangerous for pets,” says Dr. Wilson.” An extra layer like a coat or sweater can help keep your dog from becoming a pup-sicle. “Whether a dog is well-suited for or needs a coat depends on many factors, including age, size, breed and fur, so discuss your specific pet’s needs with his veterinarian,” she says. “Generally speaking, coats or sweaters for short-haired dogs should have a high collar or turtleneck and cover from the base of the tail to the belly.”

Some dogs, like huskies and malamutes, have been bred for cold weather. Thinner-coated breeds like pit bulls and Chihuahuas are less tolerant of low temps. “The best general rule is that if it is too cold for you, it’s too cold for your pet,” Dr. Wilson says. “Ideally, pets should be kept inside during the winter except for walks, hikes, supervised playtime, etc. Doggie doors are always good, though, as some dogs really love playing in the snow.” 

 

While there’s always the occasional cat who enjoys a sweater, Dr. Wilson notes that your feline friend may not love to model outdoor fashions as much as dogs do. “Ideally, cats should be kept inside at all times,” she says. “If owners let their cats out during the winter, or if someone has a barn cat, providing a warm, dry shelter (such as a garage or barn) is essential.”  
 

[LEARN: How to Make Your Dog a Cozy Sweater]

 

Must-have winter accessory

Whether your pets are inside or outside, the most important thing they can wear is identification, with your current phone and email details. ”It can be easier for dogs to get lost in the winter because they lose their scent in the snow,” Dr. Wilson says. “We also recommend microchipping your pet and ensuring that the microchip registration is kept up-to-date with your most recent contact information.”

 

Keep the water flowing

Snow and ice abound in colder climes, but don’t count on that to hydrate your pets, especially dogs and cats that live mostly outside. Access to fresh -- not frozen -- water is crucial. Dr. Wilson adds that dogs who will be outside “should also have access to an insulated and waterproof dog house.”

 

Take care of tender paws

Salt and ice-melt chemicals may help us stay upright on slippery sidewalks and streets, but it can wreak havoc on pet feet. Booties -- if you can persuade your dog to actually wear them -- can provide a protective layer between paws and the road. (First-time bootie-wearers are also pretty funny.) If footwear isn’t going to happen, “massaging petroleum jelly or other paw protectants into a pet’s paw pads before going outside can help protect from salt and chemical agents,” Dr. Wilson says. 

 

Chemicals in some ice-melt products are dangerous to pets. “If you are using these products, keep them out of reach of pets and consider using ones that contain propylene glycol rather than ethylene glycol,” Dr. Wilson says. Ethylene glycol has a sweet taste that can be tempting to dogs, but can be toxic. And give those paws and bellies a good wipe-down when your pet comes in the house after spending time outside. 
 

[CONSIDER: These Steps Before You Adopt A Pet]
 

Make sure you don’t have stowaways in your car

This should go without saying, but we’ll say it: Never leave your pet alone in the car -- temperatures can plunge into dangerous territory rapidly. But your pet isn’t the only animal you have to worry about in winter. Feral or outdoor cats sometimes crawl under car hoods when they’re looking for a warm spot to sleep in the extreme cold. “It’s important to bang on the hood of your car before starting the engine,” Dr. Wilson says. Cats can be hurt or killed by the fan belt when a car is started. “Banging on the hood will wake them up and give them a chance to escape.” 

 

Be extra-vigilant when you’re walking your dog

If you’ve got a large or excitable pup, you could be more vulnerable to fall on slippery surfaces. Training your dog to not pull on the leash and wearing slip-on ice cleats for extra traction can help you avoid a wipeout. And watch the road: “Cars have more difficulty stopping on frozen roads, so everyone should take extra care when crossing the street with a dog,” Dr. Wilson says. 

 

[LEARN: How to Maintain Your Dog's Coat]

Don't let sidewalk salt destroy your pup's paws: Watch Martha explain how to take care of dog paws in the winter