10 Important Tips for Keeping Your Pets Safe This Winter

Your furry friends get chilly, too! Veterinarians explain how to protect dogs and cats when it's cold outside.

Boston Terrier Dogs at WindowC_Gara/Shutterstock

‘Tis the season for snowy walks and hot chocolate by the fire, right? Fido and Fifi will enjoy it as much as you (maybe more), as long as you follow a few winter pet safety tips.

Limit their time outside

“First, you have to consider things associated with the cold and the wind,” says Bruce Kornreich, DVM, PhD, associate director of the Feline Health Center at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. For most house pets, the easiest way to make sure they stay safe during the winter is to keep them inside. “Ideally, we definitely recommend that cats be kept indoors, year-round, because they’re at greater risk for infectious diseases, for trauma, and for being preyed upon by other animals outside,” Kornreich says.

Likewise, Ilan Frank, DVM, sports medicine and rehabilitation resident at Colorado State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital, says the easiest way to keep pet dogs safe from the cold is to keep them inside for the bulk of the day and overnight. “Most dogs, if you want to take them out for a walk around the block for five or ten minutes, I don’t think it’s necessary to buy them a special vest or boots or any special devices,” he says.

Know when winter gear is necessary

That said, there are some circumstances that call for extra attention, particularly if you live in a snowy or icy part of the country and your neighbors or town use salt to de-ice sidewalks and streets. Grains of salt can get caught between a dog’s paw pads and cause a painful sore. If salty walking surfaces are common, you might want to put booties on your dog, or at least clean their paws when you get home (a dip in lukewarm water and gentle drying with a towel should do the trick). You can also keep paws moisturized with paw balm, such as Musher’s Secret.

And while dogs in jackets are awfully cute, Frank says canine outerwear is only really necessary for certain breeds. “Dogs aren’t like people,” he says. “They can cope pretty well with cold conditions, especially versus hot ones. It might take most dogs a couple of days to acclimate to a cold climate, but it can take a month in hot weather.” But he points out that small dogs—particularly toy breeds—and those with short coats, like pointers or vizslas, will be more comfortable wearing an extra layer when they go out for walks in cold temperatures. Look out for these 10 silent signs your “healthy” dog is actually sick.

Monitor working dogs and older dogs

For dogs that aren’t indoor house pets—like farm dogs and other working dogs that stay outside for long periods or live in outdoor kennels—Dr. Frank says owners do need to be careful about how cold it is and to keep an eye on their dogs’ condition. “In general, signs of hypothermia in dogs are similar to those in people,” he says. “They usually become more sedated, their blood pressure drops down, they might lose consciousness.” If your dog is naturally sedentary, he adds, you shouldn’t assume it’s fine if it’s been just sitting around out in the cold for a long time. The best way to tell for sure if a dog is suffering from hypothermia is to take a rectal temperature, “which I don’t think most owners are going to do,” Dr. Frank says. That’s why it’s better to make sure outdoor dogs have access to warmth when it’s really cold outside.

Frank worries particularly about older dogs that might have some cognitive dysfunction. “They might not really completely understand the situation, or might forget they’re outside,” he says. “Don’t assume that they just like to lay out in the snow for a couple hours. If you have an older guy, you might need to initiate bringing him back inside.”

Don’t assume your outdoor cat can cope in the cold

Dr. Kornreich understands that many cats do spend lots of time outdoors, but he says that in winter, owners shouldn’t assume they’re warm enough. “People tend to think that cats are kind of wild and can take care of themselves,” he says, but their coats don’t fully protect them. Dr. Kornreich sees cases of hypothermia and even frostbite in cats that have spent too much time in the cold. “They do grow a winter coat if they spend enough time outdoors, but it doesn’t protect them completely,” Dr. Kornreich says. “When cats get cold, the body shunts the blood away from peripheral areas—like the ears, the nose, the paws, the tail—to the vital organs, like the kidneys, brain, and heart.” Frostbite makes the skin look pale or grayish, and in extreme cases, it can turn black and peel off. A cat with hypothermia might seem depressed or anxious and be shivering and crying.

Remember, too, that cats sometimes seek out the warmth of a car engine. “They’ll crawl up underneath and kind of hide in there and they can be injured when the engine starts,” Dr. Kornreich says. “We always say, make some noise, bang on the hood, and take a quick look to make sure there are no cats in the wheel wells before starting your car.”

Another danger for outdoor cats is that their water supply becomes unusable. “If the cat is outside and doesn’t have access to unfrozen water, that’s a problem,” Dr. Kornreich says. Don’t miss these 14 cat health symptoms you should never ignore.

furry Siberian gray cat in the snowAnna_Bondarenko/Shutterstock

Make sure indoor cats stay indoors

Cat owners who follow Dr. Kornreich’s suggestion and keep their cats indoors year-round can still run into problems if their cats sneak out and aren’t used to being outside. “What you really don’t want to have happen is that a cat gets out and gets freaked out and gets lost,” he says, so make sure indoor cats don’t escape. And if your cats are used to coming and going (and know their way around), make extra-sure in cold weather that they’ve returned before you go off to work or head out for a night on the town. “You don’t want to let them out in the morning and then leave, and they can’t get back in,” Dr. Kornreich says. “That does definitely happen.”

Prepare your pooch for long hikes

Part of the fun of winter is going outside with dogs, who often love running and playing the snow. “If want to take your dog for a couple hours of hiking in cold conditions, be prepared,” Dr. Frank says. “You need to carry food and water for the dog—even in winter conditions, they can get dehydrated.” If you’re heading into the wild for longer than a couple of hours, he definitely recommends including your dog, if it likes cold weather. For a four-hour hike or longer, Dr. Frank says you can bring energy bars made for dogs. They’re rich in simple glucose, so they’ll give quick energy to your pup in the snowy woods.

You’ll also want to protect dogs’ paws during serious excursions. “Boots make sense if you do something intense, for a couple of hours or more,” Dr. Frank says. However, he adds that you’ll need to take them off your dog every hour or two and check their feet. Dogs sweat from their paws, so be sure no ice balls have formed, and make sure no tiny stones are caught inside the bootie.

If you’re camping overnight, or if you take breaks during a long outing in very cold conditions, bring along a warming vest or harness for your dog. These use warming gel packs just like the ones you can keep in your pockets or boots.

Dr. Frank has one other serious precaution for people who take their dogs out hiking in winter: “All kinds of parasites live in puddles that can give your dogs gastrointestinal upset,” even in cold weather. Don’t let them drink water you didn’t bring.

Store antifreeze in a secure place

Antifreeze is a life-threatening toxin to pets, Dr. Kornreich says. “Apparently, the ethylene glycol—the thing that gives it antifreezing properties—tastes good to dogs and cats,” he says. They’re at risk if a container is left accessible and open, and also if the chemical spills on the garage floor or driveway. “Cats will lick that or they’ll walk through it and lick their paws,” he says. It disrupts kidney function and neurologic status, so be on the lookout for spills or leaks and make sure to clean them up immediately. Look out for these other household items that are seriously hazardous to pets.

Don’t feed pets holiday dinner scraps

Pets can ingest toxic substances inside the house as well, particularly around the holidays when there’s so much extra food around for people. “Chocolate, macadamia nuts, and xylitol are all bad for dogs,” Dr. Frank says. Dr. Kornreich advises keeping cats away from bones they might choke on, alcohol, and very fatty foods, which can induce pancreatitis. “Make sure that cats don’t have access to table scraps,” he says. Here are 11 more foods you should never feed your pet.

Keep decorations out of your pet’s reach

Poinsettias are also toxic, so keep them away from your pets, and keep an eye on your sparkly stuff. “Holiday decorations can be a risk,” Dr. Kornreich says—particularly garlands and tinsel hung on Christmas trees and around the house. “They can cause a gastrointestinal obstruction.”

Help them handle holiday guests

Finally, don’t forget about your pets when your house fills with extra people. Kornreich says there are two rules for keeping your pets safe when you have company over for the holidays. One, provide a comfortable and quiet place for dogs and cats to get away from crowds if they need a break (and make sure visiting children can’t access them when nobody’s paying attention). And two, “Make sure that pets don’t bolt out of the house when people are coming in and out,” Kornreich says. Check out these 50 things that make your pets tick.