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The Ruff Report: Winter is most deadly time of the year for pets

Hypothermia and frostbite from the cold and snow, broken bones from falling on ice and poisoning from ingesting antifreeze are just a few of the hazards that make winter the most deadly season of the year for pets, animal experts warn.

And pet parents are being urged to take precautions to keep their dogs and cats safe by limiting their outdoor activities in extreme cold and snow, and using sweaters to keep them warm and treatments to protect their feet during outdoor activities.

"While it’s easy to think that dogs are immune to cold because of their fur, the fact is that more dogs perish in the winter than at any other time of the year," Liam Crowe, CEO of the training company Bark Busters USA, states in a media release. "Frostbite, hypothermia and antifreeze poisoning present the biggest winter threats to dogs."

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A dog's paws are especially vulnerable to injury during the winter because ice, salt and grit can cause fine cracks in the pads and between the toes, according to Four Paws, an animal welfare and protection agency in the United Kingdom.

Paw injuries can become very painful for the animals,” Martina Schnell, a pet expert at Four Paws, states in a media release. “Dogs often lick their paws clean after a walk and salt can reach the stomach where it can lead to stomach injuries.”

To protect a pet's feet, Four Paws suggests:
  • Applying Vaseline or a protective ointment to paw pads before going out for walks to prevent cracks. 
  • Walking on clear paths as much as possible. 
  • Removing long fur between toes to help prevent ice lumps from forming between the paw pads.
  • Soaking paws in lukewarm water after a walk to remove little stones, salt and ice.
Use ointment or disinfectant to cleanse wounds if a dog damages its foot pads, Mr. Schnell says. "In order to keep the animal from immediately licking off treatments you could give them something to nibble on, such as a safe dog treat.”

Louise Murray, a veterinarian for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, says to never leave a pet alone in a parked vehicle, because it holds in the cold and can causing a pet to freeze to death. “On a cold day, a parked automobile can become a freezer in no time,” Dr. Murray states in a media release.

KC Theisen, director of pet care issues for the Humane Society of the United States, says pets must depend on their owners to keep them safe from serious health risks during winter.

"Animals rely solely on their human caregivers for safety and comfort—especially during the winter months," Theisen states in a media release. "Our pets are particularly vulnerable during this frigid season, and with just a few extra precautions you can help make sure that they stay safe and healthy."

Keep dogs and cats inside except for frequent, short walks, Theisen advises. Dogs and cats are social animals who crave human companionship and enjoy spending time indoors with family.

Mr. Crowe says many dogs spend less time outside in winter because of bitter cold and snow, so owners should plan to do more inside activities to help their companions from getting lethargic or hyper.

The best way to keep a dog active or to use his excess energy is to make him think, according to Mr. Crowe. Providing 10 to 15 minutes of training once or twice daily on basics such as sit, stay, come and walking on leash will energize a lethargic dog and cause the hyper dog to be more tired.

Bark Busters offers these winter safety tips:
  •  Keep dogs inside when the temperature falls below 20 degrees; puppies, smaller dogs and older dogs should not be left outdoors when the temperature falls below 40 degrees. 
  • Put a sweater on a short-haired dog when he goes outside, because he can become immediately chilled after leaving a warm house. 
  • Older, arthritic dogs inside should not be left outside under any circumstances. Use a leash to escort older dogs outside for toileting to avoid falls and injuries.
  • Wipe your dog’s feet after a walk in the snow to remove ice and salt deposits from the road. Salt irritates a dog’s paws and can be toxic if ingested. Use only pet-safe ice melt. 
  • Watch for signs of frostbite and injury, especially on susceptible areas like ears, paws and tails. Initially, frostbitten tissue may appear pale or gray, and the area will be cold and hard to the touch. As the area thaws, it may become red and within days the tissue will start to appear black. If you suspect frostbite, bring your dog into a warm location and soak the affected area in lukewarm water for about 20 minutes and contact a veterinarian.
  • Watch for sign of hypothermia, which include shivering, lethargy, low heart rate and unresponsiveness. If you suspect hypothermia, bring the dog into a warm area, place a light blanket over him and call a veterinarian.
  • Make certain that all antifreeze containers are locked away and out of reach of dogs, and thoroughly clean any spills immediately. Dogs like the sweet taste of antifreeze, which can cause sickness or death if ingested. 
  • Keep dogs inside during a snowstorm, because a dog can lose its ability to scent and can go astray. A loose dog can also fall through ice or get hit by a vehicle, especially since icy roads make it harder for cars to stop. 
  • Make certain that your companion's doghouse meets certain minimum criteria if he stays outside. A doghouse needs to be raised a couple of inches off the frozen ground or concrete; needs cedar shavings or straw, which should be changed frequently to keep a dog warm and dry; and needs a flap on the door. Do not use blankets, which get wet from snow and will chill your dog.
  • Use a plastic water bowl so a dog’s tongue does not get stuck to cold metal.
  • Alter the amount of food your dog gets depending on activity level. An active dog will burn more calories in the cold and needs about 10 percent more food. A less active, indoor dog needs less food.
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The Ruff Report's dogs and safety Home Page

The ASPCA offers these tips for regarding cats:
  • Keep your cat inside, because felines can easily freeze, become lost or be stolen, injured or killed. Cats who are allowed to stray are exposed to infectious diseases, including rabies, from other cats, dogs and wildlife. 
  • Outdoor cats sometimes sleep under the hoods of cars. When the motor is started, the cat can be injured or killed by the fan belt. If there are outdoor cats in your area, bang loudly on the car hood before starting the engine to give the cat a chance to escape.

The Ruff Report is a column that appears on, a blog written by Joseph A. Reppucci, a retired editor from The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Massachusetts. Mr. Reppucci worked as a reporter and editor on major daily newspapers in the Boston area for more than 30 years. He is the author of the book, The Hunt of Her Life, a heartwarming story about his once-in-a-lifetime rescue dog. Find it on


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