"Winter is actually a pretty good time for animals," says Dr. Jacob Cohen of Chicago's Animal Ark Veterinary Clinic. "They're out less -- which means less injuries and less illness." But there are still serious incidents of cold-weather-related health problems in pets that can and should be avoided, adds Cohen.
Going off-leash in the snow.
"Canines often lose their scent in cold weather and can become lost," according to the West Lafayette, Ind., animal control. "Dogs also can panic in snow storms and run away. The decreased daylight does not help either. More dogs are reported lost during the winter than any other season, so always keep dogs on-leash when outside a fully fenced yard and make sure yours always wears proper identification."
Leaving pets alone outside, in the car or in the garage.
Leaving pets by themselves, even in a vehicle, is "strongly not recommended. Especially if they're not used to cold temperatures," says Cohen. If pets do need to be left alone in cooler temperatures, short periods of time are acceptable. "Longer than 20 minutes," is when it gets to be risky, says Cohen. The ASPCA reminds us that outdoor cats like to sleep under cars, so take caution before starting your engine. The ASPCA also advises against leaving outdoor cats outside all winter long, as doing so increases their risk of freezing, theft, injury and death.
As with any electronic appliance, take care where you place these in your home. You want to prevent your pet from chewing cords. And either make sure your cat isn't tempted -- or able -- to jump on the heater, your cat or dog can't brush up against it, or that the temperature doesn't get too hot. Coming into contact with the heater could cause serious burns, says Cohen.
Salty sidewalks and driveways.
"It's not toxic, but salt on the ground can irritate your pet's paws," says Cohen. Particularly sensitive animals might limp after exposure. Dress feet in booties or consider buying pet-safe ice melters, suggests Cohen. The ASPCA recommends massaging petroleum jelly into your pet's foot pads before going outside and toweling off the feet and applying moisturizer once everyone's back inside. Read more about winter pet skin care from Paw Nation.
It is estimated that 90,000 animals die each year from antifreeze poisoning. As little as 1/2 teaspoon can be toxic to a cat and just 1/4 cup can kill a medium-size dog, according to the Oregon Veterinary Medical Association (OVMA). "The ethylene glycol in antifreeze is sweet-tasting and appealing to cats and dogs," according to OVMA's website. "Do not leave antifreeze unattended or allow it to spill onto the garage floor or into the street. Consider using nontoxic antifreeze with a bittering agent to discourage pet consumption. If you see your pet drinking any amount of antifreeze, take it to a veterinarian immediately."
Bodies of water.
"If your dog is a swimmer, keep him on a leash around open water or unstable ice," cautions New York State's Office of Emergency Management. "Hypothermia can set in quickly, and the dog may be unable to get out of the water."
Temperatures below 45 degrees.
"Frostbite is rare, but you really want to watch out for too much exposure to cold," says Cohen. "We start to get concerned below 45 degrees when a pet is in the cold for extended periods of time. Below freezing we have to be even more aware." Your pet's feet, ears, nose and tail are likely to be affected. "You may not see the clinical signs for a couple of days, but if the areas are severely affected, the tissue starts to die, it changes to blue-black color, and your pet will get severe infections. You may see limping or pain and licking at the area." Hypothermia is also a risk. Symptoms include weakness, shivering and lack of mental alertness, according to PetMD.