In the icy grip of a cold snap, Canadian pet owners are navigating the fine line between ensuring their furry companions get enough exercise and protecting them from the bone-chilling temperatures.
Cold weather has swept across various regions in Canada this week, bringing snow to many parts of British Columbia, a deep freeze to the Prairies, and the polar vortex extending its reach to the east.
As we gear up for cold snaps, pet experts stress the significance of also preparing our pets for the chilly conditions.
Dr. Karen Ward, chief veterinary officer at the Toronto Humane Society, said when it comes to protecting dogs from the cold, it depends on the breed and age.
“Older dogs, younger dogs, animals with a short coat, and any of the small breed dogs, they’re all going to suffer so much more from the cold than the northern-type breed dogs,” she said. “There’s lots of things that we can do to help them. One of the things we think about, particularly in urban environments, is protecting their feet.”
During the winter months, rock salt and other chemicals used to melt snow and ice can irritate the pads of your pet’s feet, she said. This is why it’s always a good idea to wipe your pet’s paws with a towel.
“Even if it doesn’t damage their feet, then they’re going to lick at their feet and they’re going to ingest things that they shouldn’t be ingesting,” she warned.
One way to protect the paws is using dog snow boots, which can be found online or at pet stores. In case your dog isn’t fond of wearing them, Ward suggests applying a small amount of Vaseline on their feet to safeguard their paws.
For short-haired dogs, Ward said outfitting them with a sweater or a protective layer for their coat, even during brief walks.
“Thinking about ourselves is helpful, too,” she explained. “So when you’re really cold and you’re putting on all kinds of extra layers to go outside, that’s probably a moment to pause and think about your dog. Does your dog need a coat? Does he need booties? Does he need Vaseline or wax on his feet?”
Our pets may not be able to voice their discomfort from the cold, but Ward said you can still pay attention to their body language to ensure their well-being. For example, if your dog is shivering, picking up a foot, or showing signs of reluctance to stay outside, these could be indications that they are feeling the chill.
“And then thinking about the route that you’re taking for your walk,” Ward said. “If you’re going to go out on a really long walk … you may instead want to do something more circular where if you’re noticing these signs on your dog, you can cut that short.”
In cold conditions, both dogs and cats, like humans, are susceptible to frostbite and hypothermia. Ward added that smaller animals, as well as those that are very old or very young, face a heightened risk of hypothermia. Animals are particularly vulnerable to frostbite on the tips of their ears, tails, and paws.
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“So extremities we think about because when we get really cold, our vessels are going to shrink a little bit, to shunt blood to keep our core warm, so we’re not going to be keeping our periphery as warm,” she explained. This is why, she said it’s important to pay attention to areas on your pets that are not as covered in hair, as these exposed regions may be more susceptible to the cold.
If frostbite occurs, it may initially appear pale and white, then turn red and swollen, and much later, it can become hardened and darker. If left untreated, the affected tissue can die. Ward said this is why seeking medical attention from a veterinarian is crucial, as it can be very painful for your pet.
In terms of hypothermia risk, she said it depends on the dog.
“If you had a really old Chihuahua with not a lot of hair, maybe it’s not going to take very long for that senior dog to get colder, or even a little puppy,” she said. “But we should be able to modify their environment fairly quickly to alleviate that so that they don’t get to the point where they’re hypothermic.”
With the cold Canadian winters, Jamie Murphy, Behaviour Outreach Coordinator at the Winnipeg Humane Society, said it’s always a safe idea to try and keep your pet cat inside.
However, a lot of cats may be feral or stray. In this case, she suggests constructing a do-it-yourself cat shelter using insulating materials like Styrofoam and straw to provide them with a dry and warm refuge.
“Don’t place a towel down on the floor though as that actually will draw a lot of heat from the animal,” she explained. “It’ll get wet and then it becomes a frostbite situation.”
She warned that during cold evenings, many of these cats tend to seek warmth, with some finding refuge in a car’s engine.
“It’s a nice warm engine block for a cat to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to crawl up in here and be nice and comfortable and warm for the night.’ And they might still be in there when we go to start our car in the morning,” Murphy said. “So just banging on the hood, giving a couple kicks to the side. Just to give the cat a little heads up, because we see it quite often that cats get stuck in engine blocks.”
Unlike humans, our pets can’t snuggle up on the couch and watch Netflix to fend off boredom during chilly days. Fortunately, pet experts, like Ward and Murphy, have some valuable tips on keeping your furry companions entertained indoors when the weather turns cold.
“Our dog’s brain is a muscle and we’re going to have to work it out a lot more,” Murphy said. “A lot of people will notice concerning behaviours, our dogs seem more stressed because they’re inside more. So giving them games to play indoors is such a great opportunity to provide them the enrichment that they’re looking for.”
For instance, you can replace a traditional food bowl with a food dispensing toy that your pet has to knock around to access the food. This not only keeps your pet occupied but also engages their cognitive abilities, she explained.
Pet owners can teach their cats or dogs various training techniques. For example, engaging in short training sessions with your dog, capturing their attention, and rewarding them for learning new tricks such as sit or roll over can significantly contribute to their mental enrichment and alleviate boredom.
“Five minutes a day goes a very long way for a dog in terms of mental enrichment and boredom,” she added.
The Toronto Humane Society has a list of recommendations on how to keep your pet mentally fit when stuck indoors, such as pet puzzles, playing hide-and-seek, and scent games.
“Sometimes it can be even more enriching because when we do this inside it is very focused on that bond and your complete attention is on the dog,” Ward said.