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How Animals Adapt to Cold

Animals have many natural adaptations to cold weather. Our furry friends may grow a thicker winter coat, while many animals will gain weight in autumn to store an insulating layer of fat just under their skin. Some animals slow their metabolism by sleeping more in winter or could completely hibernate, while others will burrow into cozy nooks when the temperatures drop. Some animals even completely migrate to avoid cold weather. All of these adaptations help wild animals survive even through the chilliest months.

Our pets, however, do not live their natural, wild lives. Many of the animals we keep as pets, for example, would never naturally be found in our home climates or habitats, and their natural adaptations may not be adequate to protect them from severe winters. Fortunately, we can easily help our pets stay safe through the winter, no matter how cold it may be or how much snow and ice may accumulate.

Keeping Pets Safe in Cold Weather

There are many steps pet owners can take to keep their animal friends healthy, safe, and comfortable in cold weather. Different steps will apply to different types of animals and some animals are more cold-hardy than others, but understanding how to help animals stay safe in cold weather is the first step to protecting pets.

  • Never shave your pet’s coat in winter. While a shorter cut may be helpful in the summer heat, it is important to keep your pet’s natural coat intact in the winter. A slight trim around the paws, rear end, or on heavily feathered limbs can minimize the accumulation of snow and ice balls, but any more extensive shaving can rob your pet of natural insulation.
  • Brush your pet often, but minimize baths. Regular brushing can keep your pet’s coat from becoming tangled and matted, which would disrupt its insulating properties. Try not to bathe your pet frequently during cold weather, however, because the dampness as they dry can make them more susceptible to chills, including frostbite and hypothermia.
  • Consider cold weather attire. Short-coated pets can easily wear sweaters, coats, and booties to augment their natural fur coat in winter. While cats don’t tend to tolerate wearing cold-weather gear too well, many dogs readily adapt to these accessories. Be sure the clothing fits well and does not present a choke or tangle hazard to your pet, and always keep the clothing clean.
  • Rinse and dry your pet’s paws after walks. Even a short walk can expose your pet to salts and other de-icing chemicals that could be toxic if ingested. As soon as you return home, rinse your pet’s paws in warm water and dry them thoroughly. Use this opportunity to examine each paw for any chapping, cuts, or cracks that could be painful as well. If your pet has short legs, also rinse and dry their belly where they may have rubbed on the snow.
  • Keep chemicals out of reach. Keep all your own cold-weather chemicals – salts, de-icers, antifreeze, etc. – well out of reach of pets, and clean up any spills quickly. Many of these chemicals are highly toxic and even ingesting a small amount could be dangerous, even fatal, to your pet. Always wash your hands thoroughly after handling these chemicals so you don’t accidentally bring them into contact with your pet.
  • Adjust your pet’s diet as needed. While indoor pets may exercise less and not need extra calories for warmth in winter, outdoor pets can benefit from some extra feed because they will use much more energy to maintain their body heat in winter. Be mindful of your pet’s appropriate weight, however, and do not offer so much food that they gain weight to a dangerous level in winter.
  • Provide a warm sleeping place. All pets should have a warm, comfortable sleeping place during cold weather. Ideally, the bed should be off the floor (providing a pet bed is a great option), and adding an extra blanket or deeper bedding can be helpful for better insulation. Be sure the bed – whether it is a pile of blankets, a snug cage, a tank, or other fixture – is out of drafty areas.
  • Protect your pets from overheating. It can be tempting to put pet cages, tanks, and carriers close to heaters in the winter, but this could lead to dangerous overheating. Take care that your pet is not suffering from too much heat and that they are not at risk from fireplaces, candles, space heaters, or other heat sources. Check tank heaters and heat lamps regularly to be sure they are set correctly and functioning properly.
  • Provide warm water for drinking. Icy water can quickly chill your pet from the inside out. Using heated pet bowls for outdoor pets during cold weather will keep the water from being too cold or completely frozen and undrinkable. Having an adequate supply of fresh, liquid water is critical to keep your pet hydrated and healthy even in cold weather.
  • Take shorter walks and play indoors instead. It’s important that your pet gets good exercise year-round, but outdoor play and long walks may not be safe in very cold weather. Instead, take shorter walks and plan indoor games to keep your pet exercised and in good shape. New games will also provide mental stimulation to ward off anxiety, stress, and depression.
  • Stay off icy surfaces. When walking or playing outdoors in winter, keep your pet off icy surfaces that could lead to dangerous slip and fall accidents, and avoid iced-over water altogether to avoid the possibility of falling through broken ice. Ice shards can also be sharp and could cut delicate paws, so it is best to avoid these dangerous surfaces.
  • Keep your pet’s identification updated. Be sure your pet’s collar has updated identification tags, and if your pet is microchipped, check that the chips’ registration data is also updated. In cold weather, snow and ice can change the landscape and bury scent markers, and if a pet gets lost it may not be able to find its way home. Updated identification can help you reunite with a lost pet quickly and safely.
  • Use reflective collars, leashes, and clothing. Because winter days are shorter and it can get dark quickly, be sure your pet’s collar, harness, and leash have some reflective material to make them more visible. Similarly, have reflective material on your own coat and wear brighter colors that will be easier to see.
  • Be aware of special needs. Cold weather can be especially dangerous for pets with special needs, such as youngsters or senior pets, or pets with health conditions that could be exacerbated by severe cold. A pet with arthritis, for example, may have more difficulty getting around in cold weather, or a pet with metabolism issues may need more dietary adjustments in winter.
  • Recognize the signs of cold stress. No matter what type of pet you have, be alert to the signs of cold stress, from shivering and lethargy to symptoms of frostbite and hypothermia. Different pets may show symptoms in different ways, and being aware of your pet’s needs will help you notice problems quickly so you can help your pet recover.
  • Be prepared for emergencies. Stock up on pet supplies, including medication, food, and other needs, in case you are snowed in or there may be an extended power loss during cold weather. This will help you provide proper care for your pet in cold weather no matter what the situation.
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