Pet owners should take extra care during winter weather, experts say

Thursday, December 12, 2013 | 7:28 p.m. CST; updated 7:35 p.m. CST, Thursday, December 12, 2013

COLUMBIA — Dog sweaters and booties are not just a fashion statement during the winter months. The right bedding, shelter and heat source can affect your pet’s comfort and health in the cold.

Every year, Melody Whitworth, a Missouri representative for Dogs Deserve Better and publisher of Pet Project Magazine, checks Columbia neighborhoods for dogs exposed to the elements. Whitworth brought Dogs Deserve Better to Missouri in 2007 and faced freezing temperatures to ensure dogs were not forgotten on backyard chains. 

“With arctic temperatures, just because the dog may survive doesn’t mean they won’t suffer," she said. "We try to educate people that animals are out there suffering. Animals cannot fend for themselves when they are confined in such a manner.”

Amber Baughman, a veterinarian at Noah’s Ark Animal Hospital, cautioned pet owners against exposing pets to extreme temperatures and wind. Baughman said having a shelter with bedding is important for outdoor pets but if the weather reaches single digits, pet owners should consider moving pets indoors.

“Indoor pets can have sweaters when they go outside but they are less willing to go outside in the cold so owners might have to go out with pets,” Baughman said. “You can get socks for dogs to help with the snow and ice on pads.”

Baughman said fresh water should be changed two to three times daily to avoid freezing. Food consumption should also be increased because animals burn more calories to keep warm.

Colin LaVaute, shelter relations coordinator for the Central Missouri Humane Society, said pet owners should remember small animals like rabbits and cats.

“Feral cats and cats that live outside tend to burrow in cars to stay warm,” LaVaute said. “We recommend before people hit the road in their vehicle they should tap their hood.”

Small animals have a harder time with snow. LaVaute said animals low to the ground, like Basset Hounds or Dachshunds, become colder sooner. Arthritic animals and puppies are also vulnerable to cold weather. 

“Older, arthritic pets can become slower in the winter,” LaVaute said.   “Consider modifying their environment to make it easier for them to get around.”

Whitworth said there is a common misconception that indoor pets can quickly adjust to outdoor temperatures. Dogs with thick fur, for example, are not immune to the cold.

"The dogs are not acclimated to these temperatures on a regular basis. They won't be comfortable outdoors for long periods of time,” Whitworth said.

Heat lamps can keep pets warm in severe temperatures but Baughman cautions pet owners that pets should not be left unattended near indoor heat sources. If your dog is outside, proper bedding is key.

“The best thing to do if your dog does have to stay outdoors is to have an insulated igloo stuffed with straw not hay,” Whitworth said.  “Straw has a water repelling coating while hay does not and is thicker and stronger. It will hold up from the dog’s weight.”

LaVaute said owners should wipe their pet's paws after walking on salted roads. Pads can get chapped or raw and licking the salt off can cause digestive problems. 

He said animals should still get plenty of exercise while owners keep the weather in mind.

“If you are cold, there is a good chance your furry friend is cold as well,” LaVaute said.

Andrea Waner, a Health Department public information officer, said owners should be careful not to neglect their pets' needs, especially for shelter.

“If you think someone is not providing adequate care for an animal, regardless of the season, contact our animal control department,” Waner said. “Generally anytime a complaint comes in, we send out an animal control officer to inspect the complaint.”

Animal complaints can be directed to the City of Columbia Animal Control at 449-1888. Definitions of animal abuse and neglect are available at the Missouri Attorney General's Office.

Supervising editor is Stephanie Ebbs.

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