As temperatures dip, our animal companions need our help to stay warm and toasty during the winter months.
As the days get shorter and there’s a distinct chill in the air, as well as digging out our woolly socks, bobble hats and fluffy fleeces, it’s time to turn our attention to what our pet friends need to stay healthy and happy during the winter.
Veterinary charity PDSA advises: “Just like us, our pets might need a little extra TLC over the winter months. It’s important they stay safe, warm and active as temperatures start to drop, whether you have a dog, cat or a smaller pet.”
From coats for canines, to ways to keep feline explorers safe, plus top tips to ensure our small furries feel snug, we’ve lots of useful seasonal advice – as well as essential warnings about the dangers of antifreeze and what to do if you think you pet may have hypothermia.
- Puppies and short-haired dogs – such as Chihuahuas, Greyhounds, Dobermans and Staffordshire Bull Terriers – are most vulnerable to the cold and should be kitted out with a cosy winter coat. As a rule of thumb, If the weather is chilly enough for you to need a coat, so do they.
- For longer-haired dogs, keeping up your grooming regime is essential – matted fur won’t insulate as well against snow and wintry rain.
- Winter can be tough on your dog’s paws. De-icing chemicals can be toxic and rock salt used on pavements and roads will irritate any cracks or cuts. When you get home from your walk, wash your dog’s paws, giving the areas between their toes special attention, and dry them carefully. Then add a little Vaseline or specially designed nose and paw balm to each foot, to keep the pads supple. What does winter do to your dog’s paws? >>
- Consider taking your dog on shorter, more frequent walks to protect them from weather-associated health risks.
- Ensure that your dog has as much access to daylight and fresh air as possible. Walk your furry friend at least once a day during daylight so they can soak up some vital Vitamin D and give their ‘feel good’ serotonin levels a boost. Also try placing your dog’s bed near a sunny window – more light entering your pet’s pupils can have a positive effect on their brain chemistry.
- Never leave your dog in a cold car. We all know about the dangers of leaving a pet in a hot car, but cold cars can be just as deadly. Even if you’ve had the heating on while you’re driving, the temperature can drop very quickly, putting your pet in serious danger.
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ANTIFREEZE AND PETS
Avoid using antifreeze to clear your car windscreen of ice. De-icers, screen washes and some car radiators all use ethylene glycol. Pets are attracted to the sweet taste of this chemical and it can prove deadly if it gets on your pet’s feet or fur as they are likely to ingest it when they’re grooming. If you suspect your pet may have ingested a poisonous substance, seek veterinary advice immediately, even if they appear well. Delaying for just a few minutes may endanger their life.
- For those intrepid felines who enjoy spending time outdoors exploring, whatever the weather, make sure they have somewhere to shelter – something as simple as a sturdy cardboard box covered in plastic sheeting can do the trick. Regularly check sheds, outhouses and garages to ensure your cat hasn’t strolled in and is locked inside.
- Make sure your cat is microchipped and the details are up to date. If they do wander off in search of a warm place, they can easily be traced back to your address.
- Many cats are attracted to warm car engines and will often hop up inside the car to get warm. It’s always worth checking before you drive off to avoid any accidents.
- If you’ve got a cat flap, make sure your cat can get easily in and out. A heavy snowfall or icy patch might result in the cat flap becoming stuck or blocked.
- Cats and snow are not a good combination. If the weather becomes particularly icy, it’s best to keep your cat indoors. While they might seem bored or restless, pet cats aren’t used to extreme cold temperatures and can even develop frostbite or hypothermia (keep scrolling to find out more). If your cat has come in from the snow, wipe off any road grit, salt, or anything that might stick to their paws and fur.
- Always make sure your cat comes inside at night, locking the cat flap once they are inside. Provide them with warm, comfortable, draught-free places to sleep.
- Heat pads or beds that go over radiators will be much appreciated, as will a cosy igloo bed.
- Open fireplaces are a lovely focal point in winter but can be a risk to cats. If you have one, screen it off and, if you light a fire, always supervise your cat.
- Provide a litter tray somewhere private indoors (one per cat) so that your favourite feline won’t have to brave the cold outside.
For cats who are a little put-out at not being allowed out, games that make the most of their natural repertoire of behaviours – stalking, pouncing, chasing and batting objects with a paw, exploring, climbing, jumping and patrolling – can help. These activities release feel-good hormones called endorphins, which boost feline feelings of wellbeing. Find out more about how to play games with cats of all ages >>
HYPOTHERMIA IN PETS: WHAT IS IT AND HOW CAN YOU PREVENT IT?
PDSA advises: “You might think that pets are totally protected from the cold by all their fur, but this isn’t true. Pets with thin coats feel the cold weather quicker than pets with thicker fur but any pet can become seriously ill if the temperature of their body drops too low. If it’s not treated quickly, it can cause their body to shut down.”
Your pet is at risk of hypothermia if:
- They’re out in the cold for too long without any protection or shelter from the weather (especially old, very young, very small or frail pets).
- They suddenly become very, very cold – such as falling into freezing water.
Warning signs to look out for include:
- Shivering (this is an early sign of hypothermia but be aware that your pet will stop shivering if their body temperature drops very low).
- Paleness (lift their lips to see the colour of their gums).
- Low energy and seeming very sleepy.
- Bad co-ordination (stumbling or bumping into things).
- Coma (where they fall asleep and you can’t wake them up).
If you think your pet may have hypothermia phone your vet right away. Hypothermia is an emergency and acting quickly could save your pet’s life. PDSA suggests carrying out some simple first aid while you speak to your vet:
- Get your pet out of the cold. Warming them up too quickly can be a shock for their body so take them somewhere sheltered and warm but not very hot.
- If your pet is wet, dry them gently with a towel.
- Slowly warm them up. You can do this by placing thick blankets underneath them and over them.
- Be careful not to overdo it and make your pet too warm, as this can also be dangerous for them.
- If your pet is awake, try getting them to drink some lukewarm (not hot) water.
- Take your pet to the vet. It’s important for your pet to be properly checked over, even if you think they’re okay.
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EXTRA CARE FOR OLDER PETS
Our senior pets can feel the cold a little more than younger pets and they’ll need a little extra care and attention to stay happy as temperatures drop. To care for your older pet, PDSA advises:
- Visit the vet. Regular check-ups will mean that if anything is wrong with your older pet, it will get picked up on quickly. This is especially important if you notice them getting stiff or having low energy as winter sets in.
- Stay warm. Make sure you provide an extra warm bed for your older pet. If they struggle with arthritis, they will appreciate a special orthopaedic bed to take pressure off their joints.
- Keep them active. It’s important for your older pet’s health and wellbeing that they stay active. Keeping their joints moving will really help them, too.
- Take care of older joints. Pets can start to get stiff joints and arthritis in their old age and sometimes colder weather can make this a lot worse. Make sure you take good care of your older pet’s joints, especially in the cold.
Rabbits are quite good at managing colder temperatures, but they need some human help. In the wild, they’d be snuggled away in an underground warren, protected from the worst of the weather.
- Pet rabbits should ideally be housed in a shed or outbuilding during the winter (check the roof is watertight and that all walls are in good condition), with space to run around if it’s too cold or wet outside. If this is not possible, then it’s essential to ensure that their hutch is winter-proof and placed in a sheltered area, away from wind and driving rain.
- Extra insulation will be required in the form of some kind of hutch cover. You can buy these from pet retailers or make your own using tarpaulin or old carpets covered in a weatherproof outer layer. Your rabbits will still need fresh air, so you need to create a cover that provides protection from cold and wind, but also good ventilation.
- Insulate the floor of your rabbits’ sleeping box area with thick layers of newspaper, which you should change daily. Pile extra hay on top for them to snuggle up in with an extra handful of nuggets to munch on.
- During really cold weather, provide a couple pet-safe heated pads that you can warm up in the microwave each evening before placing in their hutch for them to lie on.
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Toasty guinea pigs
Guinea pigs don’t do well in cold weather and it’s much better to bring them inside – so see if you can find a cosy space for them in a shed, a porch or utility room. If this is just not possible, then, just as with rabbits, you need to give their accommodation a winter health check.
- First, check that their hutch is water and wind proof. You’ll need to cover it at night, or during really bad weather, with a hutch cover or an old blanket and tarpaulin – always ensuring that there’s just enough space for fresh air to circulate.
- Insulate the inside of the hutch with thick newspaper, changed daily, and lots and lots of bedding hay. Microwaveable pet-safe heat pads are also a good idea to provide extra warmth. Guinea pigs will also need a chance to exercise in their run – but don’t let them get wet and cold – or in an indoor area.
- Guinea pigs need more calories to keep them warm in winter, so give them lots of good quality feeding hay to munch on as well as their nuggets. Don’t forget to check their water bottle several times a day to ensure it hasn’t frozen up.
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Huddled up ferrets
Ferrets are actually more tolerant of the cold than they are of heat, but they still need extra help to stay warm and comfortable in winter.
- Outdoor cages ideally need to be inside a shed, but if this isn’t possible, place them in a sheltered spot, with a cover on at night, and a cosy bedding box inside to sleep in. Your ferrets will also need cleaning out daily to keep things dry – a damp environment in freezing weather will affect their health.
- As with other outdoor pets, regularly check water supplies aren’t frozen. Your ferrets will also need more calories to keep warm so give them extra rations of ferret nuggets.
- If it snows, you can safely let your ferret out to play for around 10 minutes – many ferrets love tunnelling in the snow – but keep a close eye on them or they might do a disappearing act. Keep snowy playtimes short so your ferret doesn’t run the risk of getting too wet and cold.
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HOW COLD IS TOO COLD?
- The RSPCA recommends a temperature of between 10-20°C as ideal for pet rabbits. Anything below 10°C is too cold for them.
- Guinea pigs are sensitive to temperature changes. Temperatures above 26°C can cause heatstroke and below 15°C can cause them to become chilled. They should be housed indoors, away from direct heat sources (radiators/sunny windows) and draughts. Room temperatures of 17-20°C are ideal.
- Ferrets need well ventilated, dry and draught free housing at a temperature of between 15-21°C.
Cosy indoor pets
Indoor pets, such as hamsters, rats, mice, gerbils, degus and chinchillas, may also need some extra warmth on the coldest days.
- Move them out of drafts – cold air from windows and doors can give small pets a chill.
- Make sure their enclosure is in a secure area where they can stay warm without overheating.
- Provide extra bedding to snuggle into on cold days – and change it regularly to keep things fresh and dry.
- Protect them against household fumes. There are lots of things – including non-stick frying pans and wood burning stoves – that produce fumes that we don’t notice, but which can be harmful for small pets.
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CHECK OUT THE SMALL PETS SURVIVAL GUIDE FROM BLUE CROSS
- Hutches should be positioned so that wind, rain, snow or sleet can’t blow in. For guinea pigs, it’s better to keep them inside in winter, in a conservatory or unused garage.
- If your pets need to stay outside, help keep them snug as a bug in their hutch by covering the front with an old blanket or sacking and adding extra bedding. Don’t forget you need to change their bedding regularly.
- Check their water bottle regularly because the little ball freezes easily. Press the ball every few hours to keep it moving – you can get specially made bottle covers but you’ll still need to do regular checks.
- Your pet still needs to have access to their run during the day so they can get their regular exercise.
- Cold pets need more calories to keep warm so give them lots of good quality hay to nibble on.
OUR PETS RELY ON US TO KEEP THEM SAFE, HEALTHY AND HAPPY – WHATEVER THE WEATHER
Spending quality time with your small pets is essential throughout the year – interacting with their human is a highlight of their day. It’s perhaps even more important in winter when the days are short and life can get a bit boring – both for us and our pet animals! Keep daily feeding and exercise times consistent and schedule in some time every day for play, grooming and some extra special attention.
From ‘treat-seeking missions’ to indoor circuits, getting creative with cardboard box activity centres and paper bag wraps, we’ve lots of ideas for you to try out to boost the feelgood factor for our four-legged friends in winter >>
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