A line drawing of a dog in a chair next to a snowy window

Puppy, It’s Cold Outside! How Can You Keep Your Pets Safe in Winter?

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By Beth Saulnier

With the mercury dropping and blizzards making headlines, Cornellians tapped Dr. Aly Cohen for advice on keeping our furry friends safe from the elements.

An extension veterinarian for CVM’s Riney Canine Health Center, Cohen is also a clinical instructor for Cornell’s Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program and the contract vet for the Ross Park Zoo in Binghamton.

And she’s the proud mom of Mishka, a Pomeranian who—as a photo below attests—looks particularly fabulous in a winter ensemble.

Dr. Aly Cohen with her pomeranian dog

How big an issue is pet safety in the winter?

It depends on your climate. But in many places, every year there comes that unexpected cold snap, and your dog is not used to it.

So make sure you’re adjusting their lifestyle and watching their behaviors during extreme cold or sudden snowstorms—especially if your animals are susceptible to the cold.

A boxer puppy in a plain coat

In general, small breeds have a harder time keeping warm than large breeds.

A subset of that is if they have a short or thin coat, and also if they’re very young or old.

Why would a puppy be more susceptible to the cold?

They have very little fat stores, and they aren’t able to regulate their body temperature.

Think of the classic image of a litter of puppies all piled on top of each other; they’re using each other to maintain their warmth.

In the cold, they’re not able to keep warm for long, and are at the highest risk of hypothermia.

Why are older animals also at risk?

Geriatrics are similar in that their metabolism is not as able to maintain warmth.

A lot of older dogs have fewer fat stores, and they may have underlying conditions like kidney disease, diabetes, or heart disease.

A hound in the snow with its tongue sticking out

Also, many have arthritis, which can get aggravated in the cold, and their mobility is diminished walking on uneven surfaces or on ice.

That’s when we see a lot of soft-tissue injuries; picture a big Lab with arthritis fumbling outside, trying to get around.

You mentioned small dogs. Why are they more likely to suffer from the cold?

It’s an issue of body surface ratio; they lose heat a lot more quickly than the larger breeds, and they’re not as able to catch up if they do get cold.

Also, because they’re closer to the ground, they often get wet quickly—so in choosing a coat for them, look for one that has coverage over the belly.

And if you do get a foot of snow, it’s good to shovel out an area in the yard for them to use.

A dachshund next to deep snow

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Speaking of coats: how do you know if your dog needs one?

I have a very furry Pomeranian, and my cutoff is that if it’s around 40 degrees, she’s getting the coat; even if it’s warmer, I’ll put it on her if it’s snowing or wet outside.

Again, it depends on your individual dog’s cold tolerance. If yours is short-coated or very young or old, they might need a coat sooner. But if they’re a large-breed, double-coated dog, they might not need it until 32 or below.

A pomeranian in a coat with a fur hood

What are some physical indications that an animal is too cold?

Shivering is number one, and reluctance to walk. If you’re on a walk and they’re stonewalling and don’t want to move, that’s a sign they want to go inside.

They’ll sometimes pick up individual feet and kick them out because the ground is too cold. Some will do a tail-tucking behavior or hunch over.

If they’re out in the yard, you might hear them whining, barking, or showing anxious behavior that’s out of character.

Should dogs be fed more in the winter, so they have extra energy to stay warm?

If you have a really active dog that’s constantly outside, their caloric requirements will go up.

But is that most pets?

No; most of them want to be on the couch. But people still have the impression that dogs need to be at a “winter weight.”

A black dog in a red coat in the snowy woods

And that’s the worst thing that you can do, because we have such an epidemic of obese pets.

What about taking care of paws?

If you’re in an area where they salt the roads or use any kind of deicers, watch carefully for any cracks or cuts on the paw pads; cracked toenails are another big one.

A golden retriever lying in the snow

The fur between the pads is a spot where you get snow accumulation.

Sometimes it’s pretty uncomfortable, because it’ll wedge the toes apart, and the animal might not put weight on it.

There are different balms you can use to prevent salt or snow from accumulating. And prevention is always easier than treatment—that’s what we preach.

What about the dangers of antifreeze?

It can be deadly. Those products are usually brightly colored—so if you see brightly colored snow, avoid it at all costs.

And if you have any accidental spills around your house, clean it up right away, because pets are super attracted to it; it tastes sweet to them.

We’ve talked a lot about dogs. What about cats?

Many of the issues are quite similar.

I always encourage keeping cats indoors, but if you have indoor-outdoor cats, realize that they might not be able to keep as warm as they normally would, and watch for signs that they’re getting too cold.

Also, cats are even more susceptible to toxins like antifreeze; a small amount can kill them pretty rapidly.

An orange tiger cat in the snow

If you have a really active dog that’s constantly outside, their caloric requirements will go up. But is that most pets? No.

A chocolate lab holding a frisbee

Some people care for stray or feral cats; any advice for them?

Always check car engines, because cats like to hide out where they can find shelter or warmth; if you park your car on the street, make quite a bit of noise before you start it.

If you feed strays, there are many good resources online about appropriate shelter and giving them access to fresh water without it freezing.

A dog in a red coat with its face covered in snow

Do you recommend continuing flea and tick control over the winter?

Absolutely. Again, it’s going depend on your climate.

But here in the Ithaca area, I’m very strict with it. Recently, I was two days overdue because I’d been out of town.

We went for a walk, and I found a very sluggish tick on my dog—and it was 38 degrees out!

Ticks don’t die off in the winter, they go dormant.

If it’s above 32, they’ll be out seeking meals. And fleas? They’re year-round, because they love living in our homes.

Top: Illustration by Cornell University.

All photos provided; special thanks to Cornell colleagues Alexandra Bond ’12, Amy Bond, Ted Boscia, Margit Chamberlain-Czebiniak ’11, Aly Cohen, Lindsay France, Angie Heiland, and Joe Wilensky for sharing images of their furry friends!

Published January 27, 2023

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