Ask the Veterinarian: “Winter is Coming”

Ask the Veterinarian

Dr. Brianne Hagerty, BVM&S, MRCVS

Veterinarian at James Bay Veterinary Clinic, a regular column

Winter appeared on the island this year with a sudden, cold flurry of snow. Without warning, we went from lazy fall walks with sunshine and falling leaves to the first taste of icy cold mornings and afternoons of blustery wind and rain. While pulling out our winter wellies and down jackets, we should take a moment and help our pets adjust to winter too. 

The Perils of Ice:

From the front steps to the driveway and sidewalks, winter transforms the surfaces into glistening layers of ice and snow, demanding agility, balance, and courage to navigate for both pet and owner. Our solution is often using liquid and solid ice melts designed to de-ice our surroundings. However, both ice and the substances we use to melt them can be potentially harmful to our pets.

Gingerly, we tiptoe over the newly formed ice obstacle course to sprinkle a bag of ice melt, not realizing our curious dog eagerly watches. He, too, wants to taste these new white granules sprinkled onto their front steps, appearing like decorations on a cake. Unfortunately, these granules contain harmful substances such as calcium carbonate, calcium magnesium acetate or several different chloride salts. If ingested, they may cause salivation, vomiting, diarrhea, and excessive drinking. Depending on the quantity ingested, the potential for more serious side effects exists.

More commonly, pets come into daily contact with de-icers on their paws, legs, and the underside of their body. These substances can cause local irritation to their skin and may cause further ingestion when they lick their paws. To prevent this, carefully wash the products off their skin using warm water or a damp cloth after each walk. Make sure to dry them off with a towel completely afterwards. Anti-slip and waterproof boots for your dog’s paws are also an alternative solution, especially in very icy or snowy conditions.

Just like us, pets can slip and fall on ice too! Therefore, look for “pet safe” ice melts which are often urea-based, and generally less irritating. Additionally, take care with older pets, which may lack the youthful agility and resilience to handle a fall. Avoiding walks on icy surfaces or keeping pets on leash when around frozen bodies of water is advised.  

Care for Cats:

Outdoor cats are endlessly resourceful and may find the engine block under the warm hood of your car, or even the top of your tires; a perfect, cozy spot for a catnap. Before starting your car, always make a bit of extra noise, banging on the hood to wake up any sleeping felines. Additionally, indoor heat sources such as a radiator or wood-burning stove can present burn risks for pets. Making these places inaccessible to the heat-seeking pet is important. Lastly, clean up any antifreeze spills and use “pet safe” antifreeze. The sweet taste of these substances is enticing to pets, especially cats, and even a small amount can be deadly. 

The Right to Choose:

Each pet is a unique individual, and their aptitude to handle the cold weather changes is variable. For example, Avery is my Whippet who moved to Canada with me from Scotland. Despite his hardy Scottish heritage, the moment it starts to rain, he’d much rather curl up in my bed (not his) and spend the afternoon snoozing, surrounded by pillows and down. Although I can convince him to brave the elements with a hardy ‘jumper’ on and waterproof jacket, his cold tolerance is very different from that of a resilient, thick-coated mutt. Short haired small dogs and cats have greater cold sensitivity, as well as pets with lower body fat stores. Pets with heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes or hormonal imbalances may also have a harder time regulating their body temperatures.

Some pets may find a winter wonderland the perfect playground to catapult into snow drifts, play ‘catch the snowball,’ or seek out every patch of ‘yellow snow.’  However, others may prefer indoor activities. Indoor agility classes, obedience classes or careful indoor play may be a great seasonal alternative. Let your pets decide; spend outdoor time with them and monitor for signs they may be becoming cold. Symptoms include shivering, wanting to be held, asking to be let inside, or losing interest in current outdoor activities. Together you can decide when it’s time to go inside for a nice hot cup of tea and a dog treat or two.

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