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Wild Animal Traps Do Not Discriminate. Our Database Lists the Cats, Dogs, Others Who Suffer

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Protecting Companion Animals During the Winter & Holiday Season

Published 10/12/01

Winter

Should outdoor animals stay outside for the winter?

Rain, snow, and winter temperatures are just as hard on dogs and cats as they are on people. Young or old companion animals — especially arthritic or sickly — should be brought inside for the winter. Cats should always be brought in the house or into heated garages or enclosures at night. Bring animals inside during cold snaps or when it rains.

If animals cannot be brought inside for the season, create a wind proof, waterproof enclosure. Put dog runs against the house and cover with a tarp, tied down. Provide a snug shelter inside a run with plenty of clean, dry bedding. Check weekly or after a major storm for leaks, damage, and wet bedding.

Does an outdoor companion animal need a different diet in the winter?

Outdoor animals may need more calories to maintain their weight during winter weather. A teaspoon of safflower or vegetable oil for every 20 lbs. of body weight mixed in with the pet food will help prevent your companion animal’s coat and skin from becoming dry. Older animals on a low-protein/low-fat diet may do better on regular adult food for the winter, but get advice from a veterinarian first.

Kittens or puppies or pregnant/nursing females may have special needs during cold weather. Again, seek a vet’s advice.

How can one ensure water for an outdoor dog?

An outdoor dog needs plenty of fresh (not frozen) water. Avoid metal water bowls, since a dog’s tongue can easily stick to the freezing metal. If low temperatures have frozen the water in a dog’s bowl or bucket, replace it with fresh water.

Frozen water is unavailable water. Snow is not a substitute and neither is “wet” food. Dehydration becomes a real risk for outdoor animals in very cold weather.

One solution to frozen water is a “pail de-icer,” available from pet supply catalogues. If your dog is a “bowl tipper,” you can purchase a large, heavy bowl intended for livestock, or dig a shallow hole and set the bowl into it to prevent spilling.

What kind of outdoor shelter does a dog or cat need?

A warm kennel or doghouse, preferably in a south-facing or sunny area, is vital for an outdoor dog. Face the entrance away from prevailing winds or drafts. In an area that’s particularly windy in the winter, build an L-shaped entrance to the kennel. The kennel should be well insulated and the floor should be elevated several inches off the ground.

A dog will hold body heat inside the kennel if extra bedding, such as hardwood shavings (not pine or cedar) or straw, is provided. Old rugs or blankets should not be used for bedding — a dog will track in moisture on his feet that can turn to ice. Heavy fabric or pieces of carpet attached to the top of the kennel’s entrance will cut down on drafts (beware of protruding nails or hooks). Throwing an old blanket over the top will increase the insulation factor.

The kennel’s roof should be slanted or angled so that rain and snow will not collect there.

A doghouse should be big enough for your dog to stand and turn around in, but snug enough to help hold in body heat.

At least weekly, check the inside of the kennel for damp bedding mold and mildew. (Every dog faces increased risk of respiratory and skin infections in the winter.) Cut ventilation slits in the kennel walls to help get rid of mold and mildew.

What about winter pests?

Fleas can thrive on a thick-haired outdoor animal even in the depths of winter and heartworm-bearing mosquitoes may be a year-round problem in warm climates. See your veterinarian about a recommended schedule for flea, tick and heartworm preventives.

In areas that do not completely freeze, fleas may be a problem year-round.

What about outdoor exercise for dogs?

Exercise is still important, even in winter. Apply a layer of petroleum jelly to paw pads to protect them from ice and salt. After walking a dog in ice or snow, check her paws for frostbite. Also, her paws may crack from the bitter cold or burn from the chemicals in rock salt used to melt the ice. A dog may be better protected from cracking paw-pads or burning chemicals if her feet and underside are wiped off with a damp towel immediately after she comes in the house. Winter boots may also be purchased from pet suppliers.

Deep snow is difficult for all but the longest-legged dogs to negotiate. If you would use snow shoes or cross country skis, leave your companion animal at home.

A coat or sweater may help keep a short-haired dog warm in extreme temperatures. Decrease the time outside if the weather is particularly harsh.

What about antifreeze poisoning?

Antifreeze (ethylene glycol) is the most common winter poison danger, and can be fatal to companion animals, wildlife, and even children. Most commercial antifreeze contains ethylene glycol that has a sweet taste many dogs and cats can smell at a distance and will actively seek out. A tiny amount can be fatal — less than two ounces is enough to kill a dog, one teaspoon enough to kill a cat, and as little as two tablespoons can be hazardous to a small child. Most companion animals — and wildlife — will rapidly drink many times the fatal dose.

The first symptom is acting “drunk” — staggering, vomiting, copious drinking, and urination, often followed by a period of apparent recovery. One to three days later, there will be signs of kidney failure such as not eating, depression, vomiting, dehydration, coma and eventually death. If you are even a little suspicious that your companion animal has consumed antifreeze, see your veterinarian immediately. Early detection can save a life. Treatment must be started within hours to prevent irreversible and fatal kidney damage.

Fortunately, antifreeze poisoning is totally preventable. A small amount of diligence and effort can save lives:

  • Dispose of drained antifreeze properly, in an environmentally safe manner. Before dumping it in sewers and septic tanks, make sure it’s safe and legal to do so.
  • Don’t leave an antifreeze container open, even for a minute. A minute is all it takes for an animal — or a child — to drink a lethal dose.
  • If possible, hose down and dilute boil-overs. If it is still green, it is still toxic!
  • Store concentrated antifreeze in tight containers, out of reach of animals and children.
  • Repair leaky car radiators, hoses, and water pumps.
  • Use a non-toxic antifreeze, such as Sierra, which contains propylene glycol. This substance can still cause illness, especially in cats, but is far less dangerous than ethylene glycol.

What about cats seeking shelter in or near cars?

Warm car engines can be hazardous to cats. Outdoor or stray cats seeking warmth and shelter often make the fatal mistake of climbing up near a car’s engine to sleep. Prior to starting your car, be sure to bang on the hood of your car or beep the horn to roust any cat that may be inside.


The Holiday Season

Why is the holiday season dangerous for companion animals?

The excitement of gift-giving, family get-togethers, party preparations ... it’s all too easy during the holidays to temporarily forget the needs of companion animals.

If you are traveling for the holidays and your animal will accompany you, please see API’s Traveling with a Companion Animal fact sheet.

If you are traveling for the holidays and plan to leave your animals in the care of others, provide written instructions for feeding, medicating, exercise, and handling emergencies. Leave the phone number of your veterinarian or veterinary emergency clinic with the other “essential” phone numbers. Notify your vet of the dates you will be away, the name and number of the sitter, and emergency contact numbers.

If you plan to board them at a kennel or other facility, visit first and make sure you are comfortable with the enclosures your animals will be kept in, the degree of cleanliness, and the professional care they will receive. If there are specific diet or other instructions, make sure they can be carried out. If your animals have special dietary needs, bring your own food and written feeding schedule. Ask if you can leave a familiar toy or blanket with your companion animal to provide some comfort in your absence.

How can companion animals be protected during parties?

As most caregivers of dogs and cats know, companion animals don’t like change. Unfamiliar people, strange decorations, rich food, drinks, smoke, odors, noise, and gaiety can turn a companion animal’s environment upside-down. Add a few small children running around in the seasonal excitement and a dog may well react with barking, biting, digestive upsets, or worse. Cats will likely hide under the bed, but may streak outside while the front door is open, so keep an eye on them!

If a party is planned, it may be best to confine your companion animals in a quiet part of the house along with their comfortable and familiar bed blanket and toys. Or leave your dog at a familiar neighbor’s or relative’s house. Indoor animals should never be put outside “just while the party's going.” An animal accustomed to the warm house will suffer when the outdoor temperatures are lower than he or she is used to.

If your companion animals are nearby during a festive meal, ask your guests to refrain from “just giving them a little treat.” Rich table scraps may upset a companion animal’s digestion and result in vomiting or diarrhea. If serving the traditional meals for the holidays, make sure those turkey or chicken bones are dumped in the outside garbage where your dog or cat can’t get to them. And outside trash bins need to be secured against plundering by other outdoor animals.

Keep out of harm’s way such party treats as chestnuts, peanuts, and candy (especially chocolate, which in large quantities can be fatal to a companion animal). Holiday plants such as poinsettias and mistletoe are also poisonous to animals, and should be kept out of their reach or replaced with artificial replicas. And budgies and some other caged birds, if allowed out of their cages, may suffer ill effects from nibbling on Christmas trees.

Is alcohol dangerous for companion animals?

As with other drugs, keep alcohol away from companion animals. You’d be surprised how many cats and dogs will drink wine, beer, or sweet mixed drinks. Only a little can intoxicate a dog, and too much can affect his breathing, put him into shock, even cause his system to shut down. Even if the dog survives, his system will have an unpleasant hangover to deal with. Keep alcohol — including those half-full glasses left over from the party — away from companion animals.

What are good gifts for companion animals?

Gifts for companion animals should be considered from their perspective. A toy that seems wonderful in the store may be so small a puppy or kitten might swallow it. A luscious treat contrary to a companion animal’s accustomed diet may cause discomfort and possibly even disastrous consequences such as diarrhea, vomiting, or pancreatitis.

Instead, give dogs “practical” gifts, such as new collars or leashes, and treats such as dried liver, jerky bits, or home-made dog biscuits. Cats can almost always use new scratching posts or litter boxes. And toys that can be easily batted about will stimulate a cat's natural hunting instincts.

How is a Christmas tree dangerous?

Puppies and kittens (as well as adult animals) often see the baubles and branches of a Christmas tree as an invitation to climb the tree, or pull at the branches or ornaments. When decorating the tree, use only garland on the lower branches and keep fragile ornaments, lights, and tinsel up on higher branches. (When swallowed, tinsel can cause digestive upsets and intestinal blockage, it may be best to avoid it altogether).

A small latticework fence (available in the gardening section of hardware or discount stores) around the base of the tree helps keep dogs and puppies away. Some chemicals used to extend the life of the Christmas tree are poisonous and lethal to companion animals, so even if there’s no room for a fence, the treated area should be covered with a small section of window screen.

Electric cords that light up the trees or other decorations can shock companion animals, and a chewed cord is a serious fire hazard. Keep electrical cords hidden away from curious companion animals by routing the cords through special cord protectors, foam tubes, or PVC pipe (available at local hardware stores).

Do companion animals make good Christmas or Hanukkah gifts?

Some people think it’s a wonderful idea to surprise a friend or relative with an adorable puppy or kitten as a gift. In reality, an animal is probably the most thoughtless present they can give. Modern veterinary care and suburban lifestyles mean the average companion animal will live 12-15 years or more, which means 12-15 years of not just licenses and veterinary care but also supplies such as food, collars, leashes, litterboxes, etc. A friend or relative may not be ready to accept that kind of commitment. A “gift” companion animal should always be discussed with the prospective owner first.

Even when a friend or relative is ready for a companion animal, holiday excitement amid new surroundings may terrify a new dog or cat. A better gift at Christmas or Hanukkah is a book about the animal or on companion animal care. After the holidays, when it's quieter, is a much better time to give the actual animal. The cat or dog will then receive all the calm, loving attention he or she needs. (Kittens and puppies are rarely available at Christmas, as their breeding season usually runs from early spring to fall.)

Adopt an animal from a shelter rather than purchase one at a pet store. Because of mass breeding techniques, pet store animals often suffer diseases not apparent at time of purchase. Shelter animals have often had all their shots (except rabies), and many are usually already spayed or neutered. Also consider the benefits of adopting an adult animal, who may already be housebroken or used to a litter box, and be at least partially trained. Remember, adopting a shelter animal means saving a life!

Another wonderful gift for an animal lover is to make a donation to a local shelter in his or her name. Most facilities offer thoughtful acknowledgments that will mean a great deal to your friend. After all, animals don’t know about holidays, people do. For the animal “who has everything,” helping other animals may be “just the thing.”

A child under 7 years of age should not receive as presents any baby animals (chicks, ducks, rabbits, young kittens, etc.). These baby animals may not survive Christmas morning when children, too young to know better, squeeze the life from them. And in families where young children may know how to treat baby animals properly, can the same be said of their friends from school? A stuffed toy animal is cuddly, cute, never needs feeding or veterinary care, doesn’t carry disease, and adapts well to periods of indifference.

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