Owners often wonder how to prepare their pets for winter. Does your dog need a jacket? Should your rabbit come indoors? Can the cat go outside? Getting dogs, cats and other pets safely through the winter season is easier than you might think.
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Short-haired breeds such as dobermans, greyhounds and chihuahuas are vulnerable to the cold, and so are older dogs of any breed. They should be given a warm pullover or jacket to wear that covers the whole back (be prepared for occasional smiles from passers-by!). Just make sure the garment doesn’t hinder your dog’s range of movement or reduce its ability to express itself through body language (e.g. tail-wagging).
Care of paws
Together with their ears and tail, your dog’s paws are the body parts that are most prone to frostbite. So-called “booties” (shoes for dogs) are recommended to protect the paws, especially for those breeds that aren’t naturally “winter-proofed”. It’s important that the shoes are the right size. They must fit comfortably and allow for proper thermoregulation.
With all dog breeds, it’s essential to keep the paw pads smooth. Creams that are rich in oils are a great way to avoid painful cracking. The fur between the toes and paw pads must be kept short – this prevents painful clumps of ice from forming.
Wash your dog’s paws thoroughly after each walk. This will stop your dog licking salt and sand off its paws, which could upset its stomach.
Dogs that love to be outside in winter and those that prefer to spend most of their time indoors both need special diets. They need extra calories because they burn more of them to stay warm. The 'homebodies' need fewer calories so they don’t gain weight over the winter.
Dogs need to drink lots of fresh water. This helps to protect their skin from drying up.
No dog should have its coat trimmed during the winter: the longer and thicker the coat, the better. But it’s important to brush your dog’s coat more often. Skin dries faster in winter, and brushing once a week helps to remove dead skin cells and distribute natural oils throughout the coat.
Dog walkers should be careful around water. If the ice is thin, it could break, and your dog could fall in. The safest option is to keep your dog on a leash.
Beyond that, dog walkers should keep an eye out for the first signs that their dog feels cold. Early indications include shivering and raising paws more often while walking. If your dog shows signs of cold, turn around and head home. In cold weather, it may be better to go for more frequent but shorter walks.
Cats need more calories in winter to keep their energy levels up.
Cats should have the chance to go outside throughout the year. This eases the transition to winter. Their coat will gradually thicken, and they will be better equipped to deal with the cold.
If possible, you should offer your cat an extra place of shelter to use in winter. This might be a garage or shed with a lot of thick blankets. The room should be insulated and draft-proof.
Some cats like to come home late in the evening or in the night. If this is the case with your cat, you should have a cat flap fitted so your feline friend can come indoors even when you’re asleep or not at home.
The fact that it gets dark earlier makes winter a more dangerous time for cats, as drivers may not be able to see them in the road. It might be a good idea to fit your cat with a reflective collar. But be careful: as with any collars, cats can get caught up in them!
Garden ponds must be made secure, as cats can break through thin ice.
Advice from vets
Vets recommend getting cats vaccinated and dewormed before the start of winter. This offers an extra level of protection over the winter months.
Small mammals such as rabbits and guinea pigs should get used to being outside long before winter comes. That way, they can grow a protective winter coat.
Any outdoor enclosure for small mammals must be winter-proof, providing protection from cold and drought. Appropriate insulating material for the floor, walls and roof is a good idea.
Like dogs and cats, small mammals must be given an appropriate winter diet. They need concentrated feed. You can find plenty of professional literature giving advice on an appropriate winter diet for small mammals.
Drinking water can quickly freeze in winter, so it’s important to check it regularly and refresh it if necessary.