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Pet Safety

How to properly care for your dog or cat during the winter

Not sure if it’s too cold for your cat to be outside? Noticed that your dog’s eating a bit more than usual? Here’s everything you need to know about proper grooming, nutrition, and pet safety during the cold winter months.

Updated July 23, 2021

Created By

Andy Bowen,
People hiking with a dog

The most important cold-weather safety rule to remember is that no pet should remain outside for prolonged periods in temperatures below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. (If you can see your breath, it’s too cold.) But cold-weather care isn’t just about keeping your pet warm through the night or throwing on a pair of paw booties before a brisk walk. Along with changing nutritional and grooming needs, wintertime introduces a variety of hazards and challenges for pets. This guide contains everything you keep your furry friend in tip-top shape through the winter.

Covered in this guide

4 Essential wintertime grooming rules

1. Keep the skin, nose, and paws hydrated

Between the frigid temperatures and dry, artificial heat, the skin retains far less water during the winter which can lead to dry, flaky noses and cracked paw pads — especially if your pet spends a lot of time outside. Here are four easy ways to help keep your pet’s skin healthy and hydrated:

  1. Give your pet skin and coat supplements — All-natural supplements like Natural Dog Company Skin & Coat and Zesty Paws Pure Salmon Oil are packed with omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids that help the skin retain moisture. Here’s a list of all our favorite vitamins and supplements for dogs.
  2. Get a humidifier — Set it to 60% humidity. Your lungs, hair, skin, and pet will all benefit!
  3. Trick your pet into drinking more water — There are a couple of ways you can do this. For dogs, adding a little chicken broth or flavor enhancer into their water bowl usually does the trick. Cats are a bit more finicky when it comes to hydration, though. If your feline is being obstinate, try changing the shape of the bowl (yep, we’re serious) or switching to wet food. Remember: Dogs and cats need between 3 to 5 ounces of water per 5 pounds of body weight every day.
  4. Apply a skin, nose, or paw balm daily — Balms and waxes do a fantastic job of keeping moisture in while keeping debris and harsh chemicals out. Bhodi Dog and Paw Soother (which also has natural sunscreen properties) are a few of our favorites. Pro tip: If your area has particularly harsh winters, or your dog walks on pavement frequently, consider using wax instead because they offer the most protection against wear and tear.

We change our beauty and skincare routines when the weather is cold, and your dog can benefit from extra care too. Towel drying your pet after outside time can help their dry skin stay healthy. Also, salmon oil can keep your dog’s coat moisturized from the inside out.

Nicole Ellis CPDT-KA, American Kennel Club CGC evaluator

2. Watch out for rock salt and other de-icing chemicals

Rock salt (sodium chloride) and calcium chloride are commonly used to keep city streets and sidewalks safe when things get icy. Both of those chemicals, in addition to other substances that sneak in during the manufacturing process, are caustic and can irritate or burn your pet’s paws and skin. Those chemicals can also make your pet sick if ingested.

If you live in a city or urban area, we recommend cleaning your pet’s paws down after walks. Wet wipes are a quick and easy solution. Rinsing paws with warm water is another good option. Whatever you do, make sure to clean between the toes and pads to make sure none of the chemicals are left in the cracks and crevices.

3. Bath pets as little as possible

Washing your pets too frequently can reduce natural oils in the skin and cause dryness. If you give your pet more than one bath a week, consider switching to a moisturizing shampoo for sensitive skin, like DermAllay or Burt’s Bees Oatmeal Shampoo. Your vet might also be able to prescribe a prescription-strength option for pets that have extremely dry skin.

4. Don’t shave your pet

Shaving your dog or cat is generally a pretty bad idea. This sounds like a no-brainer, but some pet owners believe shaving their Husky or Maine Coon’s thick winter coat will help them survive indoors. (Unless you keep the thermostat set at 80 degrees or more, your pet will be fine.) A healthy coat insulates your pet in both hot and cold weather and helps regulate body temperature. Without a layer of hair, the skin is exposed to wind, which increases dryness, and the sun, which can lead to sunburn, even during the winter.

Cute cat eating on floor at home

Cats and dogs naturally crave more food in during fall and winter

Proper wintertime nutrition

👉 In general, dogs and cats that live outdoors during the winter or remain outside for prolonged periods need 10% to 15% more food to maintain proper body temperature. 

Most pets and owners slow down during the winter months. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that your dog or cat needs fewer carbs. In fact, most cats and dogs eat more food during the winter regardless of their activity level. For example, a study by the University of Liverpool found that cats eat about 15% more food in the winter regardless of how much they exercised.

Cold temperatures and reduced daylight make a big impact on your pets’ nutritional needs. During autumn and winter, less daylight slows your pet’s metabolism down to conserve energy and promote fat accumulation. It also means your pet has fewer daylight hours to frolic around and burn that energy. But again, that doesn’t necessarily mean that your dog or cat needs fewer carbs. Just make sure to keep tabs on your pet’s weight. Every pet is an individual with unique needs, so make sure to consult your vet before making any major dietary changes.

Don’t forget about access to freshwater either. If your pet’s water bowl isn’t located inside the enclosure, consider a heated water bowl like the K&H Thermal Bowl.

Woman and her dog walking in the cold winter night through the central station in Vienna

The most important cold-weather gear for cats and dogs

Things tend to slow down a bit in the winter, but exercise is still just as important. Maybe your like to go hiking or camping with your pet. Perhaps a short walk around the neighborhood is the most activity your pet will get. Regardless of your lifestyle, here’s a roundup of the most important cold-weather gear to consider for your pet:

High-visability jackets or overcoats. Larger pets with thick, dense fur might be comfortable going on a short walk in sub 40-degree weather, but most pets aren’t genetically equipped for such weather. Dogs who are older, have arthritis, or site low on the ground are particularly susceptible to the adverse effects of low temperatures. Regardless of your pet’s breed or condition, an overcoat the RUFFWEAR Wind Sprinter or Hurtta Bodysuit will help keep them comfortable outdoors. (If you’re a cat walker, anxiety jackets like the Patgoal Calming Wrap can help retain warmth as well.)

Balms for the skin, nose, and paws. Protecting your pet’s skin is super important during the winter. The combination of dry heat indoors and frigid air outside can lead to a variety of dry skin issues (cracked nose, injured paws, hot spots, etc.) and puts the paws at greater risk of injury during outdoor activities. We recommend applying a balm or wax to your pet’s nose and paws at least once a day, but especially before a trip outside. Not only do balms help retain the moisture necessary for healthy skin, but they also protect against the absorption of de-icing chemicals and reduce natural wear and tear. Paw Soother, Bhodi Dog, and Musher’s Secret make all-natural balms with fantastic reviews.

Insulated blankets. Give your dog or cat a sense of warmth and security indoors, but they’re also pretty handy to carry around with you in case you need to spend time outside, whether resting during a hike or eating at the park. The Ethical Pet Snuggler or PetFusion blanket are two affordable and super cuddly options to consider. If you’re looking for an outdoor option, this Carhartt dog blanket is as tough as they come.

Heated beds. This one’s primarily for the cats — they’re heat seekers. If you keep your home on the cooler side during the winter (below 70 degrees Fahrenheit), mats like the K&H Heated Pad will give them a consistently warm place to relax and keep them off your freshly folded laundry. If you think your dog might enjoy it, consider a model designed for the kennel.

Paw wipes. Paw wipes like the Earth Rated compostable wipes are a quick and easy way to keep your pet from tracking chemicals and debris back into the house. We recommend keeping a pack of wipes near every door in your home. Baby wipes are safe to use, and rinsing the paws off with warm water will do the trick as well. Whatever you do, though, don’t use Clorox wipes on your dog — they can irritate your pet’s skin.

Signs your pet’s had enough

If your dog begins to whine, shiver, slow down, or acting in a frantic manner, they’re probably too cold. If cold-weather activities are a big part of your lifestyle, make sure to consider how much experience your pet has in such conditions. It might take a bit of time for your pet to learn to be comfortable walking at night or playing frisbee in 50-degree weather. As long as your pet is properly equipped, they might be slightly uncomfortable at first, but they’re safe from hypothermia.

 

Artful siberian husky with dog kennel on the background

As long as the proper conditions are met, living outside isn't bad for pets

How to keep outdoor pets safe and cozy during winter

Some pet owners have to keep their pets outside during winter for medical reasons, and that’s OK as long as the proper conditions are met. Regardless of what type of enclosure you have, here are a few things you should do to ensure that your dog’s home is adequately weatherproofed and insulated:

Check for leaks and drafts — This one goes without saying. Keeping the wind and rain out is critical to keeping your pet warm. This shouldn’t be a problem with prefabricated houses, but we recommend keeping a spare waterproof tarp (with grommets) and a set of bungee cables around in case you need to make a temporary fix.

Get the enclosure off the ground — This helps prevent rot and rust over time. Adding a moisture barrier is also wise — most any tarp or sheet of plastic will do. These things are also important for plastic dog houses as well: The closer the door is to the ground, the more likely heavy rain is to splash inside the enclosure.

Fill the interior with hay — Hay is a fantastic, cheap insulator. In fact, some municipalities provide free hay pet owners, so be sure to look into any perks that your city might offer. Old blankets are also great insulators, but your pup might be tempted to shred them.

Keep the internal temperature above 45 degrees Fahrenheit — If you don’t have an outdoor thermometer, use the breath test. Pop your head inside the enclosure and give a deep breath. If you can’t see your breath, that means it’s at least 45 degrees inside the enclosure and your pet will be fine.

If your enclosure doesn’t have a built-in heater, you can install an electric furnace (here’s an affordable option) or put together a couple of heat lamps. All you need is an outdoor extension cable, a heating bulb, and the proper fixture. Some dogs may try to chew on the extension cable. If the dog house is in the yard, consider burying them underground (a few inches will do the trick). If the house is in a garage or on a deck, tape the cable to the ground.

Despite what you read online, burying an extension cable in the ground is usually never a problem if it’s temporary. In most situations, you don’t have to abide by any HOA requirements or building codes unless you plan on keeping the light fixture up permanently. Always double-check, of course.

2 weatherproof homes to keep your pet comfy and cozy all winter

  1. ASL Solutions Deluxe Insulated Dog Palace with Floor Heater. This is the Rolls Royce of outdoor doggie homes. It checks literally all the boxes: It’s insulated with ESP foam, has a sloped floor for easy cleaning, comes with a lifetime warranty against cracks and breaks, has a raised platform, and has an insulated swinging door.
  2. CozyCatFurniture Insulated Cat House. This cute wooden home is built out of cedar planks and insulated with thermal-ply insulation. It’s designed for cats but also works really well for small dogs.
An empty wooden dog house in the winter on the back yard, covered with snow. Outdoors, copy space.

Remember: It's best if the door flap remains closed

Interested in building your own doghouse?

If you’re a DIYer, here are a few free plans and guides to get you started:

  1. Standard doghouse plans by Yellawood
  2. Building guide by DoggieDesigner
  3. Styrofoam-insulated plans

4 Common indoor and outdoor wintertime hazards

  1. Cars. The warm engines of freshly parked cars attract cats and small wildlife. Even if the car isn’t warm, it’s not uncommon for cats to find shelter from the weather behind a tire or up underneath the vehicle. To avoid injuring any hidden animals, make a habit of banging on your car’s hood to scare any animals away before you start the car.
  2. Space heaters and fireplaces. Space heaters with coils should be avoided around pets. If knocked over, they could burn your pet or start a fire. Consider a ceramic or infrared heater, like this AmazonBasics model, instead. If you have an active fireplace in your home, make sure that a pet-proof fence or barrier is installed.
  3. Rat poison. Rodenticides are much more commonly used during the winter. Many of the chemicals used in these products can be highly toxic — and even fatal — for dogs and cats. Be sure to follow all safety precautions if you have to use a rodenticide in or around your home. If your pet roams free (we don’t recommend this), be aware that other people in your area may not practice the same precautionary measures.
  4. Antifreeze. Antifreeze leaks in vehicles are common in the winter and extremely dangerous to pets. Ingesting even a small amount of antifreeze causes kidney failure in both cats and dogs. If you have to replace antifreeze in your vehicle, consider using a product that contains propylene glycol instead of ethylene glycol, which can be deadly. If you think your pet has ingested antifreeze, or notice symptoms like dizziness and seemingly drunken behavior, call the pet ASPCA pet poison control helpline immediately: (888) 426-4435.

🚨 If you think your dog ingested something toxic call the pet poison helpline immediately: (888) 426-4435

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How to speak out against animal abuse

Many pets don’t receive adequate shelter during the winter, but you can do something about it. If you discover a cat or dog in need, contact your local animal control agency. You can also file a complaint with the US Humane Society by completing a simple form.