Focus on food, water and shelter
MANHATTAN, Kan. — Dogs and cats that spend most of their time outdoors will need a little preparation before the brunt of winter arrives. Paying attention to a few basic needs, and watching out for three hazards can make cold weather almost comfortable.
The first basic need is shelter. For dogs, this can be a sturdy doghouse that you build yourself, or purchase from a retailer. “They need a dog house that’s not overly big — just big enough for them to get up and turn around in comfortably,” says Susan Nelson, a veterinarian and clinician at Kansas State University’s Veterinary Health Center. “If it’s too big they lose heat to all that empty space.”
Make sure the opening faces away from cold winter winds (in Kansas, that’s probably east or southeast). A flap of some sort should hang above the opening. For the inside, Nelson is a big fan of clean hay or wheat straw. “Dogs can nestle down into it, and it helps conserve their body heat better,” she says. Cats (especially those hardy farm cats) are generally more self-sufficient, but it doesn’t hurt to provide a sturdy box or crate for them, too.
The second major need for outdoor pets is a source of clean, unfrozen water. “Water is going to freeze in the winter, so the pets can actually get dehydrated in the winter just like they can in the summer,” Nelson says.
Electric-heated water dishes and bowls are both safe and inexpensive, ensuring that the water inside them is always above freezing, ready to drink. Otherwise, Nelson says fresh, very warm water must be added to the water bowl at least twice a day. “The water shouldn’t be very hot, or boiling — but warm enough to stay liquid for an hour or two.”
Animals that stay outside on cold days and nights are going to burn extra calories just maintaining their body heat, so they will need extra food added to their meals during the winter months.
Lastly, remember that even with the best food, water and shelter, some days and nights will just be too cold for even the hardiest animals. On these occasions, a comfortable box in the corner of the garage or barn will be enough to keep your pets safe and healthy. “Dogs that are outside 24/7, if you bring them indoors they may actually get too hot because they have a heavy winter coat on them’,” Nelson says. “So we need to give them some extra shelter, but not so much that they get overheated.”
In addition to providing basic needs, there are also some extra hazards to be mindful of, in and around the home.
Winter is when many of us add antifreeze to our vehicles. For reasons not entirely known, dogs and sometimes cats are drawn to this toxic liquid. If dogs ingest even a small amount of antifreeze dripped onto the pavement, the chemical can lead to renal failure, crystalizing inside the kidneys, frequently leading to death. If working with antifreeze in your garage or driveway, make sure you wipe up even the smallest drops. “If you’re out walking your dog, don’t allow him to drink out of puddles in the curbs,” Nelson cautions, “because sometimes cars that have been parked there have leaked antifreeze or oil into the water standing there.”
For cats, there’s a special hazard that is unique to them: the car or truck that has just been parked. The warm engine can provide a cozy place for a nap, with cats sometimes climbing up into the engine compartment to nestle on or near the engine block. Fan blades can lead to injury or death when the vehicle is started. During winter, before starting your vehicle, bang on the hood a few times, and honk the horn before you turn the key. “Hopefully any cat that is nestled in there will skid out before any damage can be done from the motor,” Nelson says.
Colder weather tends to bring rats and mice into homes, and homeowners sometimes choose to use poisonous baits to control these pests. It’s critical to ensure that toxic rat and mice poison remains well out of reach of dogs and cats. For cats who like to keep up their hunting skills, there’s the added danger of secondary poisoning — the cat eats the rat that ate the poison. “There have been a lot of advances in the packaging of these rodent poisons over the years; however, they are still not totally pet-proof,” says Nelson.
“If you have a pet in the house we really discourage using any kind of a rat poison — it can cause a lot of problems for them.”