TORONTO - Don't let the fur fool you.
Dogs and cats can be somewhat insulated by their warm-feeling coats but in the face of frigid temperatures, pet owners need to take extra measures in protecting Fluffy and Fido.
Assessing how long to let pets stay outdoors should be based on numerous factors including the animal's breed, coat type, general health, and age, according to an online article originally published in 2010 by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association.
Determining whether the pet has been acclimated to colder weather and its desire to spent time outdoors should also be considered, the association wrote. For example, "smaller, short-coated, ill or geriatric dogs" have less tolerance for cold, and consequently, are limited by the time they may be able to spend outside, the CVMA noted.
"If you like to let your cat out in the backyard, let's say, to roam around on your own property for a short period of time, you should be supervising your animal in a cold weather environment," said Ontario SPCA inspector Paul Harrison.
"Cats are good in the snow, they're pretty hearty; but you may have an older cat whose systems may not be as strong as a younger cat."
If an animal is left outside unsupervised and snow, sleet or rain develops, it won't be able to hold its body temperature without proper shelter to take refuge, he noted.
If a dog is kept outside in the backyard, Harrison said owners should ensure the shelter is raised above the ground and is well-insulated with shingles or a proper roof to repel rain. The door should be facing away from prevailing wind.
It's also key to check that an animal's water supply hasn't been frozen and is housed in a non-spillable dish, with the option to consider purchasing a heated water bowl, he added.
SEE: Tips from veterinarian Dr. Karen Becker on keeping your pets warm. Story continues below:
Kitties allowed to wander outdoors unsupervised are at much greater risk than house-cats, no matter the time of year. But a cat left outside in cold weather can literally freeze to death, or become permanently lost or stolen while looking for shelter from the cold. Even if your kitty lives indoors, a cat collar with an ID tag is an excellent investment. You may keep your cat inside, but your neighbors might not, or there could be strays or feral cats in the area. Kitties left out in cold temperatures will sometimes tuck themselves up under the hoods of cars, or in the wheel wells. Starting or moving the vehicle can hurt or even kill the animal. During the winter months, it's a good idea to bang loudly on your car hood before starting the engine as a warning to a cat that might be in or around your vehicle.
Keep your dog on his leash when you're outside with him, and make sure his ID tag is current. More dogs go missing in the winter than any other time of the year. It's very easy for pups to lose their scent and get lost when snow or ice is on the ground, and especially during snowstorms. Snow accumulation can make it impossible for your dog to know if he's in his front yard or standing out on a street or highway. Light-colored dogs with snow on their fur can quickly blend into the background, making them nearly impossible to spot.
Thoroughly wipe off your dog's feet, legs and underside after she's been out in snowy or icy conditions. It's possible she picked up salt crystals, antifreeze or some other toxic chemical on her paws, which she could later ingest by licking the area. Be especially careful not to leave antifreeze leaks or spills where your pet can sample them. Antifreeze is lethal to dogs and cats.
Don't shave or clip your dog's coat too short during the winter months. A longer coat will keep him warmer. If your pup has short hair, a doggy sweater might be in order, especially if he's a small breed, an older fellow, has arthritis, other joint problems or if he's prone to shivering.
Consider paper training a puppy if you get her during cold weather. Puppies don't handle frigid temps as well as older dogs do. If you add a puppy to the family during the winter months, you may find housebreaking her more of a challenge than you expected. If so, you can paper train her instead, then retrain her to potty outdoors when the weather warms up.
If you and your dog participate in lots of outdoor winter activities, make sure his species-appropriate diet has sufficient calories and protein to meet his energy requirements. This may mean increasing his meal portions during the winter months.
If, on the other hand, you and your pet tend to hibernate during cold weather, it's important not to let your dog lose muscle tone and physical conditioning. You'd be amazed at the number of canine knee, soft tissue, cervical disc and neck injuries I see in my veterinary practice each spring. These problems occur most often in out-of-shape dogs that go from zero to 60 on the first warm day of late winter or early spring. There are many creative ways to keep your pet active during cold weather.
Don't leave your pet outside in the car. Just as your vehicle can become an incinerator during hot weather, it can become a freezer, holding in the cold air, during the winter. While not as common as pets expiring in hot cars in the summer, too many precious dogs and cats have frozen to death in a cold car.
Make sure your pet has cozy, draft-free winter sleeping quarters. If your dog has her own crate, make sure her winter bed inside it is one that will keep her warm. Your kitty should have a snug sleeping spot as well, with warm bedding she can curl up in.
Give your frail or older pet some extra TLC. Cold winter temperatures can be especially hard on a senior pet, or on a dog or kitty with degenerative joint disease or another chronic, debilitating conditions. Talk with your integrative or holistic vet about physical therapy treatments and other safe, natural methods for improving your pet's comfort and mobility during cold weather.
Koryn Greenspan, owner of Toronto-based Urban Dog Walks, believes in the BBC acronym for winter pet protection: booties, balms and coats.
Greenspan said her 2 1/2 year-old pooch, Georgia, is "very finicky" when salt gets into her front paws. Prior to taking her German shepherd-husky-collie mix outdoors, Greenspan tries to ensure her pet stays calm as she applies protective balm on Georgia's paws.
"You just want to always instill trust and comfort because it's uncomfortable for the dogs at first to have their paws handled in that way."
The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association suggests trimming excess hair from between a pet's toes, where it tends to trap salt. Ensure any residual salt is rinsed off or removed with a damp cloth and fully dried back at home. Coating the hair between the undersides of the toes with a thin layer of petroleum jelly can help to repel the ice, the association wrote.
Harrison said if a dog is visibly shivering and lifting up its paws, seemingly unwilling to stand on them, that could be an indication of discomfort.
"Most people know their animal so well," he said. "If they start acting differently than they normally would, it could be an indication that they're uncomfortable."
And both Greenspan and Harrison agree that leaving dogs locked up in vehicles is a definite — and dangerous — don't.
"Some people think that because it's colder out they can sustain themselves in a car. They can't," said Greenspan. "If it's cold for you, it's cold for them, and dogs unfortunately can fall ill due to extreme cold weather."