While millions of residents from the Rocky Mountains to the East Coast shovel snow deep into the season and hunker down awaiting relief, their dogs are either missing out on walks or left vulnerable to injury with each salt-coated step.
Rock salt and shards of ice can cut feet or get wedged between toes, de-icing chemicals can burn paw pads and frostbite can happen. That's led to a late-season boost in sales of doggy boots, which can be an annoyance for canines but allow owners to protect pets that are like family.
Malia Ebel of Concord, New Hampshire, has four dogs — two that will wear boots and two that won't or can't. Either way, when it dips below zero, Ebel cancels the crew's two daily walks.
"My two little dogs won't go out the front door without them when it's snowy," she said of the dog boots worn by her Cavalier King Charles spaniel mixes.
Ebel trained 13-year-old Seymour and 12-year-old Sanders when they were young to wear boots, which are a necessity instead of a fashion choice.
"My dogs don't have a problem with the snow; it's the salt that hurts their feet," she said. "So it's great that their feet are protected and they can walk on the street all winter. In a winter like this, there has been so much snow and they've had to salt the roads very consistently."
The persistent winter has pushed Boston close to its 20-year-old snowfall record with more than 100 inches and seemingly froze Niagara Falls in place. While people throw up their hands at each new storm, the weather is giving a boost to pet clothiers.
At the Barker & Meowsky Paw Firm in Chicago, the number of boots sold each day in the last six weeks was four times higher than a typical day this winter, company President Alice Lerman said.
"Some days all we sold were boots," she said of the pet boutique that sells clothing, furniture and carriers for cats and dogs.
Boots called "Muttluks," fleece-lined boots that resemble furry Mukluks for people, were good sellers, as were Pawz disposable booties that look like balloons and come in 10-packs.
But the boots that sold out every day were a new product called Saltsox. They slip on easily, stay dry and come shaped like a dog's foot so they won't fall off as often, Lerman said.
There are even less intrusive options: Musher's Secret wax was designed for sled dogs and forms a shield on paws to keep ice and salt out. Bag Balm moisturizer and Vaseline also can be used in a pinch.
Boots are a begrudging necessity for Wendy Olcott's golden retriever, Sunny. Living in Contoocook, New Hampshire, her 12-year-old dog learned to wear boots as a puppy for their long walks. But that doesn't mean Sunny likes them.
"Sunny didn't like wearing the boots initially, and she still, all these years later, doesn't like wearing them," she said.
But walks go faster with the footwear because the dog doesn't have to stop to get the snow out from between her toes, Olcott said.
Shelters also are struggling this winter. At the Worcester Animal Rescue League in Massachusetts, keeping about 60 dogs and cats and two bunnies warm and clean has made laundry a never-ending chore, Executive Director Allie Tellier said.
Worcester received 92.1 inches of snow through mid-February. Some days, workers and volunteers can't get to the shelter, and whoever is closest has to trudge in to feed the animals.
When it's 20-below, even the housebroken dogs won't do their business outside, leading to messes, Tellier said. But when the hardier dogs go out, many come back holding up frozen paws.
"We are equipped to handle snow and winter, but this has been harsh," Tellier said.