If you go outside and it is uncomfortable, it is for your pets also. Even though many of our pets have long hair and/or fur, we usually acclimatize them to indoors. The value of their fur and hair has already adjusted for the indoor temperature. So before you set them out the door on the way to work take a moment to understand what they need. A great short summary of cold care for pets is provided by the American Veterinary Medical Association at https://www.avma.org/public/PetCare/Pages/Cold-weather-pet-safety.aspx.
Subzero temperatures can hurt the lungs of pets just as it creates a risk for humans. Start the cold season by making sure they are healthy and well-fed. A good health examiner can identify any inherent weaknesses a pet may have going into the “tough” season and provide guidelines for special care during the winter. All animals require calories to function and stay warm. Just as with livestock, pets will need as much as much as 33 percent more calories to be able to maintain bodily functions. Talk to your care professional on increasing food for individual pets. And be advised that if you set food out there may be many other animals also desperately looking for additional calories. Usually in winter it is necessary to increase both energy and protein in a diet.
Know your pet’s limits including endurance, health condition and belly height. When facing snow, ice and blowing winds the endurance level of all animals drops. Avoid allowing pets to do things that cause them high exertion levels since that can force them to take subzero air into their lungs, get them wet and accelerate core cooling. If your pet has health conditions such as arthritis, injuries and old age, the risk of slipping or falling is increased during cold weather.
Although some breeds of pets are more appropriate for cold weather you should still provide them alternative locations to shelter so they can find the most efficient spot for the conditions. This is crucial in Wyoming where our winds generate much of the risk factor and those winds change direction regularly. Pets need to have locations (plural) where they can get up of the cold ground and out of the wind, preferably dry locations. This can be done fairly frugally using multi-sided shelters which always provide some location out of the wind. To break the transfer of cold from the ground, owners can buy expensive insulated pet structures or build your own. Laying down a number of cardboard layers under a shelter before the season starts can help put an insulating barrier between the ground and a pet. Make sure the stack and the shelter is stable and preferably secured against the wind moving it. Using 3-4 inches of cardboard under a dog hose provides a good barrier. Since most of our dominant winds come from the southeast in central Wyoming consider facing one shelter east-southeast to allow radiation fun to help with warmth. Know and adjust for your dominant winds. Put dry blankets or cloth they can burrow into inside the shelters.
Pets need to be hydrated to fight off the cold. Hypothermia sets in much faster if fluids are low and circulation is impaired. Invest in a good quality heated water bowl or bucket that is placed out of the wind and in a location where snow will no blow over it burying it. The bowl needs to be checked every day to make sure its functioning properly and refilled.
Remember to dry your dog off if they are wet coming in or going out. Coming in they can bring potentially toxic products with them like ice melt and anti-freeze. Consider buying the pet-friendly products but still get it off of them. Make sure pets are dry going out. If you do not think that is critical – wash your hair and then run outside when temperatures are below 10 degrees Fahrenheit and the wind is up to 20+. Now you understand that wet hair or fur is worse that no hair or fur.
Last but not least pay close attention to your pets in very cold or very hot weather. If they come inside and immediately go to their bed and curl up – they are very cold. If animals whine it means they are in pain. Watch for shivering and feel their ears and noses – if they are very cold the appendages are at risk. When outside watch to see if pets start raising one foot or another off the ground. Their pads can easily get very cold and crack causing injury. Frostbite is often very difficult to identify with pets but if you notice any issues contact your veterinarian.
When working stock dogs in the severe cold we would be very careful not to exert the dogs or the stock. Exertion and sweat in bad weather turns into condition challenging exposure. We often designed buckskin booties for working dogs but we had to pull them off and dry them on the pickup defroster to get the cold wet paws thawed out. And remember to bang on your car or truck hood before you start it each morning. Feral cats like to crawl up on warm engines during the night but do not get along with radiator fans or belts. Stay warm.