OK, so it's the husky who survives temperatures 75 degrees below zero in Jack London's To Build a Fire, remember? And the husky's greatest enemy***image1*** wasn't the cold, it was his dim-witted, frostbitten owner, who almost knifed his "best friend" to steal his body heat. But remember that London's classic tale is a macho metaphor, folks, not a manual for winter dog care. Even dogs adapted for cold and snow require common-sense winter care throughout the season. Small and short-haired dogs in particular are vulnerable to winter's chill and benefit from extra measures of preventive protection. Granted, northern New Mexico isn't Klondike-like, but it's cold enough for potential pooch and kitty problems.
Overnight low temperatures below freezing start to ice things up mid-fall, of course, and can occur all the way to May 15. Fortunately for Fido, below freezing temperatures don't have to result in injury, costly frostbite treatment, health problems or dehydration, nor are the ameliorations for arctic blasts complicated or expensive.
Veterinarian Stan Heyman, of Santa Fe's Northside Veterinary Clinic, says winter doesn't have to pose any real problems for pets if pet owners use common sense and take a few precautions. "Animals that spend the winter outside usually adapt to lower temperatures as the season unfolds, especially, of course, dogs that are bred for colder temperatures and have thicker coats," he says. For smaller dogs that will be outside on long walks, or older dogs with creaky joints, Heyman recommends a sweater for walks and a warm bed inside.
The outdoor dog in winter needs two basics: shelter and water. Shelter is essential, especially overnight, but also on days in mid-winter when the temperature stays near or below freezing. The perfect doghouse is just large enough for a dog to stand, turn around and lie down. A larger doghouse won't hold the dog's body heat as reliably, and a smaller one can lead to paws, rump or nose exposed to freezing temps overnight.
"The doghouse should be raised a few inches off the ground for an air layer of insulation," Heyman suggests, "and it's essential that the door have some sort of cover over it. A piece of heavy shower curtain with a burlap backing or even a carpet remnant works well. The bedding can be anything that also helps hold in body heat."
Some animal care experts recommend straw piled several inches deep, but Heyman has seen some problems with this approach. "Sharper pieces of straw can become embedded in the dog's skin, causing painful abscesses, so personally, I recommend blankets or some other insulated bedding," he advises.
It's also important to have some sort of system for keeping your pet's water dish thawed. Heyman says the solution for a frozen water dish can be as simple as purchasing an electric heater, such as one used to thaw a birdbath. This helps ensure that outdoor pets have ready access to water when they need it. Don't rely on the animals to break the ice in their water bowls or eat snow, Heyman says. Dogs and cats need dependable access to a lot of fresh water, sometimes as much during the dry, cold months as they do in the summer.
And what about those coddled canines and cats who enjoy long winter nights curled up on the comforter or next to the hearth? They still have to go outside, and this inevitability leads to a few potential problems. Although hypothermia and frostbite are rare in domestic dogs, the danger for both is present. While a Samoyed may be happy to romp in the snow all day, a greyhound's teeth will chatter if he's not in a sweater. A dog that likes to accompany you on cross-country ski excursions or long walks in the city may even appreciate boots. Dog boots can protect paws from a painful buildup of ice between pads and reduce or eliminate exposure to deicing salts, which cause an exothermic reaction with ice that can reach temperatures as high as 175 degrees. Safe Paw Ice Melter is a salt-free deicing product for paws that is available at local pet stores.
Winter often signals car radiator maintenance, and it's crucial to clean up any spilled antifreeze and be sure the stuff is out of reach of pets and kids. Even though antifreeze is now required to contain a bittering agent, little ones can still easily ingest a lethal dose. Ethylene glycol, the active ingredient in antifreeze, causes kidney failure within 36 hours for cats and 72 hours for dogs, even in fairly low dose amounts.
"Antifreeze poisoning is an age-old problem. It causes crystals to form in the kidneys, shutting down the function of the nephrons, which leads to uremic poisoning in a short time," Heyman says. If you suspect antifreeze poisoning, head to the vet without any hesitation, as the prognosis is better if the animal is treated as soon as possible after ingestion. The far less toxic propylene glycol (the main ingredient in, for example, "personal lubricant") is an effective antifreeze and is recommended for households with pets or small children.
Another thing to watch out for this winter is your pet's weight. Is your pug getting pudgy? Does your Siamese cat suddenly seem to outweigh your pit-beagle? "Seasonal weight gain happens naturally with both dogs and cats," Heyman says. "It's the same adaptation we have, putting on a little extra weight when winter comes. Usually it normally comes off in spring, especially because animals are more active again with warmer temperatures."
Ask your vet if Tubby's weight gain is seasonal or a sign of something more serious, but hopefully, a slightly zaftig furball will be a warm and happy furball this winter.
Look for cold-weather pet gear at local shops like these:
708 Canyon Road, Suite 3, 438-WOOF (9663),
Tons of coats, sweaters and other outfits for dogs who are a little bit chilly and a lot cute.
2801 Cerrillos Road, 471-5071
A little bit of everything for all kinds of pets.
500 Montezuma Ave., Suite 116 (in Sanbusco Center), 982-9374,
Coats, crates and plush beds for cats and dogs.
Wild Mountain Outfitters
A local enterprise offering dog boots, coats, beds and more.
Zoe and Guido's Pet Boutique
1441 Paseo de Peralta, 988-2500
An upscale pet store selling high-quality beds, clothes and accoutrements.