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How to protect your pets during the cold snap

A woman walked her dog near Hammond Pond on Tuesday.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Humans aren’t the only creatures affected by the arctic cold that has rolled over the region and is expected to remain for more than a week — pets are also vulnerable to the elements and can face issues people don’t.

Most dogs live their lives perpetually naked and barefoot — very much exposed to both the weather and any materials people use to treat ice or snow.

Dogs “don’t want to be out there,” said Dr. Marie Chartier, a veterinarian at BluePearl Specialty & Emergency Pet Hospital in Charlestown. “They definitely can get things like frostbite . . . usually on the tips of their ears or their paws. Sometimes you don’t catch it right away, so it’s good to be careful.”


Ice also can have sharp edges that will cut the pads on a dog’s paws or the delicate flesh between toes, Chartier cautioned, and dogs that run onto frozen lakes or ponds can fall through thin ice, risking hypothermia.

Dogs can also slip and crash onto hard ice, tearing ligaments or injuring hips, particularly if they are older. And their feet are vulnerable to rock salt and other products used to melt ice.

Dr. Virginia Sinnott, an emergency and critical care veterinarian at Angell Animal Medical Center in Jamaica Plain, said it’s important to be careful where you walk your dog, and if you’re using an ice-melting product, make sure it is pet-friendly.

“Their paws can get very irritated when they come in from outside,” she said.

Sinnott recommended cleaning the paws of city-dwelling dogs with a wet washcloth after any walk on treated sidewalks to remove or dilute salt and other chemicals, and making sure that dogs have plenty of drinking water to help mitigate any chemicals that they might have ingested. Otherwise, dogs can have seizures or other complications, she said.


When walking down stairs, for long distances, on icy surfaces, or in deep snow, owners should consider picking up smaller dogs and carrying them, she advised. Sinnott also cautioned that dogs’ paws don’t grip the ground as well if their claws get too long, so nails should be trimmed.

Outside the city, dogs and other pets or farm animals that usually stay outdoors should have shelter available, she said, and should have access to drinkable water — not just a bowl or trough filled with ice.

“Ideally, even dogs who spend a lot of time outside should come in to at least a sheltered warm area,” she said. “You don’t want to sleep outside, and they don’t either.”

If your pet sleeps in a doghouse, it should have enough space inside to stand up and turn around, but no more, “because the only heater is their body heat,” Sinnott said.

“If you get an extra-large dog house for a Chihuahua, you think you’re doing them a favor, but actually they can freeze,” she added.

Providing a heat source might seem like a humane solution for outdoor animals, she said, but the wrong heater can be dangerous. Those that use an ignition source, such as propane, can cause carbon monoxide poisoning if not properly vented, she said, and some electric heat sources can short out or cause fires.

Don’t use high-wattage sources, such as a heating pad you might place on a sore back, she advised. Some low-wattage sources, like heated pet beds, might not seem very warm to the touch, Sinnott said, but work well when combined with the body heat of a dog or cat.


Watch out, too, that pets wandering into a garage or driveway don’t drink any automotive antifreeze that might be stored there.

“It has a sweet taste, so animals do like that, and it can cause some pretty serious kidney injuries,” Chartier said.

Cat owners should also be careful in garages and around cars because felines will seek warm spaces and might curl up near the engine of a recently driven car, or in a wheel well or other tight space, where they could be harmed when the car is moved. Cats can also get locked for days inside garages or sheds.

When animals are cooped up inside more than usual, they also have extra opportunities to get into household products that can be dangerous.

“If they’re inside and stir crazy, they get into everything,” Chartier warned.

That can include medications and cleaning products, as well as foods that are fine for most humans but dangerous to dogs, such as chocolate, garlic, onions, grapes, and raisins. Xylitol, a chemical used to sweeten sugarless gum, is extremely toxic to dogs and can cause liver failure.

Space heaters, fires, and lit candles can also be dangerous, and pets should be kept away from them.

“They love to play with everything, and they can definitely get burned just like we can,” Chartier said.

Pet owners should be careful not to underfeed pets that remain active while it’s cold and are burning extra calories keeping their body temperature up, she said, and not to overfeed pets that stay inside and get little exercise.


Also, remember that older pets are in some ways like older humans. The cold can exacerbate the pain of arthritis, and pets with endocrine diseases can have trouble regulating their body temperatures. If your pet has an existing medical condition and you don’t know how the cold might affect it, Chartier said, you should check with your veterinarian.

If you see a pet being kept out in the cold, not given water, or mistreated in any way, you can call local police or the MSPCA animal cruelty hotline at 800-628-5808.

Read more cold-weather tips for pet owners from the ASPCA here.

Watch an American Kennel Club video about the dangers of dogs ingesting xylitol.

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.