Editor’s note: This column originally appeared on Oct. 3, 2011
Pets seem to enjoy fall as much, if not more, than we do. They all seem to perk up as the evenings get cooler. With their incredible eyesight, cats find interest in the early darkness, and dogs love being able to go for walks without enduring the heat.
We need to remember, though, that fall means winter is coming, and we must remind ourselves of what that means when it comes to caring for our pets.
When I was growing up, pets spent most if not all their lives outside. In my lifetime, they’ve gone from the barnyard to the backyard to the back porch to the bedroom. That old saying about “being in the dog house”? In our family, “the dog house” is the same one we enjoy, and that’s true of most people these days.
But some people still do have outside pets, and for them more than any others, the shift to colder weather means they need you to look out for them and make sure they’re ready for the change. All animals must be able to get out of the elements.
A pet must have a well-insulated structure just large enough so that he can curl up inside to maintain body heat. The structure should also have a wind-block to protect it from wintry blasts. In the coldest parts of the country, it should also have some sort of outdoor-rated pet-heating pad or other device.
And be sure that there’s always a supply of fresh, unfrozen water by using a heated bowl. Animals who spend any significant amount of time outside will need more calories during cold weather. Food is fuel, and they’ll need to burn it to stay warm.
I’d prefer you make your pets part of the family by bringing them inside. But if you can’t, you certainly must pay attention to their changing needs regardless. Indoor pets don’t face the weather challenges outdoor pets do, but winter can be uncomfortable for them as well. For pets with arthritis, cold weather can be more painful, so ask your veterinarian about supplements or prescription medications that may help your pet feel better. A soft, heated bed may be much appreciated, too, especially by older pets.
And remember that one of the best things you can do for a pet with joint problems is to keep the extra weight off: A pet who’s more sedentary in winter needs to eat less.
What about sweaters and coats for dogs? Some animals really can use the extra insulation of a well-fitted sweater: older pets, and dogs who are tiny (such as Chihuahuas), or who are short-haired and naturally lean (such as greyhounds or whippets). Overcoats can save you time drying your dog after a walk in inclement weather, especially if your pet’s long-haired.
And don’t forget to wipe your pets’ feet, legs and belly after they’ve been outside to keep the animal from ingesting any de-icing solutions. If you live in an urban area where de-icing solutions are a constant, boots for your pet can make protecting him easier. Because home heating systems can dry out the air, you and your pets may be more comfortable if you introduce some humidity.
Pet birds, especially those species originating in tropical climates, will enjoy extra opportunities for bathing or being misted. Dry air also may be a factor in feather-picking, in which birds strip their own feathers off and become an unsightly mess.
Final cold-weather cautions: Remember to thump on your car’s hood on cold mornings. Your neighbor’s cat may be nestled against the engine for warmth, and thumping your car’s hood will get the animal to skeedaddle to safety. Inside, check your dryer before you add clothes and turn it on, in case your cat is snuggled inside.
Cold-weather pet care is a matter of compassion and common sense. Use both in equal measure, and your pet will get through the worst of the season in fine shape.
Dental disease affects an estimated 80 percent of dogs and 70 percent of cats by the time they are 2 years old, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Dental problems are about more than bad breath and ugly teeth: Dental disease puts pets at risk for other complications, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, kidney disease and other life-threatening conditions. By the way: Dogs have 42 teeth, humans have 32 and cats have 30.
▪ Veterinary students are more likely to struggle with depression than are medical students. Kansas State University found that during the first year of veterinary school, 32 percent of veterinary students showed symptoms of depression compared to 23 percent of medical students. The majority of veterinary students are female, which could play a part in higher depression rates, since national studies show women are two to three times more likely to suffer from depression than are men.
Dr. Marty Becker and Mikkel Becker
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton, author of many pet-care books. The two are affiliated with Vetstreet.com.