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8 Tips to Keep Your Pet Safe in the Wintertime

If you’re cold, they’re cold. Help protect your dogs and cats this winter—whether they live indoors with you or outdoors in a small shelter—with these 8 easy recommendations.

Find Insurance Editorial Team

January 20, 2023

For many Americans, cold winter weather provides the perfect excuse to stay inside. If it’s below freezing, it’s easy for us to cancel plans and cozy up. Unfortunately, winter weather can be more than just uncomfortable for pets.

Imagine having to use the bathroom, outside, when the “real-feel” temperature is hovering around 20 degrees. No fun, right? Low temperatures can also quickly turn dangerous or even deadly in the wrong circumstances.

Luckily, there are a few easy steps you can take to help keep your dog or cat safe this winter, no matter the temperature. From independent outdoor pooches to pampered indoor cats, here are eight easy steps you can take to protect your favorite four-legged family members.

1) Feed Them a Little More than Usual

There’s a biological reason we, as human mammals, crave heavier foods in the wintertime. When the temperature drops externally, our organs work overtime to produce extra heat in an attempt to maintain our internal temperature.

This process is called thermogenesis and it takes extra energy to do it right and stay warm. To provide the fuel for that extra energy, you might find yourself craving high-calorie comfort foods: bread, pizza, pasta, chili, and similar savory delights.

As fellow mammals, our warm-blooded dogs and cats experience the same thermogenic processes. To help keep your pet’s natural warming going strong, consider raising their typical serving size by about 15%–25%. As long as you aren’t over-feeding them, your pets should maintain a relatively consistent weight.

If your pet spends most of their time outside (or in a small outdoor structure such as a doghouse), your vet may even recommend that you feed your pet even more during the winter months. The thinking is that a few extra pounds can help keep outdoor dogs extra warm while out in the cold. Always be sure to speak with your vet before attempting to alter your pet’s weight.

2) Take Extra Precautions with Antifreeze

Even if you don’t work with cars in your day-to-day life, you’re likely to see antifreeze during the winter: spilled on the road, leaked in a garage, or stored in a plastic container in an auto shed. Antifreeze is kind of like a thermogenic liquid designed for cars. It is a syrupy, colored liquid that helps regulate your engine’s temperature during the winter months.

Did you notice the word there, “syrupy?” Doctors and vets often describe antifreeze as “syrupy” because it has a pleasantly sweet taste, despite being extremely toxic to humans and animals.

To protect children and pets from antifreeze, be sure to store your antifreeze containers (and any chemical cleaners, for that matter) somewhere out of reach. If possible, secure your chemicals with a child lock, as some clever pets have been known to nudge cabinets open.

If you find an antifreeze spill (it will look colorful, usually blue or yellow) in your garage or on your driveway, be sure to clean it up immediately. If on a walk, keep your pet leashed and pull them away from any colorful roadway stains.

If your pet ever ingests antifreeze, take them to an emergency veterinarian immediately for treatment.

3) Wipe Away Rock Salt

If it’s cold out, you can safely bet that road crews and homeowners will spread rock salt everywhere. Rock salt lowers the freezing point of water, making it less likely that ice will form on roads, driveways, and sidewalks.

Although it’s very useful at keeping drivers and pedestrians safe, rock salt has two unfortunate side effects: 1) it is toxic to ingest and 2) it gets everywhere.

You’ll want to get in the habit of wiping your pet’s paws, legs, and belly any time they return from the outdoors. Pets are likely to lick the rock salt from their footpads and fur, which could pose a serious risk to their health if they consume enough of it.

To protect your pet’s paws from rock salt and other winter-time irritants, consider buying them dog booties. Just like human shoes, pet booties can protect your pet’s tender foot pads from irritants (like rock salt), uncomfortable objects (like rocks), and dangerous objects (like glass).

If you catch your pet consuming rock salt, contact a veterinarian immediately. The situation could be life-threatening if your pet ingests too much of it.

4) Bang on Your Engine

If it’s cold out and you’re about to go for a drive, bang on the hood of your car before putting your key into the ignition and check the wheel wells around your tires.

No, it’s not a strange wintertime superstition: this is a smart, cold-weather rule for anyone with a car (even for folks without a pet). Cats, rodents, and other small critters are often attracted to sources of heat in the winter. As a producer of heat, car engines make for a cozy napping spot for a small animal.

Before turning over your engine, give your hood a firm knock or honk your horn; this will give any animals that might be nestled in your car a chance to escape.

5) Take Care of Their Coats

This one’s just for the dog lovers.

When the temperatures start to drop, the natural length of your dog’s coat can make a big difference in how well they handle the cold. For the next few recommendations, we’ll divide our suggestions up by coat length:

Short-Haired Dogs

If you have a short-haired dog, winter time is the right time to invest in a pup sweater. Short-haired dogs have a harder time than their long-haired cousins at maintaining warmth in their core (that is, in their belly, chest, and back). In addition to being quite photogenic, dog sweaters are designed to help short-haired dogs keep their core warm during walks, on trips to the car, or while going to the bathroom.

Be sure to look for a sweater that fits your dog right. A proper fit will cover your pet from the start of its chest, over its belly, and all the way to the base of their tail.

Long-Haired Dogs

Long-haired dogs are easy to keep warm in the winter: simply don’t shave them! Unless otherwise recommended by your vet or groomer, it’s okay to let your pup’s coat grow during the winter months. They may look a bit shaggy, but that’s by design—long-haired dogs’ coats naturally fluff up in the winter to provide maximum warmth.

Both Long- and Short-Haired Dogs

Finally, we have a quick tip for both long- and short-haired dogs: try to keep baths down to a minimum. Overwashing your pet’s coat can remove the oils your pet’s skin produces naturally, which could result in your pup suffering from itchy, dry skin.

6) Provide Outdoor Pets with a Warm Shelter

Even outdoor pets need a cozy place to go when the going gets cold. To keep your pet safe this winter, provide them with some kind of small dog house or mini-shelter that meets these requirements:

  • The shelter is right-sized: Design your pet’s shelter so it is large enough for your pet to lie down, but small enough so they can maintain their body heat.

  • The floor is covered: Protect your pet’s paws from the chill of the topsoil by covering the floor in straw, cedar shavings, or synthetic materials designed for pet use.

  • The entrance is away from wind: Keep the shelter cozy and free of drafts by placing the entrance away from direct wind. Also, consider covering the entrance with soft rubber, or any similar material that keeps out the wind but allows your pet to come and go as they please.

  • The bedding is elevated: Ensure your pet’s bedding is elevated a few inches off the ground. Warm bedding allows your pet to keep extra warm during the night.

  • Check their water regularly: Lastly, check your pet’s water regularly and serve them fresh water in a plastic bowl. The last thing your pet needs is frozen water or, even worse, to stick their tongue to a metal bowl.

7) In Extremely Cold Temperatures, Keep All Pets Inside

If the weather or the temperature becomes severe, bring both dogs and cats inside (even if they normally sleep outdoors).

Typically, any “real-feel” temperature in the single digits or colder is a good enough reason to bring your pets inside. Similarly, if your local weather channel issues a cold or storm emergency, that’s another reminder that your pets need to come in.

8) Protect Everything Else with Pet Insurance

Sometimes, accidents happen. Regardless of the time of year, aging pets are prone to getting into accidents and catching illnesses, just like we humans are. Although it can’t prevent incidents from occurring, the right pet insurance plan can pay up to 90% of your veterinary bills after an accident or illness.

Pet insurance plans are contracts in which the customer (you) agrees to pay an insurance company a monthly premium (cost) for a guarantee of financial reimbursement from specific types of veterinary care. A pet insurance plan can save you hundreds or thousands of dollars a year on a variety of veterinary treatments including preventative care, dental care, accident care, illness care, and more.

If you’d like to save money on the vet care your dog or cat needs, take a peek at our list of the best pet insurance companies on the market.

Compare Top-Rated Pet Insurance Plans

Keep Warm, All Winter Long

From smacking your car’s hood, to buying a sweater and booties, to browsing our list of the top pet insurance companies, there are several ways to keep your pet safe this winter.

The most important tip is the easiest to remember: if you feel extremely cold when you go outside, your pets feel the same way. Remember to treat your pet how you’d want to be treated and take the proper steps to keep them warm.