If frigid weather returns, keep in mind the needs of pets

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
The dogs and cats who live outdoors through the winter were faced with severe weather conditions the first week in January.

Their world was covered with ice, the wind howled, and temperatures plummeted to below freezing.

Jessica Laurin, veterinarian with the Animal Health Center of Marion County Inc., is concerned about future extreme winter-weather conditions and wants pet owners to be aware of protection measures for their four-legged friends.

“The unpredictable, extreme cold experienced in January left many people unprepared,” Laurin said.

“It left a lot of people surprised and a lot of people unable to take care of themselves very well, let alone their pets. It was a short disaster area.”

Dogs and cats make their home outside for a variety of reasons.

Some people aren’t comfortable with an animal inside the house or have allergies to domestic animals.

“Some pets are better suited for an outdoor environment, like a labrador or German Shepherd,” Laurin said.

“And there are some pets that are claustrophobic just like people are or get inside in a contained environment, and it bothers them. So some of them are naturally inclined to be outdoors.”

During the winter months, when should the red flag go up for pet owners with outdoor animals?

“Whenever it stays below 32 degrees full daytime, over 24 hours, then that’s extreme,” Laurin said.

“With the right kind of hair cuts, certain dogs can be very, very comfortable in 40-to 50-degree weather. Once you get under 32 degrees, not only do you have frozen conditions as far as water supply, but you also worry about their ability to generate thermal heat and keep themselves warm.”

Animals that are not fenced in a yard or confined to kennels are at less risk than the contained pet.

“It’s not as dangerous because they have the ability to get into a place that’s going to maintain their warmth,” Laurin said.

Those pets are usually capable of getting in and out of the extreme-cold situation. If there’s ice on the ground, they can seek protection in areas with trees or heavy brush. Like rabbits in the wild, they can find holes, seek warm spots, and two or more pets can huddle together for warmth.

The roaming or kenneled pet should also have a protected shelter, such as a dog house.

“Every outdoor dog needs a dog house,” Laurin said.

Laurin offered the following suggestions for supplying a dog house for outdoor pets:

– The housing should be air-tight enough to keep wind from blowing in, and it should prevent water leaks from rain.

“The basic conditions for a dog house should be the ability for the dog to stay dry and to stay comfortable,” Laurin said.

– The door to the dog house should not face north, and the animal should be able to seek protection from the wind.

“Have three to four sides that are covered so no wind is coming in,” Laurin said.

“Although most of the time it’s fine to have an open door, once it gets down to extreme temperatures have something over the door to block the wind from coming in. That way, when they do come in there and generate heat, they can maintain the heat in there.”

– The house needs to be large enough so the dog can move in and out easily and move around comfortably inside.

– If there is a concrete floor inside, the dog-house bedding needs to be thick enough on the floor to insulate from the cold coming up from the bottom.

“As far as the flooring goes, the biggest thing is-don’t leave them on a concrete floor,” Laurin said.

“The concrete is going to absorb the heat away from the dog, because the heat is absorbed into the cold floor. You have to put something down to insulate off that concrete.”

Bedding-material choices include towels, a layer of foam with some type of flooring over the top, a thick layer of straw or prairie hay, or blankets.

“But understand your animals,” Laurin said.

“If they chew or break apart objects and toys, you don’t want a comforter that has a lot of cotton stuffing inside. Or, you wouldn’t want to put a pillow in there that they could chew up the cotton stuffing.”

Many manufactured dog houses include information indicating they are adequate to a certain temperature.

Among the wide varieties of dog houses commercially available, Laurin mentioned the Igloo brand. It offers structural foam-insulated walls and is constructed in three layers.

“It has a small runway coming into the dog house and a round area for them inside,” she said.

“That works really well in winter time. They’re available at most farm stores and pet-supply stores. But if you have a real thin dog house, simply get some bales and stack around the house to build a nice insulated zone.”

Food and water should be monitored carefully in extreme-weather conditions.

The amount of food given to an outdoor pet should be increased when temperatures are below 32 degrees, Laurin said.

“Under 32 degrees, the body is going to demand a lot more energy than over 32 degrees,” she said.

“If your pet is fed on a once-a-day schedule, then switch to twice a day during the extreme cold. The evening feeding is important to help generate warmth overnight.”

If the pet is normally on a twice-a-day feeding schedule, increase the amount at least 30 percent, Laurin said.

“That’s because they’re going to need more energy during that cold time period. Once we’re back over 32 degrees, go back to your normal feeding.”

When the thermometer plunges, water in the water bowl left outside will freeze.

“It doesn’t do any good to leave water out there, because in two hours time it’s frozen,” Laurin said.

“The best thing to do is take one to two cups of tap water out, three or four times a day. So multiple times a day, let them have a drink of water. Offering water is very important and a task one must be committed to.”

Caution should be taken when the temperature or wind chill hovers around 0 degrees, according to www.rivma.org.

“When the temperature dips to zero, outdoor pets should be moved to a closed garage or unheated basement. They need added shelter but would find the family living quarters too hot due to their heavy winter coats.”

If temporary housing is offered in a garage, take some precautions to prevent accidents.

“Pets are attracted to the sweet taste of antifreeze, which can cause fatal kidney damage,” according to the Web site.

“As little as one teaspoon can kill an eight-pound cat, and only
1 1/2 ounces can kill a 10-pound dog. So be careful to clean up any antifreeze spills, and do not leave old antifreeze containers in the trash unless lids are securely tightened.”

Before starting the engine of the car, always check under the hood of a vehicle sharing temporary garage space with cats.

“Car motors are of particular danger to cats that sleep outside,” according to the Web site.

“Cats seek the warmth of car motors, and they can be severely injured or killed when caught in the fan belt of a car’s engine.”

Outdoor dogs normally have a thermal layer of fur to protect them from cold temperatures. If the dog weighs more than 50 pounds, has a thick coat and is able to stay dry, its usually comfortable in above-freezing conditions.

“Dogs that are most susceptible to severe weather are dogs less than 50 pounds, dogs under 10 months or over 10 years of age, those battling disease and dogs with a very thin hair coat,” Laurin said.

“Breeds such as boxers, German shorthairs and English pointers do not have a thick enough coat to keep them warm.”

Laurin said she doesn’t know of any situation where an outdoor pet has died in extreme-cold weather conditions in Marion County. In addition to being tragic, such neglect causing a pet’s death would be an act of cruelty.

“Owners can be brought up on criminal charges for such acts,” Laurin said.

“There are two important steps to preventing this-making a plan ahead of the weather as to how your dog will be kept and asking friends, family and neighbors for help in case you are unable to care for the pet yourself during extreme weather.

“Most people in our communities are willing to help out their neighbors. So if you get caught, don’t feel afraid to ask because everyone is in the same situation.”

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