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   Home > Articles > Seasons > Caring for Older Pets During Winter

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Caring for Your Older Pets During Winter
The brisk, refreshing days of autumn rapidly fade to the colder, more troublesome days of winter.

Winter is a time of added stress for all animals, but it is especially hard for our older pets. Geriatric animals have less strength, less muscle reserves, and often underlying problems that may surface in the winter. Every system of your elderly pet may suffer. Cold weather, snow, and ice make it difficult for older joints to move, so arthritis gets worse. Cold air aggravates respiratory and cardiac conditions, making breathing more difficult. Older animals left outside without adequate shelter suffer from hypothermia and frostbite. Those left without fresh food and unfrozen water will become dehydrated and malnourished. Even geriatric pets that live indoors can suffer during winter. The short days and lack of sunshine cause many an owner and a pet to feel blue, so exercise routines are eliminated, muscle tone is lost, and excess weight appears. This weight can wreak havoc on the bones, joints, and organs of an older pet.

But winter does not have to sap the strength of your beloved pets. There are many steps that you can take to make sure that your older pets not only survive, but thrive this winter. Of course, these tips apply to younger animals as well, but they are absolutely critical to the good health of senior animals. By following a few simple steps, your elderly pets will not only enjoy the brisk weather, but feel great all season. You will have the satisfaction of knowing that you are providing the best care possible for your older friends.

1. Provide fresh water at all times: All pets must have access to clean water at all times. Many older pets are suffering from undiagnosed, underlying kidney and liver problems. If water is restricted, these problems can surface as major illnesses. A pet with kidney disease left without water for one day will dehydrate and become very ill. Remember that snow and ice do not replace water. Fresh, unfrozen water needs to be available on a continual basis, so a heater may be needed to keep water from freezing. Large, plastic bowls are a better choice to hold water than metal bowls, as the pet's tongue may stick to a cold, metal bowl. The water will do no good if the pet cannot get to it, so it is critical to make sure that your older pets have clean, unfrozen water that they are able to reach no matter how snowy or icy the day. Make sure to shovel pathways to water bowls, use de-icer on walkways as needed, and keep fresh water inside and out.

2. Provide shelter from rain, snow, and wind: All pets, no matter the length and thickness of their coats, need protection from winter precipitation and wind. A proper structure keeps the pet warm, dry, out of drafts, and up off the damp ground. The best structure is your own house. If a dog cannot be kept in the house, a doghouse or similar structure must be constructed. The house should be large enough to allow the dog to turn around and lie down in, but small enough for the dog's body to heat. It should be insulated to reduce heat loss to the outside. Traditional wooden doghouses with an open front and peaked roof are not suitable for most winter environments. The wood is a poor insulator, prone to rot, and attractive to insects. The open door allows cold air to fill the house. A better design is a plastic resin house with an offset door and a covering flap. Houses should be elevated off the ground, faced away from the prevailing wind, and have a blanket or similar object for bedding. Placing the house under an existing roof or structure helps protect the dog from foul weather. Older cats should be kept indoors. Feral cats can be helped by placing shelters in the areas that the cats congregate. The shelters should be elevated, have a flap to block wind, and be bedded with some type of warm bedding. Every attempt should be made to keep geriatric animals in the house, not outside with a shelter. Animals that could withstand the cold when they were young are less likely to do well in the face of cold weather as they age. They do not have the body mass, body fat, or stamina to stay out in frigid temperatures. Older pets belong with you, in the house, during inclement weather.

3. Protect your older pet from hypothermia: Hypothermia is the medical term for a body temperature below normal. Even though most pets have fur, they can still lose enough body heat to suffer from hypothermia. Animals with little body fat, those in weak condition, those with poor muscle tone, and those with poor hair coats are prime candidates for hypothermia. So are pets that cannot regulate their body temperature easily. Most elderly cats and dogs belong in one or more of these categories. Older animals are more likely to have poor body tone, to have sparse hair coats, and to be unable to regulate their body temperature. As the body temperature starts to fall, the animals' internal organs cease to function properly. A hypothermic animal may shiver, be cold to the touch, act lethargic, suffer from a drop in heart rate and respiratory rate, and become unresponsive. Hypothermia can be rapidly fatal. Treatment consists of warming the pet with hot water bottles, hair dryers, or heating pads. Treatment must be immediate, but done slowly enough to avoid burns. Since circulation is compromised, heat that would normally not cause a problem can actually burn the pet. Therefore, heating pads should be covered with a towel and hair dryers set on low. The pet should be turned often to prevent overheating one side of the body, and to stimulate circulation. Once the process is started, and the animal begins to warm up, it should be wrapped in a blanket and immediately transferred to the veterinarian for further treatment. Keeping your older pet warm and dry can prevent hypothermia. Wind and water rob your dog of heat, so shelter is a necessity. Any older pets that get wet or cold playing or walking outside should be brought indoors and dried. Keep walks and play periods short to prevent chilling. Dogs with short hair coats can be protected with sweaters or coats designed for dogs. Coats are not a substitute for shelter, as they only warm the dog's body, and they must be cleaned frequently to maintain their insulating properties, but they will keep short-haired dogs comfortable when the thermometer drops.

4. Protect your older pet from frostbite: Frostbite occurs when the body tissues become so cold that circulation is impaired and damage results. Areas prone to frostbite include ears, feet, and the tip of the tail. These parts of the body often lack hair and receive decreased blood flow when the body is chilled. Feet are especially sensitive to frostbite because snow and ice pack between the toes, providing a direct source of cold. Older pets with heart disease already have poor circulation to the extremities. If the body gets chilled, circulation to these areas is decreased even more and frostbite can rapidly occur. Frostbitten areas will initially turn white and may lose hair. If warmed, the tissue will redden and swell. Frostbite is very painful. A pet with frostbite should have the affected areas slowly and gently warmed. Avoid vigorous rubbing and extremely high temperature, as this will cause more damage to already devitalized tissues. Once treatment is begun, the pet should be brought to the veterinarian for further care. Response to treatment varies depending on the extent of tissue damage. If damage is not severe, recovery is possible, although the hair may not grow back, or it may grow in white. Some frostbitten areas do not recover and require amputation. Frostbite can be prevented by monitoring your older pet. Make sure that the animal does not stay outside long enough to chill sensitive body parts. Remove snow and ice that packs between toes and on the legs. Consider boots for dogs that love long walks, but end up with chilled feet. Even though boots will provide some protection, they will not replace common sense and good foot care for your pets.

5. Protect your older pet from malnutrition: Like most people, most pets do not require more calories just because it is cold outside. But pets that spend a great deal of time outside or dogs that work and run during the winter may need additional calories to meet their bodies' demands. This is especially true of older pets that do not digest and utilize their food as well as they did when they were younger. Calories can be increased by increasing the total amount of food given to the animal or by increasing the amount of fat in the diet. Some dogs literally are not able to eat a large enough amount of dry food to meet their caloric needs during the winter. These dogs will need added meat and fats to increase the number of calories per bite. The goal is to maintain optimum weight all year, no matter what the actual outside temperature. Do not simply fill a bowl with dry food and forget about it. If an older dog must be kept outside, it should be regularly checked to make sure that it is not losing weight. Your older animal must have ample food and be physically able to consume it. The dog will need healthy teeth and gums and a food that it will readily consume. This may be the perfect time to have the pet's mouth examined and teeth cleaned, and to switch to a higher calorie, canned food. The opposite problem may occur with those elderly pets kept indoors all winter. Many older pets do not want to go out in the cold. They prefer to sit on the couch, by the fire, all winter. These pets may actually gain weight as they await springtime. The excess weight places stress on older joints and organs, and can increase signs of heart disease, respiratory disease, liver disease, and arthritis. It is important to make sure that your geriatric couch cat or dog does not gain excessive weight in the colder months.. Short walks can do wonders for the pet's health and attitude.

6. Protect your older pet from toxins and poisons: The commercial products used to make life easier in the cold months can be dangerous for dogs. Road salts and the chemicals designed to melt ice are toxic for dogs. They irritate the dogs' footpads, can burn skin, and cause mouth irritations if swallowed. Sand mixed in with the chemicals can abrade pads and skin, leading to more irritation and secondary infections. These effects may be even more severe in older animals that are suffering from underlying liver and kidney problems, or have suppressed immune systems. Exposure to these irritants can be limited by putting boots on dogs and making sure that ice, snow, and road salt are routinely removed from the feet, chest, and belly. Rinsing these areas and drying them will remove the chemicals, melt hardened ice and snow, and remove bacteria. Keeping the feet warm and dry will help prevent blisters and infections. Cats really should be kept indoors, but those that go outside should have their feet cleaned and checked daily. Care should also be taken to keep car products, such as antifreeze, away from dogs and cats. Antifreeze made with ethylene glycol tastes good and is extremely toxic to pets. Dogs have been known to chew through the plastic bottle to get to the antifreeze inside of it. Antifreeze containers should be wiped clean before storing. They should be stored in areas that are inaccessible to any pet. This can be a problem for owners that bring cats and dogs into the garage in inclement weather. These pets must not have any access to any amounts of antifreeze. Very small amounts of the product can cause rapid kidney failure and death. If a pet has come in contact with antifreeze, the animal should be brought to the veterinarian for immediate treatment. Do not wait to see if the animal becomes sick; seek emergency medical care as rapidly as possible.

7. Protect your older pet from getting lost: Older pets often lose some of their hearing, eyesight, and sense of smell. Pets that could find their way home with ease when they were younger are now likely to become disoriented and easily lost. This problem gets worse if familiar sights are covered by ice and snow, or if plowed snow covers trails the pets usually use to get home. Make sure that your older pets are not put into a situation where they can become lost. One night out in the cold may be too much for your aged pet. Elderly pets should not be allowed to run loose. They should wear collars with name tags and be microchipped. It your pet does leave the house or yard, do not wait to see if it comes home. Go look for your older pet before the day becomes dark and the animal cannot be found.

8. Protect your older dog's legs, feet and pads: Your dog's paws and pads are often wet, muddy, or covered with snow and ice in the winter. If not properly treated, lameness and infection can occur. Tiny abrasions, cuts, and cracks caused by the ice and frozen mud can lead to lameness. Bacteria and yeast can overgrow in the wet, dirty cracks and lead to infections of the nail beds and pads. These infections can be painful and difficult to treat and may eventually result in the loss of a nail. In addition, snow, ice, or mud that is frozen in between the toes can force the toes apart and cause the dog to walk incorrectly. Ice that is frozen into clumps along the hair on the legs can pull the hair away from the skin and cause irritation. As previously discussed, packed snow can impair circulation and lead to frostbite, while road salt, sand, and de-icing chemicals can cause blisters, irritations, and burns on the feet and pads. Even though these problems can plague any dog, an older pet that is already arthritic and sore is more likely to become injured and lame than a younger, healthier pet. In addition, healing is often prolonged in older pets, so it becomes even more important to protect your elderly pets from winter time foot injuries. Ice and mud should be removed from the dog's feet and pads. Clipping the long leg and foot hair to a moderate length may facilitate this winter grooming. After the ice and snow are removed, the feet can be rinsed and dried to remove chemicals and dirt. In addition, the use of dog boots can help prevent the build-up of ice and snow that leads to foot irritations. It is especially important to help elderly, arthritic pets deal with the cold weather. Chilled muscles and joints do not move and glide smoothly, so older pets may be stiff and sore in the winter months. Help these pets by providing daily, short walks to limber tired muscles. Keep older pets off of cold, hard floors by using padded, orthopedic beds with plush coverings. Older pets are less agile and more likely to fall, so monitor your dog as it navigates steps to prevent spills and use a portable ramp to aid in climbing steps or into the cars. Preventing falls eliminates the need for painful recoveries.

9. Protect your older pet from burns: Older pets that are less aware of their surroundings are prone to accidental burns. More burns occur during winter than any other time of year because older animals seek external heat to warm old bones and because owners tend to use extra heat in the cold weather. There are many sources of heat that can potentially cause burn injuries. These include wood burning and gas fireplaces, portable electric and propane space heaters, and even electric blankets. Dogs and cats can be burned by sleeping too close to heat sources, or by flying embers and sparks. They can knock over space heaters and chew through electric cords. Sleeping on heating pads or electric blankets can create hotspots on the pets' bodies that lead to burns. Even hot winter beverages that are accidentally spilled can cause painful burns. Burns from fireplaces can be prevented by the use of properly placed screens. Other burns can be prevented by monitoring pets at all times when space heaters or heating pads are being used. No animals should ever be left alone in a room with any type of space heater. Pets should not be allowed to sleep unattended on electric blankets, so resist your older cat's pleas to sleep on the heated blanket. The animals should not be allowed to sleep directly on the surface of a heating pad, and must be monitored continually if one is used under their bedding. Instead of electrically heated pads or blankets, use covered orthopedic beds or thermal beds to cushion older pets and keep them comfortable. Accidental burns should be treated immediately by placing ice on the burned area and seeking veterinary care. The damage caused by a burn can be much greater than it appears, so a veterinarian should examine any burns on your pets.

10. Protect your older dog from accidents: Dogs do not instinctively know how to handle themselves in the winter. They are not wolves and do not have a natural ability to handle inclement weather. Dogs cannot find their way through blinding blizzards, and can become lost and disoriented. Like people, dogs can fall on the ice or slippery surfaces and injure themselves. They also cannot tell if an ice-covered lake, pond, or river is safe to walk across. Dogs can easily fall through thin ice and drown. Make sure that your dog only has access to frozen water surfaces that are known to be safe. If a wintertime activity is not safe for humans, it should not be considered safe for a dog. Take extra steps to protect your older pet from winter time accidents. Elderly pets are more delicate than younger ones, so the slippery ice that is an inconvenience for a younger dog may cripple an older pet that falls. Make sure to shovel ice-covered steps or place a ramp over them to avoid dangerous spills. And remember that the dunk in the frigid lake that your younger dog enjoys all winter can lead to hypothermia in your older friend. Either avoid the swim or dry your dog immediately afterwards. Attention to details can help you avoid unnecessary winter accidents that can harm your older pets.

11. Protect your dog from seasonal holidays. Winter holidays are very exciting, but are a potential source of danger for your senior dogs and cats. Protect your older pets from holiday indulgences. Do not allow them to eat excessive amounts of holiday treats or leftovers. Digestive upsets that may lead to mild diarrhea or vomiting in a younger pet can result in serious illness in an older pet that already suffers from chronic gastrointestinal, liver, or kidney troubles, or diseases such as diabetes. The result can be digestive upsets, severe vomiting and diarrhea, and even a potentially fatal inflammation of the pancreas called pancreatitis. Avoid letting your pet eat the bones from holiday turkeys or other meats. The bones can splinter or catch in the digestive tract. Also, do not feed holiday treats rich in chocolate to the pet, as this sweet is toxic to animals.

Holiday accidents can be very dangerous for older pets. Elderly animals may have underlying troubles that interfere with healing or prevent surgery if needed. So, guard your pets and avoid common problems. For example, your pets need to be protected from the Christmas tree. Do not allow them to chew on Christmas tree needles that fall from the tree. The needles are very sharp and will irritate the mouth, gums, and tongue, and can penetrate the intestines if swallowed. Swallowed needles can require a surgical repair, which could be life-threatening for older pets. The pets should also be prevented from drinking the water from the tree stand. This water can be contaminated with insecticides and fertilizers from the tree trunk. Avoid letting them play with wrapping strings, ribbons, and tinsel, as these items can lodge in the intestines and create severe damage and blockages. Hang ornaments above the level of the dog's mouth to prevent the dog from knocking them over and chewing on them. Homemade ginger bread and dough ornaments are especially attractive to dogs, so hang these ornaments high in the tree or place a decorative fence around the tree to keep the dog away. Finally, make sure electric light cords are placed out of reach of a curious animal's mouth. Decorative plants such as poinsettia, holly, Jerusalem cherry, amaryllis, and mistletoe are poisonous to animals. These plants should be kept in areas that pets cannot reach or replaced with artificial plants. Holiday candles should also be kept in inaccessible areas and monitored when lit. Finally, do not push your older pet to interact with visitors if the animal is uncomfortable. Pets that are not used to a lot of guests or have never socialized with children may be uncomfortable in crowded situations. Even animals that used to love attention may resist being touched if their bones and joints ache, or if they are just tired and wish to be left alone. These animals should be allowed to leave and relax, undisturbed, in a quiet area of the house. This can make the holiday more enjoyable for everyone involved.

12. Pay attention to your older pet's needs: The most important health tip for your older pets is to make sure that you pay attention to their needs. Do not be so distracted by the snow, ice, and holidays that you forget that your aged pet needs a little extra attention in cold weather. Whether it is another orthopedic pad placed on the cold floor, or a ramp over the frozen steps, small acts of kindness can help your older friend feel fine this winter. And do not ignore small changes in behavior that may signal a medical problem. If your older pet refuses to go outside, won't eat, or falls in the snow, a visit to the veterinarian may be needed. By paying attention to details and keeping a close eye on your older pet, the winter should pass easily into a healthy spring.
 
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