Winter Health Tips for Pets

(ARA) - Dr. Margaret Eastman wasn’t born at the North Pole. She was attracted to life in the town of North Pole, Ala. (located near Fairbanks), in part by her love of dog sledding. While studying veterinary medicine in Wisconsin in the early 1990s, she saw her first dog sled race and she was hooked.

Since moving to the North Pole in 2004, she’s become a winter pet-health expert. She’s served as a veterinarian on the world-famous Iditarod dog sled race -- a 1,150 mile race between Anchorage and Nome, Ala. -- and also as head veterinarian on the Yukon Quest, a 1,000 mile dog sled race.  

Upon arriving in Alaska, she had some surprises. Dehydration is an important consideration on a cold day, Dr. Eastman says. Cold air is dry air, and, contrary to common assumption, pets do not hydrate themselves well by eating snow, it chills the body and a large amount of snow melts down to a tiny amount of water.  

“In the cold Alaskan air, it’s easy to dehydrate,” she says. “Older dogs are especially susceptible. You think it’s not a problem in winter because it’s not hot, but if you’re out for a long walk with your dog on one of those beautiful winter days, keep in mind that you need to stop for water just as often as in the summer.”

Dogs love snow, but thin ice should be avoided. “It’s not uncommon for a dog to fall through the ice,” Dr. Eastman says. “Dogs don’t judge ice well, and, once they fall in, it’s very difficult to get them out. Use some common sense around lakes and rivers in the wintertime.”

Dr. Stuart Nelson Jr., has worked on the Iditarod as a veterinarian for over two decades, including the last 13 years as the chief of veterinary staff. He and his staff of about 45 must be ready for any canine ailment. All 1,200 sled dogs must have physical examinations, electrocardiograms and other tests within 14 days of the race. And the dogs are randomly tested for performance-enhancing drugs. He said he was attracted to the sport because he admires the dogs and compares them to marathon runners in their abilities and physique.

“I’ve always been interested in animal athletes,” he says. “These dogs are very hardy.  Working on the race, we have very few incidences of frostbite in the animals. We’re far more vulnerable than dogs to frostbite.”
Winter Pet Checklist
Pets in many parts of the country face extreme temperatures in the winter and face winter dangers. Drs. Nelson and Eastman and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) offer these cold weather tips:  

* Watch cats for frostbite. “With cats, the tissue on the ears is very fragile, and it’s not uncommon to see frostbite,” Dr. Eastman says. Frostbitten skin is red or grey in color and may slough. Apply warm, moist towels to thaw the frostbitten area slowly until it appears flushed and contact your veterinarian immediately.

* If you have an outdoor cat, check your car engine before starting your car. Many cats seek out the warmth of a car engine on cold winter nights, and starting the car with them on top of the engine block can be deadly.

* Most pets should be brought inside during the coldest days of winter. If a pet must be kept outdoors, Dr. Nelson recommends that it be provided a dry dog house, some insulation such as straw, a constant source of fresh water (a heated bowl can be a great comfort) and also it’s very important that the animal be naturally, gradually introduced to the cold with the change of seasons. An indoor dog cannot be moved into the backyard in January, because it will not have built up a thick, warm winter coat.

* In the wintertime, an indoor dog may need slightly less food, because the house pet may be less active than in warmer months, but outdoor dogs require more fuel to keep warm. For example, Dr. Nelson says Iditarod sled dogs feast on about 10,000 calories a day, with up to 80 percent of the calories coming from fat. An average house pet of the same size might eat about 1,500 calories a day. Talk to your veterinarian to get dietary tips for your pet.

* Far more dangerous to pets than icy weather are chemicals commonly used in the wintertime, such as road salt and antifreeze. Antifreeze tastes good to pets and small children but is highly poisonous. Keep any containers well out of reach and clean up any spills. Road salt can dry out and crack the paw pads of a dog and will cause stomach upset if a pup licks it off. Remember to clean your dog paws after a winter walk.

* Dr. Nelson says that booties are used by sled dogs to protect the webbing between toes from injury, and they also can help protect against road salt for city pets.

* Dog jackets and sweaters are also recommended for outdoor dogs during extreme weather, and for indoor dogs that haven’t built up a full winter undercoat. Dr. Nelson explains that these jackets need only cover a dog’s torso to help keep the animal warm and comfy. “We almost never see frostbite around the extremities of a dog,” Dr. Nelson explained.

For more information on winter health for dogs and cats, and any other health questions or concerns about your animals, please visit the AVMA Web site at

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