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Protect pets in wintry weather

Snowy, cold weather can endanger pets, experts warn, but common sense can keep them safe. While Northland vets and shelter representatives report few cold weather problems this season, they offered advice on preventing them among your pets. Which...

Snowy, cold weather can endanger pets, experts warn, but common sense can keep them safe.
While Northland vets and shelter representatives report few cold weather problems this season, they offered advice on preventing them among your pets.
Which animals are most susceptible to winter conditions? Duluth veterinarian Dr. Tom Dougherty, of Dougherty Veterinary Clinic, says, "Those that don't wear clothes."
"We have dogs in the Northland that have a tremendous variety of hair coat," he explained, noting that short hair breeds are most vulnerable.
Even that can be deceiving. Some medium-haired breeds have layers of fat and are bred to survive, he said, while some seemingly protected dogs, such as poodles, are vulnerable. Use common sense.
"Cats are extremely susceptible," noted Jodi Frank, director of the Douglas County Humane Society. "Cats really don't tolerate cold at all."
Even exotic birds are susceptible to cold drafts and low humidity, said Dr. Larry Anderson of North Shore Veterinary Hospital. Older dogs are more vulnerable, too.
Several weather-related problems can strike pets. Frostbite is one obvious danger. Less obvious is dehydration -- water bowls quickly freeze over in cold weather. Break the ice at least twice a day or provide a heated container.
"The way (pets) regenerate a lot of their heat is by drinking their water," Frank said.
"Sometimes we see some digestive problems because dogs are not drinking enough," said Dougherty.
Anderson has seen pneumonia problems at North Shore, citing the fluctuating temperatures and humidity levels of this mild season as contributors.
"We worry about the older dog having what we call cognitive disorders," he added, noting that pets may become lost or confused in the snow.
Both vets pointed to increased food needs for pets in winter, and Anderson recommended a customized diet for each animal.
Dougherty also said animals suffering winter stress don't resist other conditions -- from arthritis to disease -- as easily.
In fact, keeping a pet in good health is particularly important in winter, since resistance is lower and parasites more dangerous. Anderson recommended routine checkups before and after winter.
An even subtler problem comes not from weather conditions but from how humans handle them -- antifreeze. The ethylene glycol commonly found in antifreeze is "a horrible, horrible poison" for pets, said Dougherty.
A small quantity can quickly kill an animal, and the substance is alluringly sweet.
To prevent this sort of poisoning, pet owners should use extra caution or switch to a propylene glycol--based antifreeze. Dougherty warned that the antifreeze danger doesn't end there, either -- even if you are careful with antifreeze, a neighbor might not be.
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Warning signs that a pet may be suffering winter weather stress include a funny walk, listlessness or lethargy, lack of appetite or frosty ears or whiskers.
"I'm a strong believer in watching their excretory habits," Anderson added. Changes in frequency, color or consistency, or blood in urine or stool, can mark problems.
Following are some additional tips on keeping pets safe, compiled from local experts and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA):
* Let pets acclimate to cold weather. Many dogs grow undercoats over the fall.
* Dress up. Consider using sweaters, coats and booties for "inside" pets.
* Provide proper shelter. Build dog houses in sunny locations, using wood or plastic. They should also be raised off the ground several inches and have a flap to keep out cold drafts.
* Pick the right bedding. Experts disagreed mildly on outdoor bedding materials -- straw, hay and cedar shavings are among the recommendations. Anderson recommended cedar shavings rather than hay or straw to avoid skin parasite problems or freezing. All agreed rugs, blankets or pillows are a bad idea.
* Use common sense. Dougherty advises a sort of pet owners' Golden Rule, treating pets "as they would themselves."
* Get help. Both vets said that any animal showing warning signs of winter stress could be in serious danger. Call a health care giver.
* Care for strays. If you can safely do so, bring suffering strays inside. Either way, call law enforcement or your local humane society for advice on finding assistance for the animal.

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