Winter Pet Safety Tips

Pet Check Ups

Has your pet had his/her wellness exam yet?  Cold weather may worsen some medical conditions such as arthritis. Your pet should be examined by a veterinarian at least once a year (senior pets may need to have twice yearly visits depending on veterinary recommendations), and it’s as good a time as any to get him/her checked out to make sure they are ready and as healthy as possible for cold weather.

Know Their Limits!

Just like people, pets’ cold tolerance can vary from pet to pet based on their coat, body fat stores, activity level, and health. Be aware of your pet’s tolerance for cold weather, and adjust accordingly. You will probably need to shorten your dog’s walks in very cold weather to protect you both from weather-associated health risks. Arthritic and elderly pets may have more difficulty walking on snow and ice and may be more prone to slipping and falling. Long-haired or thick-coated dogs tend to be more cold-tolerant, but are still at risk in cold weather. Short-haired pets feel the cold faster because they have less protection, and short-legged pets may become cold faster because their bellies and bodies are closer to the snow-covered ground. Pets with diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, endocrine or hormonal imbalances (such as Cushing’s disease) may have a harder time regulating their body temperature, and may be more susceptible to problems from temperature extremes. The same goes for very young and very old pets.

Skin and Paws

Repeatedly coming out of the cold into the dry heat of your home can cause itchy, flaking skin. Keep your home humidified and towel dry your pet as soon as they come inside.  Pay special attention to their feet and in-between the toes. Remove any snow balls from between foot pads.


We recommend bringing a towel on long walks to clean off stinging, irritated paws. After each walk, wash and dry your pet’s feet and stomach to remove the ice, salt and chemicals.  You should also check for cracks in paw pads or redness between the toes.  Booties provide even more coverage and can also prevent sand and salt from getting lodged between bare toes and causing irritation.  There are the Velcro booties they also make balloon like booties that some pets may tolerate more (called “Pawz”).

Ice Melts

A true Buffalo winter will be here before we know it.  When the time comes the roads, sidewalks, and driveways are covered with chemicals used to melt ice (ice melts).  If dogs aren’t eating them, they are at least walking through or playing in them!  Ice melts pose a problem with both oral ingestion and contact via their skin.  There are many brands of ice melts on the market but the major ingredients are sodium chloride, potassium chloride, magnesium chloride, calcium salts (calcium carbonate, calcium magnesium acetate, and calcium chloride), and urea based products.

Sodium chloride:

Large ingestions of sodium chloride can lead to sodium toxicosis.  If pet ingest high enough amounts it can be lethal.  Mild ingestions lead only to gastrointestinal upset such as vomiting and diarrhea, but dogs eating large amounts of this type of ice melt can central nervous system signs, dehydration, increased heart rate, increased respiratory rate, fever and death.

Potassium chloride:

Increased intake of potassium, as seen with large ingestions of potassium chloride salts, is unlikely cause issues unless there are pre-existing kidney issues.  Potassium chloride, however, is a severe irritant and can cause gastrointestinal irritation to the point of hemorrhagic vomiting or diarrhea.

Magnesium chloride:

Ingestion of ice melts containing magnesium chloride can be irritating and result in gastrointestinal upset.

Calcium salts (calcium carbonate, calcium chloride, and calcium magnesium acetate):

Calcium salts are the most hazardous as they are the most severe irritants of all the ingredients in ice melts.  Ingestion of calcium salts can cause severe gastrointestinal signs as well as local irritation to the skin and paws.


Urea based ice melts are generally the ones labeled as safe for use around pets.  Ingestion of urea usually leads to salivation and mild gastrointestinal irritation, but large ingestions may result in weakness, tremors, and methemoglobinemia.  Hemoglobin is the way oxygen gets carried in the blood and methemoglobin is iron oxygenation (form of hemoglobin that has no oxygen).  When there is too much methemoglobin in the blood there is inadequate oxygenation of the tissues.  This can be the result of a genetic disorder or it can be caused by later exposure to certain chemical agents.

All types of ice melts have a potential to be hazardous.  In general, most ice melt exposures are limited to gastrointestinal upset and local dermal irritation but there is a potential for more serious, life threatening side effects.  Please feel free to call the VVC if you have questions about what ice melts to use.  We can share with you the potential risks of exposure and help with proper storage and use so that exposures can be avoided.  A great safe alternative for skin exposure is little boots (they make the Velcro boots or even balloon boots, called Pawz).

Long and Short Haired Pets

If your dog is long-haired, you might consider keeping the hair around the toes trimmed short during the winter seasons.  Clinging ice balls, salt crystals and de-icing chemicals can frequently collect in the hair between the toes.

If your dog is short-haired, consider getting them a coat or sweater with a high collar or turtleneck with coverage from the base of the tail to the belly.  Be sure your dog can move comfortably around in their coat.  You never want to use a coat that will interfere with their breathing, vision or ability to move.

Ethylene Glycol Poisoning 

Ethylene glycol is one of the most toxic and dangerous substances to a dog or cat.  This is contained in my products such as automotive antifreeze (radiator coolant, which typically contains 95% ethylene glycol), windshield deicing agents, motor oils, hydraulic brake fluid, developing solutions for photography, paints, solvents, etc.  Many pets are attracted to this fluid because of its sweet taste.

FACT: 1 TABLESPOON can cause severe kidney failure in a dog

FACT: 1 TEASPOON can be fatal in cats

If you suspect or know your pet has been exposed to ethylene glycol, treatment is needed immediately.  There are typically 3 stages of symptoms seen with this toxicity.

Stage 1: Occurs within 30 minutes to 12 hours.  Signs include walking drunk, drooling, vomiting, seizures, and excessive thirst and urination.

Stage 2: This occurs within 12-24 hours’ post exposure.  The clinical signs seem to “resolve” when in fact there is severe internal damage occurring.

Stage 3: In cats, this stage occurs 12-24 hours after ethylene glycol exposure. In dogs, this stage occurs 36-72 hours’ after ingestion. During this stage, severe acute kidney failure is occurring. Signs include not eating, lethargy, drooling, halitosis (secondary to kidney failure), coma, depression, vomiting, and seizures may be seen.

There are specific blood tests that can be done to determine if ethylene glycol was ingested.  Aggressive and timely therapy is needed.  Specific medications, fluid therapy and agents to bind the toxins are needed.  For treatments to be successful and effective in dog’s, therapy must begin within 8-12 hours of exposure.  Cats need to begin treatment within 3 hours of exposure to have a good outcome.


Remember, if it’s too cold for you, it’s probably too cold for your pet.  Keeping them indoors on very cold days would be ideal.  If left outdoors, pets can freeze, become disoriented, lost or injured.  If the temperature drops to or below 32 degrees, blood vessels in the skin begin to narrow and constrict.  This same action occurs in humans.  Constricting blood vessels is the bodies way of protecting itself and preserving core body temperature.  It will divert blood toward important organs, such as the heart, and away from the cooler parts of the body (paws, ears, etc).  In extremely cold temperatures or when the body is exposed to the cold for long periods of time the blood flow is reduced to critically low levels.  The combination of cold temperatures and reduced blood flow to the tissues can cause severe injury to the body and conditions such as frostbite.  Dogs with heart disease, diabetes or conditions that cause reduced blood flow are at greatest risk for frostbite.

Signs of frostbite include:

  • Skin discoloration, it is often pale, blue or gray
  • The area is cold to the touch
  • The skin can have a waxy, firm or brittle feeling to it
  • The body part is painful when touched, this often occurs as the tissues begin to thaw
  • There is swelling in the affected area
  • Blistering or ulcerations
  • In the worst case the areas are blackened or it is dead skin

It can take days for frostbite to appear especially if it is in areas such as the tail or tips of ears.  Severely frostbitten areas can look dark blue to black.  These areas of tissue are necrotic and will die off.  This process can take days to weeks.  The areas will start to slough and fall off.  The tissue can also have a severe secondary bacterial infection occurring, which complicates the issue.

Frostbite must be treated very carefully.  It is not as simple as letting your pet warm up.  Pets can be in shock and you must be cautious how quickly they are warmed.  Since frostbite can be extremely painful as warming occurs, a veterinarian will be able to appropriately treat for that as well.  Secondary skin infections are also an issue with necrotic frostbitten tissue.  Some pets even require amputation of severely affected tissues.  If your pet has had prolonged exposure to the cold and is displaying the symptoms above, you should contact a veterinarian immediately.

Pets and Cars

In addition, don’t leave pets alone in a car during cold weather.  Cars can act as refrigerators that hold in the cold and cause frostbite or even death.

Outdoor Cats

There is a very long list why it is advisable to keep your cat indoors (running into other wildlife, keeping them away from cars, fighting with other cats, parasites or other diseases, etc.).  Outdoor cats can be very crafty when it comes to finding shelter.  Make sure to bang on your car hood before starting the car (this is particularly important if you see paw prints on your hood). Stray cats often hide under a vehicle’s hood when it’s warm and can develop severe fan belt injuries (including broken jaw bones, severe lacerations, etc.) when the car is started.