While generally mild, the winter weather in the Pacific Northwest can include everything from overcast skies and 45°f, pouring rain and floods, a significant amount of snow and ice, and everything in between. Surviving the winter with animals can, unfortunately, mean being prepared for any of those situations. The good news is that there are plenty of tips and resources to help you take the best care of your animals during the winter!
General Animal Care
During the cold temperatures, it’s tempting to just curl up next to any heat source and our animals aren’t immune to that. But spots next to a radiator, wood-burning stove, space heaters, or the like can pose a danger to pets, as they’re not aware of how hot they can get and could potentially get burned. It’s also important to make sure that any heat source doesn’t also pose a fire safety risk. Plugging a space heater into a power strip, for example, is a fire risk. Make sure to safely heat your home during the winter, both for your safety and your animals!
Having consistent access to fresh, unfrozen water is also important during this time of year. Safe and heated water sources for outdoor animals can prevent water from freezing over and there are many different options for water heaters that can be adapted for your situation. Your pet’s food will also change during this season. For indoor animals, particularly dogs, their caloric intake may need to be lowered because of a decrease in activity due to the snow. Puzzle toys with food inside are great ways to give your pets their meals while also entertaining them on a particularly gross day.
There are a few winter-related items to keep out of reach and properly stored. Anti-freeze, rat/rodent poison, and flu or cold medications are some of the most common household items that can be dangerous or even fatal for animals. With anti-freeze, its sweet taste is what attracts dogs and ingesting even the smallest amount can quickly lead to death. And with rat or rodent poison, even indirect ingestion is a potential problem, as eating a rodent that was poisoned can cause all sorts of issues for animals of all kinds. If you do have a rodent problem for any reason, consider safer alternatives to protect you, your animals, and the local wildlife.
Outdoor Cat Care
For feral, community, or barn cats, life outside is often all they know and for some cats, it can be what they prefer! On farms and homesteads, barn cats can be great pest control, a big reason why house cats were originally domesticated in the first place. While it may seem like outdoors cats can just fend for themselves (and many do prefer to be left alone), they do need some human intervention.
One way to help barn, feral, and community cats is by providing winter shelters for them. These shelters can provide a safe, warm space for outdoor cats while also giving them that independence and space they often need. The video above is from Hannah Shaw, commonly known as Kitten Lady online, and shares her experience making winter shelters for community cats with a rescue group. There are plenty of other resources out there on how to make these types of feline shelters if you’d like to try this!
General Dog Care
Man’s best friend comes in many different sizes, coats, and temperaments, which means that there really is no universal kind of care that will work for every single dog. A chihuahua is going to have a much harder time in 40°f compared to a Great Pyrenees in 30°f and they are going to have different types of winter care. However, there are some general things that can help keep your dog safe and warm. Sweaters, for example, are just some of the useful winter pet products that exist.
Taking care of your dog’s paws will be vital during the wintertime. Like humans, a dog’s paws can get dry in the winter and paw balm can help prevent dry skin and other types of damage. While you can buy all types of paw balm, it’s also possible to make it yourself! Just make sure to not use cocoa butter, as it’s toxic to dogs.
Additionally, getting booties for their feet (and getting them comfortable wearing them!) can be very important for icy or snowy days. Road salt can be hell on your dog’s paws and the accidental ingestion from licking their paws can also cause a plethora of issues. Snow can also easily get compacted between a dog’s toes, a painful experience for our canine friends. If you’re planning on a longer excursion in the snow or live in areas that get prolonged amounts of snow, boots could be a great investment.
For dogs that live outdoors, like livestock guardian dogs, there are some precautionary measures that can allow them to both survive and thrive during the winter. Of course, a dog’s breed, age, and size will make a big difference but generally, dogs that live outside in the Pacific Northwest and other areas are often already dogs that can handle the cold. Proper housing and shelter can also make a difference and a well-insulated and ventilated doghouse can help. The size of the doghouse will depend on the size of your outdoor dog, as the square footage needs to be just right. Your dog needs to be able to move around in the space but it shouldn’t be too large either, as it’ll become drafty and won’t contain their body heat well.
There are plenty of dogs that thrive in cold weather and many others that should not be kept outside. Dogs with short coats, senior dogs, and smaller dogs are all examples of that, as there are a few different reasons why they may not be able to survive long periods in the elements. Short-haired or small dogs have a more difficult time keeping warm in cold temperatures. Similarly, senior dogs have trouble regulating their body temperatures, meaning that they are more susceptible to weather-related issues regardless of breed.
The breeds that do well outdoors in snowy weather are the ones you’d expect to do well. The Great Pyrenees, Siberian Husky, Tibetan Mastiff are just a few examples. These breeds have more than a few things in common but their thick, double coats are why they’re often able to handle snow and cold weather. Even with those magnificent coats, these dogs will always need care during the winter and consistent access to a warm shelter of some kind.
Backyard Chicken Care
If you have the space and time for them, backyard chickens can be a wonderful addition to any yard, farm, or homestead! Chicken care during the winter will need to be adjusted for the weather to make sure your feathered friends stay alive and are comfortable during the winter months. As far as heating the coop in colder temperatures, having a heat lamp is rarely needed for chickens but it might be the solution in some situations. But heat lamps can be a dangerous fire hazard and there are other types of heaters that can provide heat for a coop, especially for those with a backyard flock. Similarly, deep litter is a natural way to use some types of yard waste to heat up a coop.
Hypothermia and Frostbite in Animals
Like humans, animals can develop hypothermia and frostbite during the winter and it’s vital to an eye on your pets and animals. You’ll have to keep an eye on even the most cold hardy chickens. Frostbite symptoms can include shivering, bright red, pale, or even black skin, swelling, blisters or skin ulcers, and cold or icy body parts. For dogs, their ears, tail, and feet are particularly susceptible to frostbite and the clinical signs can take several days to appear if the area is small or in a non-weight bearing area. Hypothermia symptoms can include shivering, weakness, muscle stiffness, pale gums, and a low body temperature. For dogs and cats, that’s anything below 100° F, as our furry companions tend to run hotter than humans.
Prevention is by far the preferable way to deal with hypothermia and frostbite. Limiting their time outside, giving access to a warm, dry shelter, and never letting them out in freezing temperatures while wet are all ways to keep them safe. However, life can have a way of surprising us in the worst possible ways and there may, unfortunately, be times where your pets/animals do get frostbite or hypothermia. In those cases, treatment can include warming the skin (but not rubbing the area!) with indirect sources of heat like warm towels and blankets, stimulating circulation, applying aloe vera to frostbitten skin, and talking with a vet. In some situations, a trip to the vet or emergency hospital for warm IV fluids or other more intense treatments may be necessary.
As climate change continues to warm the planet and worsen natural disasters, people all around the world are regularly dealing with emergencies of all kinds. In the cases of flooding, frozen pipes, massive snow storms, do you have an emergency plan for you and your animals? Having an emergency kit for you, your family, and your pets can go a long way in some situations. And while we cannot prepare for any and every emergency, having a plan could help take some of the stress and terror out of it.
Ultimately, the winter in the Pacific Northwest can include weather ranging from high speed winds, snow storms, atmospheric floods, and more. Being prepared and aware of how to care for your pets can make a difference during the darkest months of the year and there are still ways to have fun on short days with bad weather. Indoor agility courses can be fun for high energy dogs and puzzle toys can also keep many dogs engaged while inside.
What are your favorite winter activities to do with your pets? Let me know in the comments!