Helping Pets Cope with Temperature Extremes

My thick-coated mixed-breed dog, Jack, loves to play in the snow. He's happy to romp around an icy park for an hour and only stops when the fur between his toes is matted with chunks of ice. He loves the park in the spring and fall, as well, running at top speed, and only taking breaks to grab a quick drink of water. But in the middle of summer, he'll only play for a few minutes before seeking out some shade to rest.
I pay careful attention to his energy level and enthusiasm, especially on cold or hot days. If he shows any signs of fatigue or distress, I take him home immediately. It's easy to think that, as animals, our pets are always perfectly happy spending lots of time outdoors. In reality, they're very much like us: domesticated creatures that are accustomed to spending most of their time in a temperature-controlled environment.

Cold-Weather Tips for Dog Owners
Unlike Jack, most dogs will let you know when they're ready to come in from the cold, but you should play close attention to your pets on winter walks to make sure they're staying warm enough. For short-haired dogs, consider providing an insulated jacket or sweater, especially if they're prone to shivering after a short time outside.
To keep them comfortable if the thermostat is programmed to go down during the day, provide a self-warming crate pad or blanket for them to snuggle under. And at bedtime, let them cozy up to a microwavable heating pad to add a little extra warmth to their sleeping spot. If your pet spends a considerable amount of time outdoors, make sure he or she has access to adequate shelter. A dog house with a heated bed is the most reliable solution, but even clean, dry straw can help your pet stay warm. (Remember, always adhere to manufacturer's instructions when using any electronic heating device. Any device has the potential to malfunction, so they should be used with caution whenever your pet isn't under your direct supervision.)
Access to clean water that won't freeze is the most crucial cold-weather care tip. Use a heated pet bowl to make sure your dog doesn't try to drink from puddles that have been contaminated with oil or antifreeze.
Other winter dangers that dogs face include:
  • Salted roads and sidewalks can be rough on a dog's feet and cause them to bleed. Licking the substances off his feet can also make your pet sick. Always be sure to clean your dog's feet when you get home from a walk or you can try special dog boots to provide extra protection.
  • Cold can aggravate arthritis, making slippery steps even more treacherous for older dogs. Watch your pet carefully and stay close by in case he needs assistance.
  • If you use a space heater, make sure the outside doesn't get hot enough to burn your dog. Choose a model that will turn off automatically if overturned.

Cold-Weather Tips for Cat Owners
While some cats are allowed to roam freely outdoors, and others live outside full time on farms or in rural areas, most experts recommend that cats be kept indoors at all times to protect them from disease and injury. For indoor cats, winter weather poses only a mild inconvenience, which is easily solved by finding a heating vent to sleep on or a blanket to burrow under. If your thermostat is set to automatically go down during the day while you're at work, make sure your feline companion has a warm place like an insulated cat bed to keep him toasty. (If he does gravitate to heating vents, make sure they don't get too hot. Place your hand directly over the vent when the heat is on to make sure the temperature is comfortable.)
If your kitty spends a significant amount of time outside, provide a heated outdoor shelter to protect from frostbite and hypothermia. For example, the K&H Outdoor Kitty House is made of waterproof nylon and vinyl and features a removable heated bed. You can also add something like the Thermal Cat Mat to a non-heated outdoor shelter (or use it indoors). The mat features a core that reflects the animal's body heat without the use of electricity.

Other winter dangers that outdoor cats face include:
  • Being injured from seeking shelter under the hoods of cars
  • Getting lost in the snow
  • Getting poisoned from ingesting antifreeze
  • Becoming dehydrated when they can't find a source of unfrozen water to drink
  • Falling through thin ice on a semi-frozen pond
Hot-Weather Tips for Pet Owners
The most important hot-weather rule that all pet owners should know by now is to never, ever, under any circumstances leave an animal in a car, even with the windows cracked. The same is true for leaving an animal confined outside without shelter or the ability to move to a shaded area. Some breeds, like pugs and Persian cats, are especially susceptible to overheating because their short snouts prevent them from panting effectively, the main mechanism cats and dogs use to keep themselves cool.
Even if you keep your pets inside, make sure they have access to fresh water at all times, which will help regulate their body temperature. You can even use a special bowl to keep the water chilled on hot days. If your pet is outside, make sure the water source is not in direct sunlight (which can change throughout the day) and that it's in a spill-proof bowl.
Other hot-weather considerations for cat owners are:
  • Make sure all open windows are fitted with secure screens to prevent high-rise syndrome, where cats accidentally fall from open windows, terraces or fire-escapes. Depending on the height of the fall, cats can injure their heads or pelvises or even be killed.
  • Long-haired cats and cats with fur that mats easily should be brushed frequently to keep excess hair from trapping heat against their bodies. 
Other hot-weather considerations for dog owners are:
  • Before taking your dog for a walk, make sure the concrete or asphalt isn't too hot for their paws. Put your own hand on the ground. If you can't leave it there comfortably, it's too hot for your dog.
  • You might think that you should shave a long-haired dog to keep him cool in the summer, but his fur actually provides insulation to protect him from the sun. If he seems very uncomfortable in the heat, make sure his fur is well-brushed and free of mats. Or you can give him a summer cut without shaving him to the skin.
  • Short-haired dogs and dogs with light-colored noses might need sunscreen to protect them from strong rays.
  • If you're going to be spending a lot of time outside with your dog, you can use a special collar or vest to help him stay cool.
Your own level of comfort is the best rule of thumb in any extreme weather situation. If you're too cold or too hard, it's likely that your pet would be too. If you suspect your dog or cat could be suffering from hypothermia or heat stroke, get your pet to a veterinarian immediately.

This article has been reviewed and approved by Kristi Snyder, DVM.
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ASPCA, "Hot Weather Tips,", accessed on August 22, 2013.

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PetMD, "Winter Walking Dangers for Cats and Dogs,", accessed on August 22, 2013.