, Newburyport, MA

January 11, 2013

Paw Prints: Keep pets safe during chilly weather

Paw Prints, Heidi Bassler

---- — We’re having a typical New England winter. It was frigid last week, and then it became almost spring-like this week. This pendulous freeze-thaw cycle confuses gardens. Does it affect our pets, too?

Pets need time to get used to temperature extremes. If it’s too cold for you, it’s probably too cold for your pet. Exposing Fido or Fluffy gradually to colder weather can help.

Individual factors can also affect a pet’s ability to acclimate. Puppies and kittens are too young to be thrust into the cold alone. Similarly, senior pets may not be able to adjust to the freezing temperatures. Some health conditions can also make pets less able to acclimate.

Even breed and size can affect a pet’s ability to successfully winterize.

Some dogs, such as retrievers, German shepherds and huskies can grow thicker, warmer coats. Other pets have sparse haircoats that don’t respond adequately to nature’s cues. Many toy breeds, such as chihuahuas, and some large breeds, such as Doberman pinschers, fall into this category. These pets need us to help them stay warm. Doggie sweaters and coats can help protect these pets during limited outdoor time.

Prolonged outdoor time during cold weather increases your pet’s risk of hypothermia. If Fido is wet, the onset of hypothermia can progress dangerously fast.

Don’t let your dog wander onto frozen lakes, especially if temperatures have been fluctuating. Other factors also contribute to ice thickness, such as water depth and nearby currents. The ice can break and Fido may not be able to escape. If this happens, call 911. Ice must be at least four inches thick to safely hold a person. Attempting a rescue yourself may result in dire consequences for both you and your dog.

Paws, tails and ears are susceptible to frostbite. Be especially careful if your dog has cropped ears. Special hats are available that slip over your dog’s head and neck and cover his ears. On extremely cold days, these are appropriate during short walks or other brief trips outdoors.

Cats can be affected by hypothermia and frostbite, too. Most outdoor cats can acclimate to winter weather, but they need shelter from the elements. Elderly, thin or debilitated house cats need special consideration if taken outdoors. Certain breeds, such as the rex or sphynx, have virtually no coats, and can chill quickly. Sweaters are available for these kitties.

When the mercury rises to balmy spring-like temperatures in winter, it’s not all roses. Parasites become more active during milder weather. They don’t check the calendar first.

Ticks are a big problem in our neck of the woods. Deer ticks have a two-year life cycle. They are in frantic search of a blood meal in autumn. The majority are still hungrily hunting when winter falls on us. They hunker down in freezing weather, seeking shelter under mulch, fallen leaves and shrubs.

On mild days, ticks become active again and eagerly search for their blood meal. These mild days often coincide with desirable days to romp with Fido. A single tick bite can transmit both Lyme disease and anaplasmosis to your dog. Protect Fido and use tick prevention during winter months, too.

Fleas are another problem because they also survive all year. Since it’s never winter inside your home, a few fleas that hitchhike their way indoors will hang around for optimal conditions to explode into an infestation. They can also live outdoors in wild animal nests, or in sheltered areas such as under your deck or shed. Like ticks, fleas don’t check the calendar. When Mother Nature surprises us with a taste of spring in winter, you’ll want to know your precious Fido and Fluffy are protected with flea prevention.

If the mild weather lasts long enough, even heartworm disease can be a risk. It’s best to play it safe and protect your pets with year-round heartworm protection.

Gastrointestinal parasites, such as roundworms and hookworms, can be problematic for both four-legged and two-legged family members. Humans, especially children, are at risk when exposed to these parasites. Severe problems, such as permanent vision loss, can result.

These worms can infect your pet regardless of the outdoor temperature. But their risk of transmission increases as the ground thaws. To protect your family and your pet, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends testing for these worms at least annually, and preventing them monthly. The good news is that most monthly heartworm preventives are multi-purpose and also help prevent these zoonotic worms.

Jack Frost likes to play cat and mouse games with winter weather. Enjoy the fun, and be snug and secure with Fido and Fluffy.


Dr. Heidi Bassler practices at Bassler Veterinary Hospital ( She hosts a radio show, “Your Pet’s Health,” every Sunday morning at 8:30 on AM-1450 WNBP. Do you have questions for Dr. Bassler? Send them to