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Sue Bush
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Baby, It's Cold Outside: Protecting Pets

By Susan Bush
12:00AM / Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Greylock Animal Hospital veterinarian Katie Wolfgang with "Sky," a miniature Schnauzer dog.
Devouring rich foods, taking an unexpected swim in an icy pond, being left outdoors overnight in below-freezing temperatures, munching on ribbon or tinsel; these situations would be hazardous to humans and pet owners should take a common sense seasonal cue from that, said Greylock Animal Hospital veterinarian Katie Wolfgang.

"In many cases, if it's bad for you, it's probably going to be bad for your pet," she said.

Pets depend on their human caregivers for every need and those needs may increase during the winter, Wolfgang said.

If You Wouldn't Sleep Outside....

So-called "outdoor dogs" must have access to dry shelter during the winter.

"Dogs that live outside must have adequate warmth and coverage," she said. "Most dogs really do need to come inside at night during the winter, and they must be able to stay dry."

Dogs and cats need extra care during the winter months.
Dog owners must pay attention to water dishes or bowls and be certain that the dog's drinking water hasn't frozen. This could require several checks daily, depending on air temperatures. Dog food should be kept fresh.

As dogs age, even "outdoor dogs" should become "indoor dogs," she said. While each situation is different, by the time a dog is nine years old, complete outdoor living should cease. Owners of outdoor dogs should also check the dog's physical condition frequently. The evaluations should be hands-on; weight loss that impacts a dog with a thick coat may difficult to detect visually, she noted.

Fishers And Frostbite

Cats must be brought indoors at night no matter what the weather, Wolfgang said. Predators such as coyotes and fox have been known to carry off cats especially during the winter when food is scarce and nocturnal predators may venture closer to residential areas hosting pet felines.

"Cats are much less likely to be eaten by coyotes and other wildlife if they are inside," she said. "We did have a witness who saw a fisher [similar to a weasel] taking a cat. The cat was saved but the fisher did take it."

"The other thing we see with cats is a darkening at the tip of the ear," Wolfgang said. "This is frostbite and cat owners need to be watching for it."

Care For A Drink?

During recent weeks, Wolfgang and her associates have treated numerous cats with urinary tract blockage problems. Surgical intervention has been necessary in many cases. Wolfgang said she suspects that cats may not be drinking enough water with the onset of chilly weather, and the result is urinary difficulty.

Cat owners should be making certain their cats are drinking and said that many cats enjoy drinking from "fountains" that are available for purchase at pet stores and in the pet supply section of other shopping venues. Some cats will drink from a narrow stream of water running from a faucet, she said.

Boots Are Made For [Dog] Walkin'

Those who enjoy dog companionship as they cross-county ski or hike should be certain that the dog is kept warm. Some small, short-haired dogs are not good candidates for cold weather activities. Hard, crusty snow can cut the pads of a dog's feet, and dog boots are an option to prevent cuts and keep ice balls from forming between a dog's toes during outdoor exercise.

Wolfgang warned that older dogs may be more likely to wander into dangerous situations when outside in the winter. Dogs have broken through thin ice on ponds, stream, or lakes; older dogs are less likely to be able to get themselves to safety.

Wolfgang is aware of a situation that involved a blind dog that wandered into a frigid stream.

And when the temperatures drop, small and miniature versions of dogs are more likely to become hypoglycemic if they do not eat properly, Wolfgang said.

Caged Bird Risks

Even birds, which are most often kept indoors and caged, are at risk during the winter months.

Birds are extremely susceptible to cold temperatures and must be kept in a warm place, Wolfgang said. Those who own a bird and are tempted to use room sprays to add scent or eliminate odors should think twice; birds are very sensitive to aerosol sprays and the products are likely to kill them.

And a Teflon-coated pan that is smoking because of burning creates a deadly environment for birds, she said.

"The smoke is fatal to birds," Wolfgang said.

Pet owners should be particularly astute during the holidays, when pets may encounter unfamiliar people, an increased number of visiting children, and may also be faced with well-meaning folks who want to share treats with a four-legged family companion.

No Tinsel In The Cat's House, Please

And then there's the temptation of dangling holiday tinsel and light-catching glittery ornaments.

Extension and electrical cords pose a hazard to canines and felines. Should the animals chew through the cords, electrical shocks can leave serious burns on an animal and cause a serious respiratory condition as well, Wolfgang said. Tinsel is especially attractive to cats and is equally dangerous.

"We don't recommend tinsel in houses that have cats," she said, and explained that the long slender strands can be ingested by felines.

In some cases, the silvery shreds cause no problem but in other situations, ingested tinsel or ribbon damages feline intestines.

Damage can result in a need for surgical intervention or death, she said.

"Broken or sharp ornaments can cut animals," Wolfgang said. "We recommend putting breakable ornaments high up on a tree."

Christmas tree holders that contain water for "thirsty" trees may attract thirsty animals.

"The Christmas tree water isn't good for dogs or cats, especially if someone is using a preservative for the tree," Wolfgang said.

Precautions should be in place so that the animals cannot access the water.

Potential Pet Toxins

Mistletoe and amaryllis are very toxic to dogs and cats if eaten, and if winter clothing was stored using mothballs, do not permit pet access to the mothballs. Mothballs are also very dangerous to pets, she said. Poinsettia may irritate the mouths of pets and could cause diarrhea and vomiting.

Pets unaccustomed to noisy gatherings may become anxious or agitated during holiday parties. Wolfgang said she is familiar with situations that involved normally calm dogs that have bitten during a large gathering. If a dog is crate-trained or there is an area where a dog can be safely sequestered, separation from party crowds may be a wise option, she said.

High-quality dark chocolate that contains a significant amount of cocoa, macadamia nuts, grapes and raisins have all been attributed to serious health problems and even death for pets, Wolfgang said.

Fat Facts, Bone Density, Corn Control

High amounts of fat, either from a piece of meat offered as a "treat" or ingested when a dog gets hold of suet used as a bird feeder, can lead to conditions such as pancreatitis. Pancreatitis can be fatal to dogs.

"This doesn't mean pets can't have a treat, but stick with lean meat or go for the vegetables," Wolfgang said.

Bones can pose a risk to dogs; dogs with strong jaws may splinter even large bones and sharp edges may cut mouths. Marrow bones host an abundance of dangerous fat, and dogs who ingest bones on a regular basis may become impacted with bone pieces and shards. When this occurs, surgery is a likely result, Wolfgang said.

And it takes just a small amount - as little as two teaspoons - of antifreeze or rat and mouse poison to kill an dog or cat, she said. Great care should be taken to keep dogs and cats away from those substances. Pet and child-safe antifreeze is available for purchase and use at a variety of stores.

Bird-feed that contains corn may create problems for dogs, Wolfgang noted. If corn-laced birdseed collects on the ground and becomes moldy, ingestion by a dog can result in serious health issues and possible death, she said.

"The best thing is to keep the area around a bird-feeder cleaned up," she said.

Time For Your Walk, Mom

Giving a pet as a holiday gift is a risky move, Wolfgang said.

"Don't give pets to someone else unless you know for certain that they want the pet," she advised. "And parents who are getting a pet for a child should know that they will be the one who has the responsibility of caring for it. We do see the throw-away pets here."

"And remember that puppies are a lot harder to housebreak at Christmas and during the winter; they cannot be put outside for long times, so you have to be prepared to make many brief trips. And the puppy may need a sweater. Cats are a huge responsibility as well but the house-training may be easier because of the litterbox. It is easier to have an indoor cat, but cats do have be vaccinated, spayed or neutered, and socialized. Kittens are best socialized between six to nine weeks old and puppies are best socialized when they are between 8 to 12 weeks old."

Exotic pets are even more challenging and if such a purchase is inevitable, Wolfgang strongly advised researching every bit of information available before bringing an exotic pet into a home.

"If you have to have an exotic pet, you better buy the book," she said.

Susan Bush may be reached via e-mail at or at 413-663-3384 ext. 26.

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