The north wind doth blow,
And we shall have snow,
And what will poor robin do then?
He'll sit in a barn,
And keep himself warm,
And hide his head under his wing,
...and winter can be pretty wretched for your dog, too.
I'd like to share some of the tips we've learned over the years to keep dogs safe in winter, along with a few of our other furry friends.
Snow balls can form on long haired dogs - even shorter haired breeds can gather these on their feet, and once they have formed they need to be left to melt (hairdryers can help if your dog will tolerate it). They are very painful for your dog to walk on, so if you spot them, take the dog home for a break. Vaseline between the toes, and keeping long fur trimmed can help. Leave some fur on, as is will help to protect their pads from frozen ground.
If you have a dog whose fur collects snow balls, these can't be removed, time and warmth (or a hairdryer) has to melt them. Snowballs are very painful for your dog to walk on, so if you spot them, take the dog home for a break. If your dog will be left alone after a walk, please leave plenty of towels or blankets and your heating on to keep your dog warm.
Young, elderly, ill or infirm dogs may need a coat when out of doors this winter – dogs with short coats such as Greyhounds or Staffordshire Bull Terriers to name just two would also appreciate a coat. If your dog's ears and paws are cold, your dog is probably cold. Wind is particularly chilling.
Older pets should have a soft bed with raised sides to protect them from draughts. Dogs can be very stoical so get down on the floor and see how their bed feels. Dogs with short coats living in centrally heated homes don't always grow a winter coat in the same way an outdoor dog would. If you turn your heating off at night or while you are out, consider whether your dog might be cold, even indoors and think about getting a separate coat for night times.
Arthritic pets may need slower, shorter walks. Just like us, cold weather can make little aches and pains feel much worse. How can you tell if your dog is feeling sore? Not sure if your dog is sore? Do they lick the same spot a lot, are they slow to get out of bed, or stiff and perhaps a little grumpy if disturbed? Do they observe household goings on from the comfort of a bed, where once they would have been following at your feet? Some limps are very subtle and may not be noticed. A trip to the vet could make your pet more comfortable.
It can be just as dangerous to leave a dog in a cold car as a hot one – make sure your dog is warm enough if you have to leave them for a short while, or that they have a coat or a blanket if at the back of a large vehicle – heating can take some time to warm up the back.
Dogs don't usually need more food in the winter unless they are kept outside, so don't be tempted to give extra food. Outdoor water bowls can ice over, and very cold water is not good for dogs. There is a danger of ice burns to the tongue if the bowl is metal and cold enough, or a ceramic bowl can crack. Float a ball in the water to help prevent icing over, bring the bowl in, or empty it on very cold nights.
If we get heavy snowfall this season, watch out for snow on buildings or trees that might melt and fall – just as your dog is underneath. Check that the height of the snow in the garden doesn't open up an escape route for your dog, or bring down fences.
Ice and snow usually lead to gritting lorries. The salt and other materials can irritate your dogs feet, so you may need to give them a wash when returning from a walk; try not to let your dogs lick their feet in case they ingest something that could make them ill. Dogs, but in particular cats, have a great liking for anti-freeze due to its sweet taste. Keep it well away from your pets because it can be fatal, and don't let them drink from puddles where cars may have been parked. Cats have a tendency to climb into warm places in winter, and this includes car engines. Please be aware and try to be sure where your cat is before you drive off.
Rabbits and guinea pigs are often left outside in the winter. Rabbits can deal with this as long as they are not in a draught or getting damp. For guinea pigs it's pure misery! Bring your guinea pigs into a shed or unused garage, and give them, and rabbits, thick newspaper under the bedding to help insulate. Make sure they have plenty of extra bedding – their sleeping area should have enough hay and straw for them to make a nest, it should reach right up to the top - changed more frequently as if it gets wet (either rain or urine), it will freeze. Bubble wrap is your furry friend's Best Friend, then cable tie a plant pot to the inside of their housing and put the water bottle in there (you may need to cut a hole for the spout). Once their housing is insulated it reduces the risk of the bottle freezing, but keep a spare water bottle to hand to swap them over if one freezes. If you can't get bubble wrap, blankets or a duvet can be used, but only if you can ensure they are covered by a 100% waterproof cover, and water can't creep up from the bottom. If they get wet, your bunny will suffer. Don't forget to spend time with your pets, even if it is cold and dark outside.
Beware of inadvertently poisoning your dog. Chocolate is toxic to dogs, although they may be able to tolerate a small amount of milk chocolate. Call the vet if you suspect they have been at the Quality Streets. Cooking chocolate is much worse, so watch out when chocolate cakes are around. Mistletoe, and in particular the berries, is highly toxic, so make sure they are hung up carefully and can't be pulled down by the dogs. Clear up fallen berries before your dog does.
Frozen lakes and ponds can be extremely dangerous. Just like us dogs can go into shock in cold water and this is why water rescue dogs wear life jackets. Dogs running around in the cold can get warm and then hitting water can be a severe temperature change. Ice is usually thicker around the edges, but may be thin or none at all in the middle of a large lake. If you decide to take your dogs near water in these temperatures, frozen or not frozen, please keep them on lead if they're likely to go in and you'd be unable to stop them. Please don't throw balls or toys around them, and avoid if your dog chases wildlife in case they end up in or on the water/ice. If your dog does fall through ice, never try to recover them yourself, because the ice would also break under you, and you would also be in trouble in the water.
Don't forget to spend time with your pets, even if it is cold and dark outside.