Keep pets safe and warm through winter cold

'Twenty-four hours could mean life or death' says animal control director

OSCEOLA COUNTY — Snow, wind, and subzero temperatures can make the winter season unbearable for those who have to be outside.

Animals are just as susceptible to winter weather conditions as humans, and need extra care during winter months.

"If it's too cold for you, it's too cold for your pet," said Osceola County Animal Control Director Michelle Kuz. "Twenty-four hours could mean life or death."

Pets that are kept outdoors or are frequently left in the elements must have the proper requirements to keep healthy and survive through the long months of winter. Having adequate shelter is a must. For dogs and cats, houses should face south or southeast to block the wind, Kuz said, and should only be large enough for the animal to stand up in and turn around. Too big of an area does not keep warm, she added.

In addition, that shelter should have a bed made of straw, not blankets or pillows.

"Straw will keep the animal warm," Kuz said. "Blankets and comforters retain wetness and cold, and that's problematic."

For animals on a chain, a simple 2 x 4 piece of wood at the edge of the shelter should prevent the chain pulling straw out of the shelter. Heating pads that do not come in direct contact with the animal, or wrapping bottles of hot water in a towel before placing them inside a house also are options.

Ways to construct simple and easy shelters for domestic and stray dogs and cats can be found online.

Cynthia Glazier, manager at the Animal Rescue Coalition of Mecosta County, urges pet owners to think twice before placing the animals outdoors during this time of year. Making sure pets have identification on them during the winter can be a safeguard against runaways becoming stranded in the cold.

"If you're going to have an animal, you need to keep it indoors through the winter," she said. "Even if it's a dog breed which is more accustomed to

winter, sometimes that's not enough."

Making sure the pet has plenty of nutritious food and water is vital to surviving through the winter while outside. Because it takes a lot of energy to keep warm, animals typically will eat more during the winter, Kuz said. Keeping fresh water available is important, as snow is not an alternative for hydration. Because water can freeze when left outside, having at least one other bowl ready to switch out is handy. Heater water bowls are available at pet stores, as well.

Winter items found around the house also can be toxic or harmful for animals who are outside. Antifreeze leaking from cars or containers is poisonous. Ice melt and some salts also can be hazardous if stuck to the skin or paws, especially if the animal begins licking it off. Some stores do offer pet-friendly ice melt, Glazier said.

Cleaning the paws with a damp cloth can help, and it always good to get the snow from between the paw pads, which can become matted in the fur and cause discomfort.

Keeping warm through the day is one challenge for outdoor-dwelling pets, but the night brings plummeting temperatures that can prove dangerous.

"At night, if possible, bring the dog or cat inside the house or at least into a garage or basement," Glazier said. "Dogs that are small and have short hair should have sweaters or jackets and should not be outside for more than about 15 minutes at a time."

When pets are left too long in the frigid winter temperatures, they run the risk of suffering from hypothermia and frostbite. Ears and paws are most at risk for frostbite, and could need to be amputated if the condition is severe. When hypothermia sets in, Kuz said animals become lethargic and disorientated, almost appearing as injured. If pets are found in such a condition, they need to be warmed up slowly and taken to see a veterinarian, she added.

At ARC, Glazier sometimes comes in contact with animals who have been subjected to outdoor winter weather.

"It's really sad to see," she said. "You can see the animal is suffering."

Penalties can occur for individuals who leave animals outside for long periods of time, but the issue is sensitive and depends on if the pet owner has adequate shelter. Kuz said she typically speaks to the owner about her concerns and gives the owner tips and a period of time to make needed changes. If the individual does not comply, she can issue a citation for animal neglect or cruelty. In rare cases of abandonment, she has pulled animals from homes.

Many farm animals do not need much protection during winter, but shelters that block the wind and heated water troughs can make a world of difference when it comes to keeping them healthy and safe.

"I think it's just important to be prepared for any type of weather," Kuz added. "Make sure to check on your pets two to three times each day if they're going to stay outside."

Osceola County residents who have questions or concerns about local animals can call Osceola County Animal Control at (231) 832-5790 or Mecosta County Animal Control at (231) 796-2221.