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As I piled on clothing layers for my early-morning dog walk today, I wondered how long I could safely take my skinny, little terrier outside in the subzero temperatures and biting wind. Kirsten Theisen, director of pet care Issues at the Humane Society confirms that the blast of frigid weather that's gripping much of the United States poses a real health risk to pets. "Even our huskies and malamutes, breeds that we envision as winter-ready, are many generations removed from their sled dog cousins," she tells Yahoo Shine.
Theisen says the extreme wind chill caused by the polar vortex is a big issue. "Our pets are experiencing the same risk for frostbite and hypothermia that we do," she says. She points out that while we humans might be able to cover most of our bodies with winter clothing, "pets have exposed skin — their ears, their pads, their noses." For example, "Your cat might act like they want to go outside, but it's just not safe in these conditions. Their ears are especially vulnerable to frostbite."
Look for signs that your pet is cold. If your dog is pulling up its feet one at a time while outside on a walk, it's a sign its footpads are getting frigid. Lying in a tight, curled ball also indicates that a dog or cat is trying to stay warm. Watch out for fur that looks puffed up. "That means they are getting too cold and need your help to get to a warmer place," says Theisen.
Buy your dog a coat or sweater. Winter coats and sweaters are especially important for dogs with short or thin coats. Look for one with a wide strap that keeps their vulnerable belly warm. A dog or cat bed also helps your pet stay cozy at night and off the drafty floor.
Keep your dog on a leash when it's snowing or icy. The ASPCA warns that dogs' sense of smell is diminished by snow and ice and says that more dogs become lost in the winter than any other season.
Wipe your dog's feet after coming in from a walk. Deicers, salt, and sand all contain irritants that can harm your pet's skin or sicken them if ingested.
Antifreeze can kill dogs. Avoid leaving your dog in a garage and watch for puddles of accumulated antifreeze in parking lots. Theisen says that while some companies have started adding bitter flavor agents, antifreeze can taste and smell sweet and is highly toxic.
Never leave a dog or cat in a car alone. Temperatures can plummet inside a car making your pet vulnerable to hypothermia or even death.
Be aware of the location of cages for small pets, such as birds or hamsters. "Small animals should be moved to the warmest area of the house," advises Theisen. "While a bird might enjoy being near a window, during this stormy weather, you may need to move its cage to a more insulated spot."
Even if you have an 'outdoor pet,' it's time to bring it inside. "Pets who normally live outdoors should be brought inside as protection against the harsh conditions," a spokesperson for the ASPCA tells Yahoo Shine. "Intermittent outdoor time for dogs to relieve themselves should be limited, and walks should be kept as brief as possible."
Puppies are especially vulnerable to cold. New puppies may never have been outdoors at all so they aren't acclimated to low temperatures. If you are housetraining a puppy, you might need stick with paper-training until the weather warms up.
— Sarah B. Weir