As temperatures dip to below freezing in some parts of the country over the next few days, humans aren't the only ones who should beware of the cold — dogs and cats are also at risk, say animal experts.
Frosty weather can be dangerous for pets, particularly smaller dogs or ones with lighter fur, veterinarian Ashley Levinson said.
"The thinner the coat, the more hair-like the coat, the more exposed they are to the cold in general," said Levinson, who works at the Bergen County Veterinary Center.
Dog owners can help protect their pets by bundling them up and keeping an eye on their behavior — if a pet is at the door and wants to come back inside, the owner should let him come in and warm up, Levinson said.
"Make sure they have a warm place to sleep and warm up when they come in," she said. "If it's too cold for you, it's likely too cold for them."
Outdoor cats, meanwhile, should stay inside as much as possible. But if they insist on being outside, make sure they have a place to get shelter from the wind and snow, Levinson said. If the cat regularly hunts outside, she said owners should leave food out in case prey animals are scarce.
Symptoms of hypothermia in cats and dogs include blue tinting to the skin or lips, lethargy, and disinterest in food. Shivering is also a warning sign for dogs, as they rarely shiver, Levinson said, adding dogs should be kept out of cold water, as that makes their body temperature drop faster than just playing in the snow.
Cats tend to hide when they're not feeling well, making that another warning sign owners should look out for, Levinson said.
Diet is also important to protect pets in the winter, said Steve Shatkin, president of the board of the NJ Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
"They need extra calories in this weather and need to stay hydrated," he said.
He added that owners should try to limit bathing, since that can remove oils from the animal's skin and exacerbate dryness and flaking in the cold. Dogs also should not be shaved down to the skin. Instead, he said, their coats should be allowed to grow out as an extra insulator.
Like in the summer, animals shouldn't be left unattended in vehicles. A car can act like a refrigerator and animals can freeze to death inside, Shatkin said.
In addition to exposure to the cold, a dog or cat's paws are at risk thanks to salt and ice. Levinson said pet owners should take care to wipe down an animal's paws when they come inside so that salt and moisture don't build up, as salt can irritate their paws, and moisture can refreeze into ice when they go out again. Owners should also look for for cuts or soreness from running on ice.
Boots and shoes for dogs can help prevent this kind of damage, she said. Keeping their feet warm when they get inside also helps.
Dogs and cats can also slip and fall on the ice and injure themselves, she said, so owners should be concerned if they come inside limping.
If weather-related symptoms are severe, she said owners should bring the pet to a veterinarian to be checked out.
For dogs kept outdoors in doghouses, Shatkin said the house should not be too large, which can prevent it from holding in the dog's body heat. It should also have something on the entrance, like a flap, to break the wind, and bedding.
The bedding should be a material such as hay, which won't stay wet like pillows or blankets, which soak in water and stay cold and damp, Shatkin said.
Animals also tend to go missing in the winter, particularly cats, Levinson said, when they try to seek shelter from the weather.
"Owners should be proactive by making sure fences are secure. Additionally, dogs should be properly fitted for collars and harnesses for walks," a statement from Animal Rescue R Us, a Lodi-based animal shelter, said.
The shelter also recommends microchipping pets and keeping owners' contact information current to make them easier to find.
Finally, Levinson said owners should be aware of the dangers of antifreeze, which — though toxic — tastes sweet so dogs and cats tend to lick it up when it's spilled. If owners suspect their pets have contacted or ingested any, they should get the animal checked out, Levinson said.