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Integrative Pet Vet column: Winter conditions and pets require planning

Dr. Ron Carsten

Colorado winters bring cold, snow and ice. Adapting to these conditions for ourselves and our pet companions can sometimes be challenging. This is especially true for older pets that may have osteoarthritis or other age-related diseases like kidney or heart disease. They may be less tolerant of the cold and may not have the muscle strength and coordination to handle unstable footing on ice. Being aware and helping our pet companions address these challenges is important.

When outside temperatures are cold, outdoor activities should be adjusted to the pet’s health and ability to handle the cold, snow or ice conditions. For some pets this involves shortened walks, using booties to improve traction or wearing a pet coat. Proper fit for the booties and coats are important. Be careful that the pet does not overheat while wearing a coat. This means that selection of the coat should be based on the pet’s overall health like body weight, hair coat and medical issues as well as the weather conditions.

The optimal amount of exercise is dependent on the dog breed, age and health. Daily 30-minute walks may be sufficient for some, while other dogs need much more. One way to comfortably manage the level of needed activity and weather includes going out during the warmest part of the day. This may be easier this winter with many working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Multiple short periods of activity may be best depending colder weather conditions. Some pets benefit from extra support using devices like the Help ’Em Up Harness. This is valuable because these devices can help to prevent or reduce slipping and injury to soft tissues like tendons, muscles and ligaments. Some pets may also benefit from soft support braces for joints like the carpal joints (wrist area). This should be discussed with your veterinarian.



When walking be aware of conditions like ice and slush since many sidewalks and streets are treated with ice melt products. The ice melt can be irritating to feet and skin. Some dogs will have immediate reactions like discomfort in the feet after contact with the ice melt, so avoid these areas if possible. If not possible, rinse the feet after walking. This will help to avoid continued damage to the skin and avoid ingestion of the ice melt material while grooming. Depending on the quantity ingested, there may only be irritation in the mouth causing increased salivation. Too much ingestion can cause metabolic issues.

In addition to minimizing exposure to deicing compounds, it is vital to avoid toxic substances like antifreeze. Antifreeze can be accidentally spilled or left in an unsecured container.



For days when the weather is severe or getting outside is not feasible, don’t forget indoor activities that can provide exercise and mental stimulation. Simple indoor activities can include hide-n-seek, find the treat, fetch, and practicing tricks and training. Don’t forget that cats enjoy and benefit from indoor activities. Tables, chairs, broom handles and blankets can be used for hide-n-seek or creation of an agility course. It is important to remember that all these activities should be safe and enjoyable for everyone involved.

During cold weather, it is essential that all pets have access to areas that are sufficiently heated. Pets should not be left outside for extended periods without shelter especially if weather conditions are too severe for that pet. Fresh water that is not frozen should always be available. Enough food to meet calorie needs should be readily available. Calories are important for providing energy and generating body heat. Signs of being too cold include whining, shivering, looking for a sheltered place or stopping play.

While awareness of potential winter health and safety issues is important, so is recognition of the benefits of daily activity for both exercise and mental stimulation. Contact your veterinarian if you have any questions about your pet companion’s health.

Ron Carsten, DVM, PhD, CVA, CCRT was one of the first veterinarians in Colorado to use the integrative approach, has lectured widely to veterinarians, and has been a pioneer in the therapeutic use of food concentrates to manage clinical problems. He is also the founder of Colorado Animal Rescue (CARE). In addition to his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, he holds a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology and is a Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist and Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist. He practices integrative veterinary medicine in Glenwood Springs.


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