Keeping your pets safe in winter and around holidays

Christmas tree close-up at Northside Veterinary Hospital (Christy Perry for The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN, Ala. – It’s officially winter, and that means colder temperatures. There can be many dangers for pets this time of year, so The Tribune sat down with Dr. Stephanie Dickerson at Northside Veterinary Hospital to get her tips on keeping all pets happy and healthy during winter.

The weather was unseasonably warm for Christmas, but Alabama weather has already proven to be quite fickle. The return of freezing temperatures is inevitable.

Dickerson said, “A couple of weeks ago it got well below freezing and most of our animals are not acclimatized to that. Our weather goes from 70 degrees to 32 degrees and it doesn’t give them much chance to get used to it. It’s always good if you have outside animals that you can bring them in when it gets below freezing. Definitely if it gets below 20 degrees.”

For those who can’t bring their pets inside, Dickerson advises having bedding elevated off the ground and at least three sides to protect them from wind and other weather.

She added, “Some people will use pallets in dog houses and build it up. It keeps the bedding from getting damp and the ground can be cold to the touch.”

Shavings are a popular choice for bedding but Dickerson warned, “That can be irritating to animals. There’re oils, and dust can get into their respiratory tract and cause irritation and coughing. It can be stuck in their feet and it can be a little sharp and actually hurt their paws. Some animals are actually allergic to that so when they are laying on that, they can get red and itchy. Blankets, old towels and actually, straw is pretty good bedding.”

Animals always need a fresh water source. During freezing temperatures, it’s important to remember that their water will freeze also.

“We do have some diseases like lepto (leptospirosis) that can be spread through stagnant water. That is a disease that people can get and animals can pass that to people. Make sure animals have fresh water sources instead of relying on mud puddles and that kind of thing when we have this damp soggy weather.” 

Leptospirosis (Weil’s disease) is a bacterial infection spread through the urine of infected animals. Giardiasis is another illness that can be easily transmitted. Giardia is a microscopic parasite found in stagnant water.

Dickerson also pointed out, “Older animals and young ones, they have less tolerance for cold. Younger ones, their immune systems are not as good and older animals, too. Animals with thin body condition, they don’t have the insulation that others do. If they are outside, you’ll have to remember that their calorie consumption is going to be higher. They are going to be using more calories to stay warm and will be needing more food.”

There are some breeds that do like the cooler weather.

Dickerson said, “Huskies, German Shepherds, Chow Chows and those with big thick coats, they do like going outside and don’t get as cold as fast. They are better equipped for it, but your little chihuahuas and dachshunds, they are going to be looking at the door wanting back in.”

There are many hazards for pets during the holidays that can be dangerous.

“Make sure your company doesn’t feed your pet anything from off the plate because they can have diarrhea just from them eating something they aren’t used too,” Dickerson said.

There are common holiday treats that are poisonous to dogs. Chocolate, raisins and macadamia nuts are toxic to animals. Plants such as Poinsettias and Easter Lilies are also toxic to many animals including dogs and cats.

Dickerson also warns pet owners to keep a close eye on decorations and Christmas toys.

She said, “Christmas ornaments- dogs and cats like to play with tinsel and stuff that falls off the tree. Those can be foreign bodies if they eat those. Any kind of toys that they get, especially for dogs but also cats, that have strings or fabric that pulls apart, those can be foreign bodies. Last year we had a dog that had a Christmas toy that ended up having to go to surgery. It had those long chenille type strings on it. He got it for Christmas and it was sad.”

The number one thing Dickerson says to stay away from is jerky treats.

She explained, “Even if it says it was made in the USA, the treat may be made in the USA but the meat may not be sourced from the USA. There’s been a lot of recalls on that. We’ve had a couple of dogs we have diagnosed with Fanconi syndrome where they have sugar spilling into the urine even though they are not diabetic because of those treats.”

If you have a pet emergency during the holidays or after your vet office is closed, call the vet office and follow the instructions on how to seek emergency service. Some vets have their own emergency services while others use the call service through Cullman Regional.

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Christy Perry