A vet on how to protect your dog against the worst of winter
Precautions and protection for your pup
Winter equals hibernation — unless you have a dog. Dog owners know very well the joys (pains?) of below-zero trips to the dog park. And now that you've switched over to heavy moisturizers and brought out your down-filled coats and warm boots, you need to do the same for your four-legged friend.
We talked to Dr. Alex Folosea, veterinarian and owner of Dundas West Animal Hospital in Toronto, to learn a little more about how to keep your pups happy and healthy this snowy, salty season. Here's his advice on how to bundle up your furry BFFs (and more!) for the foreseeable future.
How cold is too cold to take your dog for a walk?
It's a little tricky to answer that fully, because every animal is a little different. But, typically, with anything below 0 C, start to take some precautions.
Breeds that are short-haired, those that are a little bit younger or older, as well as those that are leaner are more prone to some problems [such as] hypothermia. With any [temperature] below –10 C, start being cautious with how much you're going outside, and make sure that [your dogs] are set up with booties or jackets.
Are there any precautions we can take to keep their paws safe from salt?
If booties are appropriate, then I think that's a really good way of avoiding that … but not every animal will allow for that to happen. So for those that aren't really into that idea, we encourage people to wipe down their dog's paws, either with a damp towel or you can use a lukewarm bucket of water right inside your door, and wash and dry [their paws] off to make sure that you're getting rid of all that junk.
Are dogs' paws and skin susceptible to getting dry and chapped? And if so, are there any balms or creams that we can apply?
Salt can be irritating to their paws and then they lick excessively, and it can cause all kinds of secondary problems. One way of trying to help them with that problem is [using] a paw balm that goes onto their pads — it's really effective at minimizing dry skin and minimizing the amount of damage salt can cause.
And you can always consider things like omega fatty acids for dry coats, because that's another thing that we'll often see — dander on the coat and dry, itchy skin. Fish oils are another thing that can help. If you speak to your vet they'll be able to guide you.
Do you have any suggestions for keeping dogs active when it's really cold out and they can't go to the park as often?
On those days when it's quite cold, go for shorter, more frequent walks as opposed to one really long walk. Things like doggy daycares or indoor play are really good alternatives … they can get some of that energy out so that they're not driving their owners crazy.
If dogs aren't as active this season or going for as many walks, are there any changes that should be made to their diet?
Definitely. You can [manage] it in a few different ways, but it's calories that you probably want to reduce a little bit. And you want to compensate for that decreased activity, because often you'll see in the springtime a lot of the dogs have their winter weight on them, and then they work it off over the summer, and it's kind of a cyclical thing that happens again in the winter.
So we encourage people to try to start modifying the amount food that they're feeding — or treats that they're feeding. Your vet can calculate how to make this change and appropriately feed [your dog] over those winter months, in order to decrease the calories when [your dog] is not expending that energy.
Can dogs get frostbite? And if so, which parts of dogs are most susceptible?
For sure there's such a thing as frostbite and hypothermia with these guys. Just like with people, it's the extremities — their limbs, their ears, their snouts, their paws — that are more prone to issues with hypothermia and frostbite because they're not getting as much circulation and blood to those areas to keep them warm.
Do dogs need to take their flea and tick medication during the winter?
Ticks are becoming more and more of a problem [in Toronto], and we're learning more about it everyday. At this point, we're saying that it's still a good idea year-round, because in anything above 0 C, [ticks and fleas] can still survive. They often hide under leaf litter or grasses that insulate them from the surface temperature … previously, we thought that they wouldn't still be alive.
And another thing that's changing with our [climate] is these wild fluctuations between hot and cold in the winter. So it's not necessarily every single day of the year [that you need to worry about], but it's a good idea to [protect dogs] because ultimately, there will be days where it's warm enough for [fleas and ticks] to come out.
Most of us have a winter storm, power-goes-out kit for ourselves, but what would you recommend we keep in stock for our dogs?
Similar stuff — you want to make sure that they have ample water and food. Make sure that they have things like blankets or their jackets to keep them warm, and some type of activities help to pass the time. For my dog, we have a glow-in-the-dark ball that we play with when the power's out because you can still see it.
Are there any additional winter hazards we should be aware of?
Slippery ice. These guys can slip and fall, and [experience] lameness issues — anywhere from a soft tissue injury to something more serious, like a fracture. A lot of booties have treads and ways to grip ice a little bit better.
The other thing that we'll often see is antifreeze toxicities. Dogs will be in the garage for one reason or another, or on the street, and they're often attracted to this liquid because it's quite sweet ... and it can be pretty toxic and can cause kidney failure. It's something that you have to be mindful of so that you don't have it exposed in the garage … even very small amounts can be very toxic. So just try to keep that area clean by making sure it's not leaking from your car, and making sure that you're not spilling it on the ground and leaving it there.
Long winter nights mean that people are often walking their dogs in the dark. What's the best way to ensure dogs are visible to cars?
There are a few different products out there. A lot of the jackets that are currently being sold have reflective materials on them, so that's always a good idea. My dog has a little ball on her collar that lights up to have some visibility for the cars so that they know someone is walking an animal around there.
What are some of your go-to dog products for winter?
With respect to the balm [I mentioned earlier], there's something that we use that's called Bio Balm here at Dundas West Animal Hospital, which we swear by. I use it on my dog all the time. It's a balm for their pads, and sometimes we'll use it on dry areas like calloused elbows.
There are two options [for booties] that we'll often use. There's Muttluks, which are well-constructed booties that stay on really well, have a velcro strap around them so they don't slip off, and [are] insulated and treaded.
For those that are not as concerned about the insulation, you can always use these little rubber booties — they're almost like little balloons that you slip on their paws. They'll protect from the salt and ice.
We always encourage people, especially in Canada, to get their dogs accustomed to these things when they're quite young. Get them used to it as a puppy by putting their booties on and taking them off, and use positive reinforcement to encourage them and to [show them] that this isn't a bad thing ... [later,] you'll have a lot more success at putting the booties on and keeping them on.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Brittany is a Toronto-based writer and digital producer. You can follow her (mostly her dogs) on Instagram.