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Plunging temperatures and snow flurries prompt pet safety warning from vets

BVA is advising pet owners to take extra precautions to ensure dogs, cats and other small pets are kept safe from winter hazards

08 January 2021, at 10:00am

With freezing temperatures and icy conditions forecast in many parts of the country, the BVA is advising pet owners to take extra precautions to ensure dogs, cats and other small pets are kept safe from hidden and potentially fatal winter hazards.

As with humans, pets can fall ill upon exposure to extremely cold temperatures for extended periods. To avoid this, BVA is asking owners to consider putting a coat on old dogs or those with thin fur to keep them warm. It is also important to wipe your dog’s paws and belly on returning home from a snowy walk to remove any traces of ice or grit, and to regularly check for cracks in paw-pads or for redness between the toes.

Keep older cats inside during an extremely cold spell and ensure that even healthy young cats have easy access to shelter and warmth.

Cats are especially at risk of poisoning from antifreeze at this time of the year, which can be fatal for them even in small amounts. Over half (51 percent) of vets who treated toxic ingestion in cats over the 2019 festive period saw cases caused by antifreeze. Store and use antifreeze products carefully, clean any spillages thoroughly, and contact your vet immediately if your cat develops symptoms of antifreeze poisoning.

Small pets such as rabbits and guinea pigs that usually live outdoors are vulnerable to the cold and damp despite their furry coats. Owners with outdoor hutches and runs should make sure that their pets’ living space is well-protected from snow, frost and winter rain. Give rabbits and guinea pigs extra bedding for warmth and check their water bottle or bowl regularly, as these can freeze when the temperature drops.

Similarly, keepers of backyard flocks of poultry or herds of pigs, goats or other livestock should check drinking water sources frequently to ensure they aren’t frozen.

BVA Senior Vice President Daniella Dos Santos said:

“Freezing temperatures and icy conditions call for extra precautions to keep our pets safe and warm.

“Dogs and cats should have easy access to shelter and warmth out of the cold, and while dogs will still need exercise, owners should take precautions to protect them from the cold. Antifreeze is a huge hazard for cats, so contact your vet immediately if you see signs of poisoning such as vomiting, depression, lack of coordination, seizures and difficulty breathing.

“Snow flurries are no fun for small furries either, with domestic rabbits and guinea pigs vulnerable to hypothermia despite their warm coats. Owners should take steps to ensure any outdoor hutches are well-protected from the snow, cold draughts and winter rain.

“If you have any concerns about your pet in this cold weather, consult your local vet for advice.”

BVA’s top tips to keep pets safe from the cold

  1. Provide a warm, draught-free shelter: Make sure your pet’s bed is in a draught-free, warm spot off the floor in the house. For outdoor pets, the hutch or run should be in a sheltered position, away from wind, rain and snow at least 10 cm off the ground.
  2. Take precautions during and after walks: Dogs need to be exercised but consider putting a coat on old dogs or those with thin fur to keep them warm during walks. Wipe your dog’s paws and belly on returning home from a snowy walk to remove any ice or salt, and regularly check for cracks in paw-pads or for redness between the toes.
  3. Avoid antifreeze poisoning: Wiping your pets’ paws can prevent them from ingesting toxins that they may have stood in whilst outside. Antifreeze in particular is highly toxic for cats even in small amounts. Apart from use in car radiators, some cases that vets see are thought to be from ingesting diluted antifreeze used in ornamental water features to protect the pumps. Store and use antifreeze products carefully and clean any spillages thoroughly.
  4. Take care near frozen water bodies: When walking your dog in ice and snow, do not let it off the lead, and avoid walking in areas where ponds or lakes may have frozen over - animals often don’t understand the difference between solid ground and ice and can fall through. In this situation, we urge owners to call the emergency services for professional help rather than going in after their pet themselves.
  5. Temperature control for small pets: Keep the temperature of rabbit and guinea pig homes between 10⁰C and 20⁰C for rabbits (the lower temperature assumes rabbits are healthy and kept with other rabbits, with lots of bedding for warmth) and between 5⁰C to 20⁰C for guinea pigs, avoiding too many fluctuations in temperature. Also check their water bottle or bowl regularly, as these can freeze when the temperature drops
  6. Provide extra bedding for rabbits and guinea pigs: Make sure your rabbits and guinea pigs have extra bedding to keep warm during colder weather - line hutches with plenty of newspaper, provide lots of hay and cover with an old duvet, blanket or tarpaulin. If the weather becomes very severe, consider moving outdoor pets inside to a well-ventilated space with light and room to exercise – but never place them inside a garage in use, as vehicle exhaust fumes are harmful to rabbits and guinea pigs.