Dogs Can Get Hypothermia Too! Expert Tips on How to Keep Pets Safe and Warm During the Winter

The chief medical officer at Mars Veterinary Health, Jennifer Welser, DVM, DACVO, offers expert advice on how to protect your pet from frostbite, hypothermia, and antifreeze poisoning

dog in snow
Photo: Getty

Winter is here — and it has brought frigid temperatures, travel hassles, and more.

Humans know that the colder season can come with its challenges, but winter precautions need to be taken for pets as well. Like people, cats, dogs, and other animals are affected by the cold weather and other winter hazards.

To help pet parents keep their furry friends safe during the winter, PEOPLE talked to veterinarian Jennifer Welser, DVM, DACVO, the chief medical officer at Mars Veterinary Health.

Wesler is a self-described "lifelong pet lover" that has dedicated her career to keeping animals healthy and happy. She is also a dog mom to rescue canines Doodle, Rhonda, and Mushy Peas.

Read on to see what tips Wesler has for pet owners to help them keep their animals safe and content during the colder months.

What misconceptions do people have about caring for their pets in winter?

Many people believe pets are more resilient to cold weather because they have fur, but the reality is they are susceptible to hypothermia and frostbite, too.

Much like humans, when cold, a dog's body limits blood flow to their extremities and, instead, uses it to keep vital organs warm. This puts extremities at risk of injury and damage, so on very cold days, try to limit the time your pet spends outside and consider using a coat or paw protectors to keep them warm when you have to take them outdoors.

What are the top safety tips you can provide to keep pets safe during the winter?

Pet owners should be careful when walking or playing with their pets outside in extreme temperatures. During winter walks with your pets, stay away from frozen bodies of water, as you don't know if the ice can support your dog's weight.

Recently gritted surfaces can be harmful to dogs when it gets stuck in their paws, causing soreness, redness, or cracking. They may contain salt or other chemicals that can cause further irritation — and be harmful if ingested.

Wipe your dog's paws after walks, and consider using protective booties if your dog will tolerate them. Contact your veterinarian immediately if you suspect your dog may have eaten rock salt.

Another thing to keep in mind, road traffic accidents are common in the winter, so make sure you and your dog are more visible at night. As evenings get darker earlier, remember to wear appropriate reflective clothing and use bright or reflective collars or light-up leashes on pets.

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What are some hazards/toxic substances owners should be extra watchful for because of the season?

Antifreeze, or engine coolant, is something we frequently use for our vehicles when it gets cold, but it can be fatal to dogs and cats, even if a small amount is ingested.

Antifreeze smells and tastes sweet to pets, so it may be irresistible to pets who often come across it after it's leaked or spilled from a car radiator. Cats are particularly susceptible as they drink from puddles and gutters.

Pet owners should not leave antifreeze unattended and clean any spills as soon as possible to protect their pets and other passing animals.

Avoid letting dogs lick around puddles or damp spots on roads and pavement where it looks as though a car has recently been parked to avoid potential de-icer exposure. If you suspect your pet has ingested antifreeze or de-icer, get in touch with your veterinarian as soon as possible, as they can be life-threatening.

What are the best ways to keep pets warm during the winter?

Pets should always have access to a warm, covered space during the winter. If it's very cold, or you're spending more time outdoors, consider a coat and paw protection during walks if necessary — and if your pet will tolerate it.

Small, underweight, very young, or senior pets and those with short hair may be particularly susceptible to extreme temperatures, so it's always best to work with your veterinarian to determine the best situation and solutions for your individual pet's needs.

How can the cold affect your pet? When should you take them to the vet for treatment?

Extremely cold weather can quickly lower your dog's body temperature, causing frostbite and/or hypothermia. If you're out walking, keep a close eye on their paws. Ice and snow can stick to the fur between their pads and ball-up, increasing their frostbite risk.

If your dog lifts their paws, stops walking, or whines, it could be a sign that their paws are too cold. If you notice a change in behavior or have concerns about potential frostbite or hypothermia, contact your veterinarian immediately.

Are there popular winter activities that are unsafe for pets?

Playing outside and going for a walk or hike with your pet can still be safe and fun in the winter, so long as the time in extreme conditions is limited and you stay aware of any signs your pet may be injured or ill.

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