Cold weather pet safety: How to keep dogs and cats warm in winter

January 19, 2022

Learn everything you need to know to keep your pets warm and safe during the cold winter months in Texas!

Keeping pets warm during winter

When the next cold front swoops down and brings the bitter cold from the north to our doorstep, you'll probably leap for your winter coat and turn on the heater! However, while we can easily bundle up, our pets often need a hand (or a paw) to stay warm in winter.

But how do you know when your pet is too cold? Is a dog or cat's fur coat enough, or do they need something extra? How exactly do you keep your pets warm in cold weather? Today, we'll tell you everything you need to know about cold weather pet safety and give you tips to keep your dogs and cats warm in winter - read on!

Keeping pets warm in winter

What is your favorite winter weather clothing accessory? Perhaps you enjoy a stylish pair of gloves or mittens! Maybe you have a closet full of scarves you can't wait to show off. Some people love a good, thick pair of socks to keep their toes toasty. Or maybe you're one of the many people who enjoy delightfully tacky Christmas sweaters.

No matter what you prefer, the point is that you get to choose! But when those cold fronts begin to blow in from the north, our pets only have one coat to choose from, and it is often not enough to protect them from the cold.

If it's too cold for you, it's too cold for your pet

Dogs and cats come in all shapes and sizes with a wide variety of fur coats. While some were bred in colder climates and can withstand colder conditions, they can still easily succumb to frostbite and hypothermia.

That's why the saying, "If it's too cold for you, it's too cold for your pet," is a good rule of thumb to keep in mind. If you assume that your pet is just as cold as you are and take similar measures to keep them warm in those conditions, you can be sure they'll be comfortable and, most importantly, safe from the harmful effects of frigid temperatures. 

Keeping indoor pets warm

Being indoors can give the impression that you're out of the cold, but this isn't always the case. Depending on the size and layout of your home, some rooms can get extremely cold during the winter! This is especially true if you heat your home sparingly during the winter. 

For example, some people will close off less-frequently used rooms to save on heating costs during the winter. Others may not use central heat, but instead use a fireplace to warm the common area. Whatever the case may be, if you have portions of your home that may get considerably colder than others, make sure that your indoor pet has access to the warmer parts of the house. 

It is also important to remember that hot air rises! This means that the area just above the floor - the area where your pet spends most of their time - is likely to be colder than the air around your upper body, especially if you have tile or concrete floors. Additionally, this may also mean that the upper floor of a multi-story floor is likely to be warmer than the lower floors.

In order to make sure your pet is warm indoors, consider providing them with a padded or insulated bed. You can even find heated pet beds, which are the same basic idea as an electric blanket. If you have the ability to place the bed some distance up off the ground, this can go a long way to keeping your pet warm. 

Lastly, don't forget about your pet when you leave the house! It's fairly common for people to turn their heat down or off when they leave the house. If you plan on leaving your pet indoors for an extended period of time during the winter, don't' forget to provide them a place to stay warm. Make sure your thermostat doesn't fall below 68 degrees, or make a small space that you can keep warm for your pet while the rest of the home cools down.

Winter shelter for outdoor dogs and cats

While keeping a pet indoors during the winter might be preferable in general terms, it is, of course, not always practical or possible to do so; some pets simply don't do well inside. If your pet is going to spend most or all of its time outdoors during the winter, it's important to take extra care to keep them warm, and providing adequate shelter is perhaps the most important step. 

Winter shelter requirements

There are plenty of ways to build a shelter, and there are even a number of quality premade shelters available for purchase. But regardless of how you build your shelter or where you get it, it should satisfy these requirements. 

Dry, insulated, and covered. An outdoor pet shelter for the winter months can come in all shapes and sizes, but an adequate shelter must provide a space that is dry, insulated, and covered from the wind. While the cold can be bad enough on its own, it is made far more dangerous by being damp or wet, especially with a biting wind. When a shelter is sufficiently insulated, your pet's own body heat will accumulate within the shelter and help keep them warm. 

Padding, bedding.
 It's also a good idea to add something extra for your dog or cat to burrow into to help further trap their body heat. Straw and cedar shavings are likely the best option as they can provide insulation without retaining moisture, like hay (don't use hay). You can also use towels or blankets, but these can also accumulate and hold moisture, so only use these options if you can regularly change them and provide fresh bedding. 

Just the right size. Choose a winter shelter for your pet that is large enough for them to comfortably move around in, but small enough that they can heat the air inside with their own body heat. 

Cover the entrance. Cover the entrance with something they can easily get through, but strong enough to stand against the wind. Some shelters may come with a rubber or plastic flap, but you can use something like a burlap sack. 

Outdoor shelter placement

Apart from the make of your pet's shelter, where you place it is important as well. 

Off the ground, out of the elements.  Place your pet's shelter somewhere that it will be out of the rain and wind, or at least is in a place where these factors are mitigated as much as possible. For example, a covered porch or patio would make a great spot to place your pet's winter shelter. Raising it offer the ground prevents water from flowing in or snow from blocking the entrance as it gathers. If you are able to raise it a few inches off the ground, you can stuff straw beneath it for extra insulation. 

Special considerations for cats. Shelter placement for cats may require a bit more consideration simply because cats are so skittish; if there is too much traffic, the kitty may become scared and refuse to enter the shelter, or feel the need to flee it frequently. 

Escape hatch. Shelter for cats should ideally have an extra exit so they can escape if something tries to come in after them, like a wild animal or even another cat. For this reason, a smaller entrance is also a good idea - just large enough for them to get through, but small enough that larger animals won't be able to make it inside. 

Are heated shelters a good option?

If you've looked online for premade winter shelters for your pet, you may have seen that some of them come with a heated option. Heated beds and shelters are great, but not all of them are made to withstand the elements outdoors. Make sure that you carefully read instructions and warnings to ensure that they are rated for outdoor exposure. Electronically heated beds and shelters, of course, require power chords and some pets are prone to chewing. While some are made to be chew resistant, this may not be a good option if your pet loves to gnaw on things. 

As an alternative to electronically heated beds, there are thermal beds which don't require power at all. They don't generate heat themselves, but instead absorb and radiate their body heat back towards your pet. 

Use additional heat sources if necessary

Whether your pet is an indoor or outdoor pet, sometimes a little extra heat is needed during the more brutal parts of the winter months. Heat lamps, space heaters and heat bricks can all be used to add warmth to an indoor room or some outdoor shelters, but you should exercise extreme caution when using them.

Because these heat sources can burn your pets or potentially start a fire if knocked over onto bedding, they should be placed in a safe and secure spot away from flammable materials and where your pet cannot reach them. Of course, this means that small outdoor shelters will not be able to safely make use of them, but they may be useful if your pet stays in a larger outdoor shelter. 

Lastly, if you do use such a heat source, check on it frequently and don't leave it unattended for long stretches of time. It is important to only use secondary heat sources when it is absolutely necessary to protect your pet from the cold.

In addition to creating a warm, dry shelter for your pet, dogs and cats have a number of special cold weather care considerations you'll want to understand that are specific to the breed. Next, we'll take a look at cold weather safety tips specifically for dogs and specifically for cats!

How to keep your dog warm in winter

If you own a dog, it'll come as no surprise to you that they require certain care that cats do not. While keeping a pet warm during winter is roughly the same no matter what kind of furry friend you have, your dog will appreciate the extra care we'll outline below.

How can you tell when your dog is too cold?

Just like humans, dogs often show plenty of obvious signs when they are too cold. They will shiver and shake, and generally show signs of being uncomfortable at the very least. They may hold up their paws if it is too cold on their pads. Whining, whimpering, slowing down, or searching around for warm spots are all good indicators that your pup needs a warm up.

Get your dog a sweater

Sweaters for dogs aren't just cute - they're practical! When it gets around 45 degrees, certain dog breeds (like those mentioned above) may need a sweater to be safe and comfortable outdoors during the winter.  The same goes for puppies and senior dogs, who need extra protection from the cold. 

Should you shave your dog during the winter? 

Some say that you should never shave your dog during the winter because their coat is designed to keep them warm. Others say that as long as your dog spends most of their time indoors, it isn't an issue. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle. 

It is certainly true that some breeds grow special winter coats that are designed to insulate their skin and keep them warm during the winter. If your dog spends a significant amount of time outdoors, then they likely need their coat to stay warm. That having been said, if they don't spend much time outdoors, they may not have the same need for one, and a sweater may do just as well. 

In any case, it is important to remember that shaving is not the same as grooming. For some breeds, grooming is an absolute necessity and may need to be done regularly to prevent serious issues. You should be able to groom your dog's coat without compromising their ability to stay warm. 

At the end of the day, it is best that you consult the advice and expertise of your vet when it comes to whether or not it is okay to shave your dog and when it is best to do so (or not do so). There are so many different breeds and each one has specific needs and requirements when it comes to care. 

Avoid long walks with your dog in the winter

It is important to offer your pet opportunities for exercise throughout the entire year, even in the winter. However, you should avoid exposing your pet to frigid temperatures for long periods of time. If you and your dog go on a daily walk, make sure to shave off a few minutes if the temperature is extremely cold. Take shorter, more frequent walks to get your dog exercise during the winter.

Does your dog need booties for the cold?

Most dogs don't need booties for the cold, and it can even make it difficult for them to walk and maneuver correctly. However, if they have an injury it may help protect them. It is also important to know whether or not deicing methods have been used in your area, such as rock salt. It can accumulate on their paws and poison them if they lick it off, so boots can be necessary in those cases.

Talk to your neighborhood about deicing solutions

In Texas, your neighborhood may not have a standardized way to deal with icy roads and sidewalks, and your neighbors may not have even thought about it - which means they may not have thought about the potential hazard certain methods can pose to your dog. There are pet safe methods to deice surfaces, so speak to your HoA or simply talk to your neighbors before winter to get on the same page as far as deicing methods.

How to keep your cats warm in winter

You may not have to worry about taking your cat on walks during the winter, but kitties need special winter care, too! We'll take a look at some special considerations for your feline friend below.

How can you tell if your cat is too cold?

Unlike dogs and people, cats prefer to hide their discomfort, so it can often be difficult to tell that your cat is too cold. However, you can look for some common signs, such as:
  • Shivering, hunching puffing out their coat
  • Cold tail, nose/extremities
  • Constantly moving around to find a warmer spot
If they are sluggish with shallow breathing, dilated pupils, they may be in the stages of hypothermia. Do your best to keep them warm on the way to the vet.

Sweaters for cat?

If you're a cat owner, you are probably laughing at the idea of putting a sweater on your feline friend. You may have foolishly tried in the past, only to come back with both the sweater and your hands torn to shreds. In the event that you are able to actually get it on and around the cat, many will simply sit down and refuse to move until it is off. Still, you don't know until you try! 

Yes it's true, as hard as it may be to believe, some cats really don't have a problem with a sweater. If you are lucky enough to have such a docile kitty, a sweater can be a great way to ensure your cat is protected from the winter cold. This can be especially important if you have a hairless cat, such as a Sphynx. 

But no one will blame you if you decide to spare yourself the pain.

Find the sun spots

You have probably noticed your cat lounging in sun spots - they love to soak it up! In the winter, sleeping in the sun can be an important way that your kitty helps stay warm. If your cat is indoors, consider moving their beds to a place where the sun shines for a good portion of the day. The extra padding from the bedding will work with the sun's rays and keep kitty comfortable. Especially important if you have tile or concrete floors.

Be aware of cats sheltered in cars

Unlike dogs, cats are very good at finding little tiny warm places to shelter from the cold during winter. This means that they often seek the warmth of a recently used car engine, crawling up from underneath into the wheel well, or somewhere under the hood. While this might be a great place for them to hide from the cold, it can be deadly. If they fail to escape the vehicle when it fires back up, they can be seriously injured or killed, burned, or dropped out on the road when the car is in motion. 

If you have a garage, you probably already have your car inside where cats can't sneak in. However, if you live in an area with stray cats, or if you have an outdoor cat, it is always a good idea to check under the hood for stowaways before firing up your car if it isn't in a garage. You can take a quick peek in the wheel wells, or simply pop the hood. You can also walk around and bang on the hood gently, but this might not rouse them if they're tightly nestled in place.

General cold weather safety tips to keep pets warm in winter

Now that we have outlined the cat and dog-specific winter safety tips, let's take a look at some steps you can take regardless of whether your pet barks or meows.

Keep pets dry

If cold weather isn't bad enough, cold wet weather can be seriously dangerous. Melting snow or ice, or simply rain can easily lead to hypothermia in your pets. Make sure to dry them off if and when they get wet, and make sure they have a dry place to stay if they are outdoors for any length of time.

Make sure pets are collared or chipped

Outdoor pets run a much higher risk of becoming lost during winter - they can become lost or disoriented in snowy conditions. Make sure they have tags or chips and that they information on them is up-to-date. 

Look into your pet's breed

Both dogs and cats come in all shapes and sizes! Different breeds of pets may be more or less tolerant to cold temperatures. For example, a Maine Coon cat with long, thick fur will handle cold a little better. Conversely, small, short-haired dogs like Chihuahuas may need a little extra protection when the weather gets chilly.

Feed your pets a little more during the winter

Staying warm during the winter months can cost your pet extra energy! Help them replenish those calories with a little extra food during the cold winter months.

Make sure pets have plenty of water

While dehydration is something we typically think about during the summer months, it can easily happen to our pets during the winter, too. Make sure they have access to plenty of fresh, clean water and should the temperature drop below 32, periodically check to see if it has frozen over.

Have an emergency plan in place (for you AND your pets)

As we know here in Texas, winter can come hard and knock out the power with unbearable, unrelenting cold. As a human without power in a polar vortex, you can imagine how hard it would be to be an animal. As you put together a plan to prepare for a power outage during something like a winter storm or polar vortex, make sure to consider your dogs and cats. 

Stock up on food and water for you and your family - including your pets! Have ways to keep warm even without power, and put a plan in place to get them to the vet if a medical emergency arises.

Know the signs of hypothermia and frostbite

Hypothermia refers to a deadly drop in your pet's core body temperature, and can be fatal if left unattended. Signs of hypothermia in both dogs and cats include:
  • Prolonged shivering
  • Weakness
  • Muscle stiffness
  • Cold skin
  • Difficulty moving or walking
  • Pale gums
  • Confusion
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Loss of consciousness
Frostbite is an injury to skin and the tissue beneath it caused by freezing. It usually occurs in the small extremities of your pet's body, such as the tips of toes, ears, paws, and their nose. It can take several days to show signs, such as:
  • Pale, cold skin that becomes sensitive or painful to the touch
  • Affected area begins to develop redness, may swell and blister
  • In serious cases, the skin may turn black
If you suspect that your pet is suffering from hypothermia or frostbite, wrap them in a warm blanket and take them to the emergency vet clinic immediately. 

Be wary of antifreeze

When winter weather is on the horizon, people often break out their antifreeze, both for their homes and their vehicles. If some spills, it can be dangerous. It often smells and tastes sweet to them, but is insanely deadly. If you use antifreeze, be careful not to leave any out and clean up any spills. If you think that your pet has ingested antifreeze, it is a life threatening emergency - take your pet to the vet immediately.

Be wary of salt poisoning

Salt, specifically rock salt, is often used on roads and walkways during the winter in some areas. Although it helps reduce and remove the ice, it can easily stick to and accumulate on your pets paws. When they lick it off, it can easily be too much and it becomes a poison at high levels. If you walk your dog on salted roads, make sure to wipe their feet right away. It may be hard to clean a cats feet, but you should try.

Help stray and homeless animals

Unfortunately, stray animals are everywhere and the unforgiving cold can be deadly for those without a home to go to or people to care for them. But you can help! Plastic tote bins with removable lids are an inexpensive way you can make shelters for local homeless stray cats. Keep them insulated with straw (rather than hay), and raise them up off the cold ground with bricks or blocks of wood. Make small holes just big enough for a cat and keep them in a safe place away from roads, people, and other pets. Check out this guide for more instructions if you're interested in making your own.

Speak out against animal cruelty

Pets can't speak for themselves, and rely on their human companions. Unfortunately, humans do not always take care of their pets. However, neglect is not always intentional, and sometimes owners simply don't understand just how dangerous the cold can be for their pets. If you are concerned that one of your neighbor's pets isn't getting the care they need, it is important to politely speak to them first. Don't assume that neglect is taking place until you've had a chance to speak to them - you may not see the full picture. Furthermore, neglect isn't always done out of cruelty - sometimes, pet owners simply don't know the risk cold weather poses to their pets, and will gladly address the problems if made aware. 

However, if after sharing your concerns the owner responds negatively or continues the pattern of neglect, it may be time to speak to the authorities. Neglect is abuse, and animal abuse is a crime. If needed, refer to this reporting guide from The Human Society.

Bring your pets inside

There's cold - and then there's COLD. Sometimes, we Texans are unfortunate enough to experience a rare event like a polar vortex. While you may have a good plan in place to keep outdoor pets warm during normal winters, that plan may not be adequate if the bottom falls out of the thermometer. 

In the event of a serious winter storm that lasts for days, seriously consider bringing outdoor pets inside, even if they would normally be okay outside. If they aren't capable of being brought into the house with you, consider moving their outdoor shelter into a garage, shop, barn, or other outdoor building. Here, you may have the proper space to safely place something like a space heater or a heated bed, and at the very least, this can help them stay insulated and protect them from snow, sleet, rain, and wind. However, remember that without insulation or heat, even an indoor garage can be dangerously cold if you don't provide other ways to keep them warm.

When the temperatures begin to plummet, keeping our pets, our beloved pups and kitties, warm can be challenging, but it is an absolutely essential part of being a pet parent! But if you follow the tips we've outlined here, you can be sure that your dogs and cats are happy, healthy, safe, and warm this winter!

A dog and cat warm in winter

For more information about Germania's insurance products and services, request a free quote online or reach out to your local agent today! 

by Geoff Ullrich

About the Author

Geoff Ullrich is a writer and Content Marketing Strategist at Germania Insurance.

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