Winter is here, and we can expect several months of frigid temperatures, wind chill, and snow. You can bundle up to face the cold, but your pet relies on you for protection from winter’s cold-weather hazards. As Eastern Washington’s largest animal emergency hospital, we are open nights, holidays, and weekends to treat winter injuries and illnesses, but we would prefer that your pet avoid an unplanned emergency-room visit. Here are some of the most common emergencies we treat this time of year, and ways you can protect your pet.

Hypothermia in pets

Hypothermia can develop if your pet is exposed to the cold for a long time, and her body temperature drops below 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Some breeds, such as Siberian huskies and Newfoundlands, have a thicker coat and are more cold-resistant, but any pet can develop hypothermia if left outdoors in cold temperatures. Pets who are young, geriatric, or debilitated, or who have a chronic disease condition are at higher hypothermia risk and should be monitored particularly closely. Hypothermia can also develop more easily in pets who have wet fur and skin, such as in pets who are left outside in the rain. 

Monitor your pet closely for hypothermia signs, which include:

  • Lethargy
  • Depression 
  • Weakness
  • Shivering
  • Decreased heart rate
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Coma

If you notice mild hypothermia signs in your pet, bring her inside immediately and cover her with blankets that have been warmed in the dryer. Check her temperature every 10 minutes, and continue warming until her body temperature reaches 100 degrees. If your pet has not improved after 30 minutes, her body temperature continues to drop, or she displays more severe signs (e.g., difficulty breathing or unresponsiveness), take her to your family veterinarian or our animal emergency hospital immediately. Prompt treatment is critical, because untreated hypothermia can advance to coma and death.

To prevent hypothermia, follow these pet-safety tips:

  • Limit your pet’s outdoor time during the winter months—let her out for potty breaks and short play sessions only, unless you can stay with her to monitor for hypothermia signs.
  • Never leave your pet in a parked car.
  • Bring your pet inside when it is raining.
  • Never house your pet outside during the winter. 

Fall-related injuries in pets

Ice and snow that accumulate on your porch or walkway can pose a dangerous slip hazard to your pet, particularly if she is elderly. If your pet falls, she could suffer painful injuries, such as a broken bone, sprain, or back injury, that could land her in our emergency room. On icy mornings, clear a path to your pet’s favorite bathroom spots, and help her get there safely. When the ground is covered with ice and snow, skip your older dog’s daily walk, and provide indoor activities instead. 

Injuries sustained from pets falling through the ice

Each year, horror stories circulate about pets who fall through the ice, and owners who put their lives in danger trying to rescue them. If your pet falls through thin ice into freezing cold water, she can drown or die from severe hypothermia. Never walk onto ice with your pet, because you cannot be certain it is thick enough to support your weight. Keep your pet on a leash at all times to prevent her from wandering away, or chasing another animal onto unsafe ice. 

Antifreeze toxicity in pets

Most antifreeze products, such as engine coolant and windshield deicer, contain the toxic chemical ethylene glycol. If you spill antifreeze on your garage floor or driveway, animals will eagerly lick up the sweet liquid, which can cause acute kidney failure in cats who drink as little as a teaspoon and dogs who drink only one to two tablespoons. 

Toxicity signs appear shortly after ingestion, and develop in stages:

  • Stage one — In the 12 hours following ingestion, affected pets may experience incoordination, hypersalivation, vomiting, excessive thirst, increased urination, and seizures.
  • Stage two — Twelve to 24 hours after ingestion, initial signs resolve and are  replaced by an elevated heart rate, labored breathing, and dehydration. 
  • Stage three — Thirty-six to 72 hours after ingestion, calcium oxalate crystals develop in the kidneys, causing severe kidney failure. In cats, this stage progresses more quickly, occurring only 12 to 24 after ingestion. Acute kidney failure causes severe lethargy, hypersalivation, vomiting, seizures, and coma, and quickly progresses to death.

Treatment for ethylene glycol toxicity is available, but the antidote must be administered only hours after ingestion to be effective. If you think your pet may have ingested antifreeze, or if she is acting strangely, it is critical that your family veterinarian examine her and administer treatment, if necessary, immediately. Store all antifreeze products safely out of reach, and clean up all spills immediately to prevent antifreeze ingestion. 

Ice-melt toxicity in pets

Ice-melt products that are sprinkled on walkways and roads can cling to your pet’s fur and be ingested as she grooms herself. Most ice-melt products contain salt compounds, such as sodium, potassium, or magnesium chloride; calcium salts; or urea, that can cause salt toxicity, if ingested. Most toxicity cases cause mild gastrointestinal irritation, but larger ingestions can cause more severe effects, including death. Store all ice-melt products where your pet cannot reach them, and prevent ingestion by wiping off her feet, legs, and belly after walks. 

If you have questions about keeping your pet safe this winter, or if you think she needs the services of an animal emergency hospital, contact us.