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Pets, Snowstorms and Winter Emergencies

Nearly half of the U.S. has been buried under snow this year. In Charlottesville alone, we have had multiple school closures and heavy snowstorms. And during such storms, we constantly field calls about what to look for in terms of pet safety and what constitutes an emergency when driving conditions aren’t optimal (making the trip to the animal hospital more than a little challenging). Hopefully this post will clear up some of these types of questions.

Trauma is one of the last things people consider to be a potential problem for pets this time of year, but it actually seems to be very common. Hidden ice can be just as treacherous for pets as for humans, often resulting in broken bones and/or soft-tissue trauma. Making sure your pet is always on a leash when walking on potentially icy areas — and avoiding icy areas altogether — is very important. Foot pad trauma and serious lacerations from sharp ice are also common problems. We also see a number of toenail traumas (pulled out toenails) due to getting caught in ice cracks or thick snow areas. The easiest solution to many of these problems is to outfit your pet with winter pet boots this time of year. Most dogs do just fine with tolerating the boots, which provide padding, grip and pad protection.

If you live in a neighborhood with outdoor cats, it’s very important to check under your car hood, near your fan belt and along the base of your car tires for a cat who may be using your vehicle to stay warm. Cats will seek warm spots in which to brave the cold, but they’re often unlucky in the timing of their naps. The severe trauma that comes from engine damage, once the car is started, unfortunately is something many veterinarians see far too often.

Trust the old adage that if it’s too cold for you outside, it’s too cold for your pet to stay outside. If you can’t bring your pet into your house, consider a garage, basement, barn or heavily sheltered area with a heat source like an overhead heat lamp or heating pad. Many people assume that pets have thick fur coats and can adapt to frigid temps, but a domestic animal can get wet and hypothermic outside in a matter of minutes. If you suspect your pet has hypothermia, please SLOWLY start warming them up until you can seek veterinary help. One of the worst things you can do is warm an animal too quickly after being very cold for a long time — gradual warming might make the difference between life and death.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you might be aware that antifreeze is toxic to pets and can lead to acute kidney failure and death (see our previous blog post here). There are some pet-friendly — and kid-friendly — antifreeze products made from propylene glycol, and we highly support using these. It’s important to check your car regularly to make sure you don’t have any unwanted leaks. These kinds of toxins are another good reason to walk your dog on a leash this time of year, to prevent them from ingesting fluids from underneath other people’s cars.

There are also many sidewalk deicers that are toxic to dogs and can endanger your pet’s safety. The majority are calcium based, which can cause local irritation to the skin and, in large enough doses, vomiting and diarrhea. Some magnesium-based deicers can, in large enough doses, cause hypotension, heart arrhythmias and unsafe changes in phosphate blood levels — conditions that would all require immediate veterinary care. If you think your pet may have walked through a deicer, you can wash the product off with water and a mild dish soap such as Dawn. In the vast majority of cases, doing so will be sufficient to prevent any problems. There are pet-safe, urea-based deicers on the market that cause less skin irritation, but these products are harder to find. Rock salt on roads and sidewalks can also be very locally irritating to skin and, if large enough amounts are consumed, can cause vomiting, excess drinking or urinating, muscle tremors and seizures. If you have put down rock salt, make sure you wipe down your pet’s feet after coming inside — and again, consider placing boots on your pet’s feet. As a good rule of thumb, all outside pets should have their feet rinsed after walking on treated sidewalks.

This time of year, people are more likely to put down rat and mouse poisons, because — just like us — rodents want to be indoors where it’s warm. Make sure any such poisons are placed in areas where your pet would have absolutely no access to them, and in places where a rat wouldn’t be able to drag the poison out in the open (see our post on rat poison here).

Another common seasonal toxin is liquid potpourri. Make sure your potpourri is in an area where pets can’t knock it over and get it on their skin, in their mouth or in their eyes; the liquid can cause ulceration to all these areas.

Finally, when people are “trapped” inside during the wintertime, they are more prone to consume alcohol, coffee and chocolate. Make sure these are all kept out of reach of your pets (see our previous post on common toxic kitchen items here). Snack foods and other human treats are never good for your pets.

If you happen to run out of dog food because you’re snowed in, there are many online recipes for bland, human-based pet food alternatives. Boiled chicken and rice is one of our favorites, but you can substitute pasta for rice, and hamburger or lean beef for chicken. Try to avoid raw meat and fatty or heavy foods like pork and fatty beef. You would need to transition your pet from bland dog food to human food (hopefully only for a day or two) and then transition back with very gentle meals. In these cases, multiple, smaller feedings will be much better for your pet than larger, heavier meals.

Remember, most cities and areas have an emergency vet office that will be open or at least available for calls during snowstorms. The Greenbrier Emergency office has beds for our on-duty staff, just in case, and we encourage you to give us a call if your regular vet is closed. Be safe, stay warm, and stay off the roads if at all possible — and think of the coming warm springtime weather!

  1. Reply
    Tyna milcetich

    I was just reading your website tonight for the first time and I want to thank you for everything that you do some of these people are asses and the comment that you made about being sure that you could afford a pet is sooooo true…they are supposed to be a family member NOT a play toy…spend the $$$ like they are your child

  2. Reply
    Lilly Workman

    My pitbull smokey got into a fight with another pitbull name Bruno but anyways the next morning and all night he is shivering or shaking all night and all this morning ..I am Really Worried ….Will he be OK …Acts like he can’t even hold his head up . I feel so so bad and Really Worried about him. He is like another kid of mine to Me….Please Help!!!!!

    • Reply
      Dr. Stewart

      Take him to a vet to get checked out, maybe he is in shock or severely injured? Sounds like he is in pain.

  3. Reply

    We should be really careful in handling those toxic stuff

  4. Reply
    Tim Yaotome

    My sister placed scent pots all over her home in order to top off her winter-decorated interior with a pine scent. After reading that pets and liquid scents cannot mix to prevent ulcerations on the skin, it inspired me to find the nearest animal hospital for her two dogs and three cats. Doing this will not only help keep them healthy during winter but also be able to ensure a safe winter holidays for all, even pets.

  5. Reply

    Hi… I have a Chihuahua mix dog. Im going crazy trying to find whats wrong with him. When I go to Vet, they tell me his breathing sounds fine, but when Im home, he sounds like hes having trouble breathing, specially when he is sleeping. Ive cleaned whole floor with vinegar and threw out my bed, and most of my linen. All I have is one blanket left, and thats what we sleep on floor with now. Im starting to think it might be mold. He keeps sniffing and licking the floor in our room. If it is mold thats affecting him, he spends a lot of time in room when I go to work, and cant be good. Would activated charcoal help him if it is mold? Hes breathing at night has me stressed out, and the Vet is not exactly cheap, which is making it hard for me to keep taking him in everytime I think he gonna stop breathing.

    • Reply
      Dr. Stewart

      No to activated charcoal. Video him doing the “thing” and show the vet. If the vet has run all the tests and cant find anything then talk to the vet about allergies? See another vet for a second opinion (armed with the video) and go from there……it might be nothing or maybe you need a full work up from a new set of eyes….. good luck.

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