North Carolina winters are always surprising—recent years have demonstrated that we’re not immune to snow, ice, and frigid temperatures. These sometimes unanticipated arctic blasts can leave humans and pets unprepared, and at serious risk for winter weather-related injuries. To help your pet avoid common winter health hazards, read our Animal Emergency Hospital and Urgent Care team’s tips on how to keep your four-legged friend injury-free and safe during the year’s coldest months. 

Pets’ slips and falls

Sleet, ice, and snow can make often-traversed pathways treacherous, and transform an innocent walk or romp into a veterinary emergency. Similar to you, your pet can slip and fall, sustaining injuries that range from mild to severe, and may include:

  • Arthritis flare-ups
  • Soft tissue (i.e., muscle, ligament, or tendon) strain
  • Iliopsoas injury
  • Cruciate ligament rupture
  • Bone fractures
  • Lower back pain
  • Intervertebral disc rupture (i.e., herniation)

Pets who experience an acute injury may vocalize, limp, appear dazed, or lose function in one or more limbs. If your pet exhibits persistent pain, lameness, paralysis, or altered mentation lasting more than a few minutes after a fall, you should bring them in for emergency veterinary attention

Fortunately, many slip- and fall-related injuries are preventable. Pet owners should clear away snow from stairs, ramps, and walkways, and treat them with pet-safe ice melt. Pets who are vulnerable to injury (e.g., seniors, those who have been previously injured) should be taken outside on a harness and leash. Dog boots can provide additional grip and paw pad protection for active pets who play or exercise outdoors. Always supervise your pet when they are outdoors during cold weather.

Ethylene glycol toxicity in pets

Antifreeze contains ethylene glycol—a highly toxic compound that causes cats and dogs who ingest this fluid to experience acute kidney failure. Because antifreeze is commonly used when the temperatures go down, our Animal Emergency Hospital and Urgent Care team sees an increase in toxicity cases during the winter months. However, the compound may also be included in windshield deicer, brake fluid, and motor oil. Pets are attracted to ethylene glycol for its sweet fragrance and flavor. A toxic dose is tiny—as little as one teaspoon for cats and one tablespoon for dogs—and can tragically result in a pet’s rapid health decline. If your pet ingests ethylene glycol, seek immediate veterinary care. Intensive treatment is the option for poisoned pets’ survival.  

You should learn to recognize ethylene glycol toxicity signs. With such a small dose being lethal, owners may not realize their pet has ingested the toxin until clinical signs appear. Immediately contact our Animal Emergency Hospital and Urgent Care team if your pet shows any of these ethylene glycol toxicity signs:

  • Increased thirst and urination
  • Coordination loss
  • Vomiting
  • Drooling
  • Seizures
  • Lethargy
  • Low body temperature

Hypothermia and pets

Hypothermia (i.e., low body temperature) can affect any pet after prolonged cold temperature exposure. However, pet populations who have a greater hypothermia risk include:

  • Puppies and kittens
  • Senior pets
  • Short-haired or hairless breeds
  • Pets with low body fat (e.g., sight hounds)
  • Pets with diabetes, hypothyroidism, kidney or heart disease, and endocrine disorders

These pet populations are less able to control their body temperature, making them more susceptible to their environment. Pets in these categories may experience mild hypothermia (e.g., shivering, discomfort) at above-freezing temperatures. Untreated hypothermia can be life-threatening, and pets should never be left outdoors during cold weather. Hypothermic pets must receive emergency veterinary care, including gradual rewarming. 

To prevent your pet from developing hypothermia, keep them inside. However, if you take your pet out during the winter, ensure you protect them from the elements by dressing your four-legged friend in a coat and boots. If your pet displays any discomfort signs while they are outside (e.g., shaking, limping, refusing to move), take them inside immediately to warm up.

Pet paw pad irritation

Pet paws are generally tough by nature—designed with a thick keratin layer and insulated by adipose (i.e., fat) tissue. However, those cute toe beans are susceptible to serious pain and injury during the winter. Cold dry air, rough ice and snow, and ice-melting products, such as salt and chemical deicer, can cause cracking, bleeding, and painful irritation.

The first sign of a paw pad problem is your pet incessantly licking or chewing their feet—a natural response that can worsen the actual injury, and make pain and injury management challenging. Ideally, the best cure is prevention, which includes:

  • Using pet-safe ice melt on your sidewalk, patio, and driveway
  • Washing and toweling dry your pet’s paws after outdoor activities
  • Moisturizing dry paw pads with petroleum jelly or Musher’s Secret paw wax
  • Outfitting your furry friend with protective dog boots

Although paw injuries can be painful, they are not an emergency. If your pet is injured or painful after your primary veterinary office is closed, our urgent care team can provide treatment. 

Winter is a brutal beast that can’t be tamed, but when you pay careful attention to your pet’s safety, you can successfully minimize cold weather hazards. If your pet is experiencing an emergency—no matter the season—contact Animal Emergency Hospital and Urgent Care.