Protect your pets and horses from harsh winter weather


The LSU School of Veterinary Medicine asks pet owners to protect their pets against harsh winter weather. Nancy Welborn, DVM (LSU 1990), associate professor of community practice, offers advice to help keep your pets safe from winter conditions.

If you’re cold, your pet is cold. During winter conditions, it’s best to bring pets inside. If that is impossible, create a four-sided shelter with a flap opening and bedding where pets can get out of cold, wind, and rain. The shelter must be able to hold warmth. Put it in a garage or a protected corner of a porch, if necessary. It should not be placed directly on the ground. Consider purchasing pet-appropriate heated pads that are specifically designed for use with pets (a power source is required).

“You can create a clean, warm, and safe spot for your pets no matter what your situation is,” Dr. Welborn said.

Small breeds should not be out in the cold more than 10-15 minutes, and when it’s rainy and windy, even less time. Medium and large-sized breeds can be out no more than 20-25 minutes. Even northern-breed dogs cannot be left outdoors in the cold. If they have been living in warm climates, they are not acclimated to the cold.

If left out in the cold too long, animals shake and get quiet and lethargic. Like humans, they can get frostbite and hypothermia, which can lead to complications and even be fatal.

Help keep your pet safe during the colder months by doing the following:

  • Don't leave pets outdoors when the temperature drops.
  • Outdoor pets use more energy to keep warm so they will need more food when it’s cold.
  • If bowls are outdoors, make sure water is replaced twice a day and that it is put in a plastic bowl. Routinely check your pet's water dish to make certain the water is fresh and unfrozen.
  • If your dog stays outside, provide a doghouse with a raised floor that is large enough to allow the dog to sit and lie down comfortably, but small enough to hold in body heat.
  • Cover the floor with a blanket (but only if the dog will not eat it) or maybe straw or wood shavings if available and make sure the door is turned to face away from the wind.
  • Put a coat and booties specially made for dogs on your pets. Ice is damaging to paws, and de-icing materials (even salt) are toxic to pets. Just because they have fur doesn’t mean they don’t suffer in cold, wind, and rain.
  • If you're feeding homeless cats, be sure to provide an insulated shelter for them.
  • Warm engines in parked cars attract cats and small wildlife that may crawl up under the hood. To avoid injuring any hidden animals, bang on your car's hood to scare them away before starting your engine.
  • Antifreeze has a sweet taste that can attract animals, but it is toxic to them. Wipe up spills and store antifreeze and other household chemicals out of reach.
  • Pets exposed to temperatures in the low teens or single digits for prolonged periods can get frostbite on their feet or the tips of their ears (the skin will turn darker in color). Another symptom to be watchful for is lethargy or weakness. If you feel that your pet has been adversely affected by the cold and requires medical care, please contact your veterinarian.

Horses are great at staying warm since they have many metabolic processes that generate heat or allow them to conserve heat. Their digestive processes generate a lot of heat and their haircoat can “puff-up” (this is known as piloerection) to further insulate them. Horses are actually better at staying warm in winter than staying cool in summer. 

Precautions that can be taken to protect horses from harsh winter weather:

  • Ensure that the horses have water, hay and shelter 24/7 (if they prefer to remain outside, provide them with an option to have some sort of protection from wind and rain);
  • Allow them to move around (this generates heat); and
    If they are very old, very young, sick, too skinny, etc. and unable to thermoregulate, then they may need to be stalled and/or blanketed, along with all of the other precautions listed above. 

The most important precaution is to provide an unfrozen, clean water source on a constant basis; otherwise, the horse could colic.

If your pet or animal requires medical care after-hours, you can contact the LSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital on Skip Bertman Drive; the hospital is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year and remains open even during disasters such as hurricanes. The number for the Small Animal Clinic (pets and exotic animals) is 225-578-9600, and the number for the Large Animal Clinic (horses and farm animals) is 225-578-9500. LSU Vet Med cares about your pets’ wellbeing and appreciates being a partner in their care.

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The LSU School of Veterinary Medicine is one of only 32 veterinary schools in the U.S. and the only one in Louisiana. LSU Vet Med is dedicated to improving and protecting the lives of animals and people through superior education, transformational research, and compassionate care. We teach. We heal. We discover. We protect.

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Ginger Guttner, APR