10 winter weather tips for pet safety

February 1, 2024 - 6 min read
This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian with any questions you may have regarding your pet’s care, treatment, or medical conditions.

“Winter is coming."

While you can probably strike White Walkers off your list of things to worry about this time of year (apologies if you’re not a Game of Thrones fan!), preparing for winter weather emergencies is still important.

Cold temperatures, blizzards, ice storms, power outages, icy walkways, and chemicals like antifreeze and de-icer can all be dangerous, particularly if you aren’t ready to protect your pets from their effects.

Use this 10-step guide to ensure that your pets stay safe when it's cold outside.

Dog with head out window in cloudy weather

Keep an eye on the weather

Unlike some other emergencies—tornadoes and earthquakes, for example—predictions for winter weather are usually available at least a few days before disaster strikes.

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While the details may still be up in the air, you shouldn’t be completely taken by surprise by temperature extremes or winter storms if you keep an eye on the weather forecast.

Stock up on pet supplies

Pet food bowlWhen extreme weather is headed your way in the winter, make sure you are prepared to take care of all your family members, pets included, for at least five days. Keep your pet supplies in one easy-to-access location.

Use the following emergency kit checklist so you don’t forget anything important:

  • Lots of clean, unfrozen water

  • Enough food and treats

  • Manual can opener

  • Disposable spoons

  • Food and water bowls

  • Collar, leash, and harness

  • Pet carrier/crate for smaller animals

  • Litter and litter boxes (for cats) or poop bags (for dogs)

  • Paper towels and garbage bags

  • Spray disinfectant and hand sanitizer

  • Warm pet clothing (optional, see section 6)

  • Your pet’s prescription medications and important nutritional supplements

  • Pet first-aid kit

  • Stress- and boredom-relieving items like toys or chews

  • Bedding and blankets

  • Any necessary grooming implements

  • Battery-operated flashlight

  • Extra batteries

  • Current ID tags and proof of ownership (pictures of you and your pets will work in a pinch). If necessary, update your contact information with your pet’s microchip company.

  • Vaccinations and other important medical records

  • Water-resistant bags, backpacks, or containers that fit all the above in case you need to evacuate

Dog in snowy winter weather

Research your evacuation options

If conditions are forecast to get really bad, evacuation may become necessary. Always take your animals with you! Leaving them behind puts them at great risk.

Evacuating with pets is much easier if you have done some research and already have an idea of where you’ll all be welcome. When coming up with your emergency plan, talk to friends and family, write down the names and addresses of pet-friendly hotels and short-term rentals, and know where community evacuation shelters that accept animals are typically located.

Keep in mind that most American Red Cross shelters cannot take in pets due to health and safety concerns. Boarding facilities and veterinary offices may be able to care for your pets if you can’t find a place where you can all stay together.

Determine if you can safely transport all your pets if you need to evacuate in the middle of a winter weather emergency. If not, make arrangements with someone who has an appropriate vehicle.

Small dog inside

Keep your pet inside when it's too cold out

During extreme conditions, let your pet go outdoors only when absolutely necessary and for as short a time as possible. Make potty breaks quick, and replace your lengthy walk around the neighborhood with some indoor playtime.

Outdoor pets should be brought inside. Dog houses and other shelters that are adequate under normal conditions may fail to protect pets when large amounts of snow fall, temperatures are frigid, or conditions become icy.

Unusually low temperatures are uncomfortable for pets. When extreme or combined with wind and water, they can lead to hypothermia, frostbite, and even death.

While there are no simple temperature guidelines that apply to all pets, pay special attention to your pet’s wellbeing whenever temperatures near the freezing mark (32°F). Dogs who are shivering, whining, becoming anxious, slowing down, seeking shelter, or holding up their paws need to go inside.

Know your pet's limitations

Pets are all unique. What feels just a little chilly to one could be dangerous to another. Multiple factors play a role in how pets react to colder weather, including:

  • Size: Small pets tend to get cold more quickly than larger pets because of their greater surface area-to-volume ratio. In other words, they have comparatively more skin through which to lose heat.

  • Body condition: Fat is a good insulator, so skinny pets get cold more quickly than those who are overweight.

  • Age: The very young and the very old often have more trouble staying warm than pets in their prime.

  • Health: Sick pets may be unable to regulate their body temperatures well.

  • Coat type: A thin, single layer of fur (think Doberman Pinschers) will trap far less heat than will the thick, double-layered coats of breeds like the Alaskan Malamute or Newfoundland.

  • Coat condition: matted or damp fur does not provide as much insulation as a well-groomed coat. Pets with thinning, patchy, or shaved fur may also get colder than expected or develop frostbite at those locations.

  • Coloration: Dark coats will absorb more heat than those with a lighter coloration, particularly on a sunny day.

  • Activity: Movement generates body heat that helps keep pets warm.

  • History: Pets who spend a lot of time outdoors in cooler temperatures usually grow thicker coats and are more tolerant of cold weather in comparison to those who primarily live indoors.

Dog wrapped in blanket

Consider warm pet sweaters or jackets

Yes, most pets have their own coats, but sometimes a little extra protection from snow, wind, or cold is called for.

Pets with a single layer of thin fur or coat problems tend to benefit most from clothing. But be warned: Putting a coat on pets with two layers of healthy fur—an outer one that repels water and a fluffy inner one that traps heat—may actually make them colder than they would be without a coat.

Fitted sweaters will help keep pets with thin coats warm indoors or when it’s just a bit chilly outside. A pet coat with a wind- and water-resistant outer layer and a thick lining that holds in warmth would be better during more extreme conditions.

Keep paws protected from ice and toxins

paw print in snow

Don’t overlook your pet’s paws! They're especially vulnerable to the ill effects of winter weather. Sharp patches of ice on the streets and sidewalks can lacerate skin and paw pads. Feet may come in contact with and collect de-icer, salt, antifreeze, and other abrasive or toxic chemicals. Hard balls of snow and ice can form in the fur between paw pads and around the feet, leading to pain, injury, and difficulty walking.

Winter booties are the best way to protect your dog’s paws when you must venture outside during inclement weather, but they do take some getting used to. Start by briefly putting on just one bootie while you hand out lots of praise and treats. Gradually build up to the point where you ask your pet to take a few steps indoors while wearing all their footwear and then to take short walks outside. Keep giving lots of treats!

Over time, most pets can become used to wearing booties, but if that’s not your experience, you might want to try a paw balm. These products contain waxes that protect the feet from extreme conditions. Trimming long fur between paw pads and around the feet can help too. Wipe down your pet’s feet when you get back inside to remove any chemicals (before your pet licks them) and check for signs of injury while you’re at it.

Dog lying on floor

Keep an eye out for de-icers and antifreeze

Many of the chemicals that are used in the winter months are dangerous for pets. Antifreeze containing ethylene glycol is the worst. Pets are attracted to its smell and taste, and consuming just a small amount can lead to kidney failure and death.

Repair any leaks in your vehicles’ coolant systems and clean up spills immediately. Keep bottles of chemicals in an area that is completely inaccessible to your pets, and consider switching to an animal-friendly antifreeze. Do not let your pets drink from puddles or lick the ground when you are out on a walk.

De-icers can be irritating to a pet’s skin and paw pads and lead to gastrointestinal problems if ingested. Pet-safe ice melts that contain propylene glycol and urea are safer than products made from rock salt or ethylene glycol.

Dog on leash

Opt to keep pets leashed

Always have control over your pet when you are out for winter walks. Keeping your pet leashed allows you to make a detour around pavement that is coated with de-icer or a puddle of liquid that might be antifreeze. You also don’t want your pet to run out onto a body of water that's covered with a thin layer of ice.

Winter is also a common and especially bad time for pets to become lost. Snow covering the ground can disguise recognizable scents that would otherwise help your pet find their way home. Long winter nights make finding lost pets more difficult, and extremely cold weather decreases their chance of survival.

If you’re going to be walking your pet after the sun goes down or while it's snowing, consider using a reflective collar or harness or attaching battery-powered bike lights to their gear. Make sure your contact information is current with your pet’s microchip company and on your pet’s tags.

Dog laying down at a veterinarians office in philiadelphia

Know when to see a vet

Pets who are becoming dangerously cold often develop one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Lethargy

  • Shivering, which stops when severe hypothermia sets in

  • Muscle stiffness

  • Clumsy movements

  • Cool ears, tail, and feet

If your pet has any of these signs, seek shelter immediately, and gradually warm your pet by covering them in blankets and tucking warm (not hot) water bottles around them.

Early signs of antifreeze poisoning include:

  • Lethargy

  • Vomiting

  • Loss of appetite

  • Unsteadiness when walking

  • Abdominal pain

  • Increased thirst and urination

Topical irritation from exposure to ice melt or other chemicals often leads to:

  • Red skin

  • A rash

  • licking of the affected area

Talk to your veterinarian immediately if you suspect that your dog has hypothermia, frostbite, antifreeze poisoning, or any other potentially serious health problem.

And one last thing: sometimes, despite our best efforts, pets run into trouble. Don't beat yourself up; as a pet parent, you're doing the best you can!

Consider opting for pet insurance that will help reimburse you in those (potentially expensive) scenarios where you have to see a vet for an unexpected accident or illness.

Jennifer Coates, DVM
Veterinarian, Veterinary Writer, Editor, and Consultant

Dr. Jennifer Coates is a writer, editor, and consultant with experience in veterinary medicine, science, animal welfare, conservation, and communications. She has written for outlets including petMD, Chewy, and ManyPets.