How Cold Is Too Cold to Leave Pets Outdoors?

Let’s face it: Your pet is probably the most popular one in the family despite never cleaning up after itself or doing a load of laundry. Whether you’re a cat or dog person or somewhere in between, your pet quickly becomes a member of the family as soon as you bring it home. There’s nothing more heartwarming than seeing your dog’s tail wag uncontrollably when you come home at night or hearing your cat purr on your lap as it naps. Though they may drive us crazy sometimes, we love our pets no matter what.

Like you, your pets aren’t as fond of the cold weather that’s going to be settling in Houston soon. Even if you have a dog made for the wintertime, like a husky, or a cat that loves to roam outdoors, keeping them outside without supervision can be dangerous. They can get hurt, injured, lost or even die if left outside for too long.

Houston has a humid subtropical climate, but that doesn’t mean it never gets cold in the wintertime. As all Houstonians should know, cold snaps occasionally come through the area, and the temperature drops below freezing. Even outdoor dogs and cats shouldn’t be left out in such conditions. Because Houston is usually so warm, some pet owners don’t check the temperatures before letting their pets outside and forget to let them in or they forget to take extra precautions when starting their cars or walking their pets on salted sidewalks.

You’re probably in the throws of the holiday season, but that doesn’t mean you should forget about your pets. Here’s your simple guide to caring for your pets during a Houston winter.

Keep pets indoors

No matter what kind of pet you have — a dog that loves to roll around in the snow or a cat that roams the neighborhood — your pet should stay inside during the wintertime. Even thick fur is no match for a particularly cold winter. Cats and dogs cannot tolerate the cold for very long, and it’s up to you to tell them when it’s time to come inside. While some will know right away, others will want to stay out, so if you let your dog out in your fenced-in backyard, you need to remember to call it in.

As a general rule, no dog, regardless of age, breed or health, should be left outdoors when the temperature drops below freezing. Some pets are more susceptible to the cold than others. Young dogs, for example, should never be left out in the cold for too long. Senior dogs should avoid the cold as well. Dogs with shorter fur will not do well outdoors for very long, so don’t let them stay out for long and limit playtime outdoors in the winter as well. Keep the ball throwing to a minimum and stop when your pet looks tired or starts shivering.

It’s not enough to consider the temperature when letting your pet outside. You also need to be thinking of the wind chill. Even if the temperature is in the low 40s, the wind chill can make it feel below freezing, and that’s dangerous to cats and dogs. When checking the temperature before letting your pet outside, make sure you check the wind chill to see what the temperature really feels like.

Sometimes, we let our pets out and then forget to let them back in or get distracted by something else. In the wintertime, this can be extremely dangerous for pets, so here are a few tips to help you remember to bring your furry friend back in.

  • Set a quick timer on your phone: Your dog will probably take a few minutes to do its business and then do a little sniffing around your yard. Set a timer on your phone for five minutes or so if you plan on walking away from your backdoor. When the timer goes off, call your pet back in.
  • Install a dog door: If your backdoor is in a mudroom or laundry room that can be closed off and locked, consider installing a dog door in your backdoor. This lets your pet come and go as it pleases, although you should still make sure your pet isn’t outside for too long.
  • Attach a bell to your pets collar or backdoor: The jingle of the bells will alert you to a pet that needs to be let inside. Some dogs can be trained to ring the bell by pawing at it, so if your pet is particularly smart, give it a try.

It’s your responsibility to make sure your pet hasn’t been left outside, and there’s nothing sadder than seeing a poor pup shivering in the cold. It’s easy to get distracted, but if you let a pet outside, make sure you bring it inside.

Walk time can be a favorite time for any dog, but now is not the time to take your dog on a long walk. Like being out in the backyard, your dog may not want to come in from a shortened walk, but it’s up to you to steer your dog back inside. When the temperature drops below freezing, it’s okay to do 20- or even 10-minute walks, depending on how cold it is and how thick your dog’s coat is. You can always squeeze in a few shorter walks per day to make up for lost exercise or invest in a coat for your dog to give it some extra warmth.

When you do take your dog for a walk, you might notice it start to limp or hop on three legs. This is usually because the sidewalks have been salted. Sidewalk salt irritates paw pads, so try to avoid those sections of sidewalk if possible, or pull your dog onto the grass. Some dogs will tolerate booties on their feet to protect them from the salt. When you bring your dog inside after a walk, make sure you wipe their paw pads to get rid of the salt. Dogs tend to lick their paw pads, and the salt can irritate their mouths.

Outdoor pets in the wintertime in Houston

All pets are safer when kept indoors and taken out with supervision, whether that’s for a walk or outside in a fenced-in backyard. But some homeowners in Houston know their pets prefer the outdoors, especially those that live in suburban Houston where their pets have room to roam. If this is your pet, then it’s up to you to balance your pets needs with its safety. Just because your pet is used to spending long hours each day outside doesn’t mean it is safe to do so in winter.

If your dog often stays outside, then you need to make sure its habitat is safe for it when the weather gets cold. Here are a few pointers to remember:

  • Take your dog inside when the temperature drops below freezing or even 40 degrees F: No matter how much your dog loves the outdoors, it’s just not safe for it to be out in cold temperatures.
  • Build the best dog house for cold weather: Your pup’s outdoor dog house should meet certain criteria. It should be large enough for a dog to lay down, but small enough to keep the dog’s body heat. The house should be raised a few inches off the ground and have a layer of straw on the floor. The house should have a heavy plastic or waterproof burlap to keep the snow and wind out. It should also face away from the wind so your pet doesn’t get a blast of cold air.
  • Feed your dog well: Your pet will burn extra calories as it tries to keep itself warm, so the usual amount of food you feed your pet may not be enough. Check your pet’s food and water dishes often to ensure they have enough.
  • Use plastic food and water dishes: A dog’s tongue can become stuck to a metal dish if the dish is too cold. Switch to plastic dishes in the wintertime just to be safe.

All cats are safer indoors, but as many people will tell you, some cats just love to be outside. Most are able to find warm spots on their own when outside, but no cat should be let out in freezing temperatures. Your cat can’t read a thermometer, obviously, and it won’t realize how cold it is until it’s too late. It’s up to you to keep your cat indoors. Pick up a little box and keep your cat inside.

While you can care for your own cat, you can’t make other people care for theirs. Cats like to hide out under the engines of parked cars that have been turned on to warm up, so if you like to get your car started and warm before you leave for work, always bang on the hood of your car a few times. This will scare off any cat or other wild animal that may be hiding under your hood.

How to tell if your pet has hypothermia

Just like people, pets can get hypothermia and die from it. Hypothermia is completely preventable if you’re a responsible pet owner, so it’s up to you to keep your pet out of the cold for prolonged periods of time.

If you’re on a walk with your pet or let your pet outside, take it inside immediately if you notice it shivering. This is the first sign of hypothermia. Wrap your pet up in a warm blanket and hold it for a while to help it warm up. You may want to take your pet to the vet if the shivering does not stop after a few minutes.

The older a dog gets, the more susceptible it is to freezing temperatures. Even if your husky has loved the snow since it was a puppy, it may not tolerate the cold weather as well as it ages. To get a better idea of your dog’s overall health, take it in to your vet for regular checkups and ask your vet for advice on how long to keep your dog out. Your vet should be able to help you gauge your dog’s tolerance.

Pets and antifreeze

You don’t want the liquid in your engine to freeze overnight when the temperature plummets, so you, and many other Houstonians probably keep some antifreeze in your home in case of an emergency. But you could cause an emergency if you don’t keep antifreeze locked away in a safe space.

Dogs and cats are attracted to the sweet taste of antifreeze, so if you leave it out, there’s a good chance your pet will get into it. Keep antifreeze locked away, and if it spills anywhere, wipe it up quickly. You can also invest in antifreeze that uses propylene glycol. If ingested in small doses, it shouldn’t harm your pets or even children if they happen to ingest some.

Your furry friend is part of your family, so it’s your responsibility to keep it safe and warm in the wintertime. Pet care should be a family affair, so if it’s just you that’s taking your pet out, have your family pitch in and switch up chores. If your kids are a bit older, they can take the dog for a short walk around the neighborhood when they get home from school. Make sure they know where to find the dog’s coat or sweater if needed.

You and your spouse can also split duties when it comes to petcare. While you might be in charge of restocking food and dog bags, your spouse might take on scheduling vet visits and keeping up with any medication if necessary. The more you team up to take care of your pet, the less overwhelmed or resentful you’ll feel.

We want to know: Does you pet love wearing a coat, sweater or booties in the wintertime? Share with us in the comments and upload a picture so we can see how cute your pet looks in its winter gear!

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