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How to Keep Your Pet Active and Safe this Season

Dec 01, 2016 07:40AM ● Published by Erica Cebzanov

Ernie at Animal Friends

Gallery: How to Keep Your Pet Active [9 Images] Click any image to expand.

Even though you and your pet might want to snuggle in front of the television all winter, year-round activity is not only important for you—it is vital for your pet.

Exercise lubricates pets’ joints, and maintains muscle tone and physical conditioning. Dr. Carolyn Emery of Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty & Emergency Center (PVSEC) noted that activity prevents obesity, which may lead to diabetes, osteoarthritis, intervertebral disc disease, cardiac disease and respiratory problems.

“Aging is slower and subtle changes in gait, mobility or activity are noticed by owners much more quickly when animals are active, so vet attention can be sought sooner in the course of illness,” said Dr. Cynthia Maro, who owns Cranberry Holistic Pet Care, in addition to Ellwood City and Chippewa practices. 

But pet owners should take precautions when letting pets outside for walks and playtime during the winter. Dr. Emery said that puppies and kittens should not be taken outside when it is below 32 degrees Fahrenheit because their bodies lack thermoregulation capabilities. If you are housebreaking a puppy, use sweaters or jackets to keep them warm. When temperatures are 20 degrees below Fahrenheit or lower, dogs' outdoor time should be limited to brief bathroom breaks.

Certain dog breeds, such as German Shepherds, Siberian huskies and retrievers have heavy guard hairs that insulate them against the cold, but coats and sweaters offer added layers of warmth for smaller and short-haired dogs that are more susceptible to winter chills.

Pets with heart, kidney, liver, hypothyroidism, cancer or other serious conditions should spend no more than five to 10 minutes in extreme temperatures, advised Dr. Maro, whose clinics provide rehabilitation and holistic procedures for animals of all ages, including geriatric patients. Dr. Emery adds that those with senior dogs should clear pathways in the snow, watch for ice and use supportive harnesses on their canines to prevent them from slipping. If pets exhibit shivering, immobility, irritated paws, whining or barking, it is best to go back inside. 

Savannah Fleming, office manager at BelaCoop Animal Hospital of North Park, said that if winter conditions irritate dogs’ paw pads, consider asking your veterinarian about using Musher’s Secret ointment to protect your dog’s feet. Dr. Emery, who is training in veterinary dermatology, suggested applying Dermoscent Bio Balm to irritated noses and paws. 

Many snow and ice melt products contain harmful chemicals if consumed by pets, so wipe dogs’ and cats’ paws immediately when they come indoors. And be especially careful of vehicles leaking antifreeze. “Ethylene glycol has a sweet smell, but it is extremely toxic to cats and dogs,” said Dr. Emery. “If pets are exposed to antifreeze, timing is critical and veterinarians need to start treatment right away.”

Vary activity and routes to get pets moving when the temperatures drop. Dr. Maro recommends focusing on breed-based games for dogs such as simulated herding activities for border collies and retrieving games for Labrador retrievers. If you take your dog sledding, keep your pet on a leash and away from traffic, and make sure to wear reflective accessories when walking dogs during winter’s shorter daylight hours.

If weather conditions force you and your furry friend to stay indoors, there are many options to keep your pet physically and mentally stimulated. Animal Friends utilizes the animal husbandry principle of behavioral enrichment to enhance the lives of shelter residents awaiting adoption. 

“Enrichment activities can decrease stress, stimulate the animals physically and mentally, provide a sense of control and prevent undesirable behavior from beginning,” said Shannon Tremblay, director of communications. 

Throughout the year, Animal Friends offers indoor socials for dogs based on size. Volunteers and staff provide agility equipment and toys to help dogs burn off excess energy; the shelter requests a $5 donation per animal.  The Animal Friends’ website also has suggestions for implementing home-based indoor enrichment activities for dogs, cats and rabbits using common household items to create puzzles and games.

“My family’s personal favorite is hide-and-seek,” Fleming said. “The entire family will play, and our dog, Little Bear, loves it! Mental activity is important and can be just as tiring as physical activity.” 

“Mental stimulation using lights, sounds and games, like moving the food bowls and having pets work for their treats, keeps pets from aging,” said Dr. Maro, adding that this also teaches pets new skills. 

Finally, Fleming said people should talk to their veterinarians about decreasing the amount of food they provide their pets in the winter due to decreased activity. In this weather, Dr. Maro believes in feeding sweet potato, pumpkin, lamb and chicken—“warming foods” in traditional Chinese medicine. Also, make sure that pets have an adequate supply of water that is not frozen, especially following activity.

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