The sudden onset of the cold weather has prompted many owners to ask if their pet should wear some sort of coat in the winter months.
In most cases, I think it is better not to rug the animal as this tends to inhibit the natural thickening of the hair cover. Animals kept rugged tends to molt continuously and have rather dry brittle hair. Regular brushing should be continued through the winter months as this helps to stimulate the skin and promote a glossy coat which helps to repel moisture.
Cats have a very efficient method of preparing for winter. During the summer months, cats kept mostly out of doors tend to become quite lean and continue to shed large quantities of their fur. With the onset of shorter days, a physiological mechanism is triggered which enables the cat to quickly build up its subcutaneous fat and to grow a thick coat to insulate it from the cold.
In winter, animals use much of their food supply to maintain their body temperature. It is therefore necessary in order to maintain the same bodyweight, to increase the overall amount of food given daily. It is best to provide food both in the morning and evening and to increase the amount of carbohydrates in the diet. Some milk and cereal in the morning and some extra dry food in the evening can provide the extra calories necessary.
Owners are often keen to give their animals extra vitamin C during the winter. Dogs and cats are fortunate in that they are able to synthesize their own vitamin C so that the provision of extra vitamin C should not be necessary. If a general vitamin supplement is used be careful to buy one that is formulated for dogs and cats and not for humans as the desirable ratio of vitamin A and vitamin D differs widely.
Dogs and cats are not susceptible to the cold virus of man, but they do have their own specific respiratory diseases which can resemble colds in man. Cats suffer from a virus infection, feline influenza, which in the early stages can cause profuse watery discharge from the eyes and nose.
Early treatment of the disease is necessary. There is now a vaccine available which is effective but must be given only to absolutely healthy animals. Two doses of the feline influenza vaccine are necessary at least 3 weeks apart followed by a single dose annually.
Distemper in dogs is more prevalent in the winter months. Any thick mucous discharge from the eyes and nose should be treated with suspicion. Fortunately, as most dogs in our community have received at least one vaccination against distemper, the disease is not nearly as common as it once was some years ago.
Dogs can lose their immunity to distemper particularly if only vaccinated as young puppies. To be absolutely safe, a dog should receive a revaccination a year after its initial puppy vaccination at 3-4 months, then at least every two years. Some breeds of dogs or animals at greater risk require annual vaccinations.
Most animals remain remarkably healthy throughout the winter if they are provided with a dry warm bed. Dogs prefer to be slightly elevated so that the provision of a solid wooden floor raised above ground level and lined with some carpet or thick blankets is adequate.
Bedding should be aired regularly and watch for fleas that can be a problem even in the winter months. The sprinkling of a powder containing Malathion or Carbaryl in the blankets after airing helps to control fleas. Dogs can be washed in the winter provided a sunny windless day is chosen so the dog can dry thoroughly before nightfall.
Winter inactivity and indoor life bring problems
Many pets spend the cold months of the year confined indoors.
Sometimes their owners work and are reluctant to leave them outside all day. Others live in high-rise buildings where there is no opportunity to go outside unless accompanied. Inactivity and the artificially hot environment can lead to problems.
Pets confined in centrally heated rooms seem to be prone to upper respiratory disorders. The drying out of the mucous membranes of the nose and throat can cause a minor irritation which an animal attempts to relieve by snorting and sneezing.
Secondary infections of these inflamed tissues can occur, and these can lead to a chronic dry cough and possibly tonsillitis.
Cats which have suffered a viral infection such as feline influenza are more prone to recurrent attacks of sneezing and sniffling if confined indoors constantly. Where more than one cat is present, cross-infection readily occurs.
It is preferable if a pet is not permitted to be continually near the source of heating. It should sleep in the least heated portion of the house, such as the laundry. During fine, sunny days, open one of the rooms to the fresh air and encourage it to spend some time breathing the cooler, moist air from outside.
Lack of exercise leads to obesity. Animals living outside in the winter require more food to maintain their body temperature. This does not apply to housebound animals.
The practice of leaving dry food available to the animal at all times is not good. Feed the adult pet no more than twice daily, and if it is putting on the weight reduce the carbohydrate component of the diet.
Inactivity in dogs can also lead to constipation. It is essential that exercise is given each day. Try to take the dog during daylight hours to an open space where it can run freely and respond to the sounds and smells that stimulate healthy activity.
Housebound cats are more prone to suffer from urinary disorders. Infrequent emptying of the bladder allows precipitation of various crystalline elements of the urine to occur. This can lead to blockages in a male cat and inflammation of the bladder wall in a female. A bacterial infection is also more likely within a bladder that is not emptied regularly.
Diets high in magnesium, such as pellet food and fish, should be avoided in these animals. Encourage the cat to increase its intake of fluids by adding water to its food.
Dry, hot conditions day after day brings about a dryness of the skin and coat. Dogs prone to eczema often get recurrences during the winter months. Regular grooming helps to stimulate the skin and removes dead hair and promotes a healthier coat.
Polyunsaturated oils added to a dog’s food help to combat the drying and shedding of the outer layers of the skin.
When a dog is scratching so vigorously that it is damaging its skin, veterinary treatment is necessary.
Of course, the complete control of fleas is important in the housebound pet, as the warm environment can lead to a build-up of flea eggs and larvae in carpets and bedding.