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Pets need polar protection

Mirror photo by Patt Keith / John Saive of Frankstown Township walks Ralph, a rescue dog owned by Stacey Parris of Hollidaysburg. Pets, like their owners, require extra protection during the winter months.

Pets — like people — often need some extra protection and loving care during the cold, wet winter.

The incidence of dry, irritated skin and cracked paw pads rise during the winter — just as chapped lips and cracked hands proliferate among people, said Altoona veterinarian Matthew Stachmus of Pleasant Valley Animal Hospital. As with humans, the cold also packs more punch for pets that are very young, very old or suffer from other health conditions such as low thyroid function, diabetes, obesity, periodontal or heart disease.

“The winter injuries most often encountered in a veterinary clinic tend to include soft tissue sprains or strains as well as orthopedic injuries that occur from walking or playing on the ice,” said veterinarian Sara Litzinger of Sylvan Veterinary Hospital in Hollidaysburg. “For example, we may see a dog that is limping after running outside and subsequently diagnose them with a cranial cruciate ligament tear (equivalent to an ACL tear in humans). Another danger to pets in the winter, historically, has been rock salt. Ingestion of high amounts of salt can cause brain swelling, seizures and other dangerous neurological signs. Thankfully, many rock salt brands today are made to be safe for pets, so if you have furry friends at home, make sure to pick a kind up that is pet friendly.”

An animal’s size and breed also influences cold tolerance. Smaller breeds are less able to tolerate low temperatures, while other breeds such as Saint Bernards and huskies thrive when the snow flies.

“My biggest concern anytime we have snow or ice is about paw pad lacerations,” said veterinarian Kayla Whitfield of the Lakemont Veterinarian Clinic. “The pads get irritated from cold and some dogs are more sensitive. Also, commercial salts are caustic to their paws pads. I generally recommend pet owners avoid taking their dogs out on heavily salted (surfaces) until the salt has diluted out.”

Limping or excessive paw licking are symptoms of pad discomfort, Whitfield said. Ice balls with debris can accumulate. It’s advisable for the pet owner to wipe off a dog’s feet with a warm, wet towel when entering the home.

Wiping paws removes toxic road salt and helps keep the owner’s house cleaner, the vets said.

Booties worn on the paws while outside can help keep pads healthy, Stachmus said. “Some dogs like them. They pick up on things like getting their booties on means they are going for a walk.”

Petco groomer Amy Simendinger said protection and relief from cracked paws can be found in a variety of products, like Paw Balm, which “flies out the door this time of year.” An all-natural product, the groomers also use it on their hands as they experience chapping from bathing pets.

Certain breeds of animals are more prone to dry skin, Simendinger said, and experience itchy, dry skin — like a human — from being in a heated house and being in and out. While people can use their hands to scratch an itch, dogs often lick an itch — sometimes to excess — leading to open sores and very irritated skin.

A good rule of thumb, both vets said, is if the owner tolerates the cold for a 15- to 20-minute walk, most dogs should do well. Weather-related risks increase with prolonged exposure and areas of ice/snow increase the risk of falls for both pets and owners.

Any dog that is double-coated, such as huskies and sporting dogs, are better equipped to handle the cold, while smaller breeds like Yorkshire terrier and Chihuahua are more susceptible to cold, Whitfield said.

The key to keeping pets healthy is to keep the dog dry, Stachmus said. If a dog becomes wet, it will lose heat more quickly and become more prone to hypothermia and even frostbite. Symptoms of hypothermia present similarly to humans: feeling cold to the touch, shaking, whining and a desire to burrow are all signs, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. When walking a dog, the AVMA recommends keeping a dog on a leash and to avoid frozen ponds, lakes and other water. Even if a pond appears frozen, it’s difficult to know if the ice will support a dog’s weight. If a dog falls through the ice, it could be deadly for both the dog and owner, who may instinctively try to save it.

If hypothermia and/or frostbite are suspected, Stachmus recommends a visit to the vet as immediate treatment is necessary. A hypothermic pet requires specialized re-warming with IV fluids.

“What you don’t want to do is to rub a pet’s paw vigorously if you suspect frostbite,” Stachmus said.

He once treated an egg-laying chicken for frostbite after it became wet from a roof leak. The cold, drafty roost combined with being wet severely impacted the hen. While the hen lost a toe, Stachmus was able to heal the hen’s foot through laser therapy.

With shortened daylight, many pet owners may find themselves with their dogs outside during pre-dawn and dusk hours.

“Just as we wear fluorescent clothing while jogging or biking to alert oncoming traffic,” Litzinger said, “you can buy products like fluorescent vests and strobe lights to attach to your pet’s collar, too.”

Maintaining a dog’s grooming schedule in the winter can also prevent common problems, Simendinger said, such as excessive shedding, flea infestations and ear infections. Nail clipping helps increase a dog’s foot comfort level. Some breeds, like a pit bull, need their nails trimmed monthly or else they “feel like they are walking in too-tight high heels.”

In her 21 years’ experience, she’s seen pets that suffer from the winter blues.

“They’re like us,” Simendinger said. ” Getting cleaned up makes them feel refreshed and alive.”

Dogs with longer, floppy ears — like Golden retrievers, spaniels and springers — are most prone to ear infections, so groomers like Simendinger take precautions by placing cotton balls into the dog’s ears and “don’t soak their ears down.” Any extra moisture — whether from a bath or a romp in the snow — where the ears get wet increases the risk of infections.

To reduce the risk of an infection, she recommends feeding a dog organic Greek yogurt — either fresh or frozen into an ice cream-like dog treat.

A tea tree bath or an oatmeal bath will help soothe a dog’s dry, irritated skin and a blueberry facial helps remove stinkiness from snouts and faces.

“The other biggest issue we see are fleas. It’s a huge issue in the fall or like now where we’ve had warm days. We need it to stay arctic-like for a good stretch to kill fleas in the grass,” Simendinger said. Flea baths every 10 days and simultaneously treating the pet’s home over a 30-day period is key to flea removal.

Long-haired cats of Himalayan and Persian breeds also love to be groomed professionally, she said. It’s especially important if the cat’s fur has become excessively matted. If that’s the case, she recommends a “kitten clip” which returns the fur to its kittenhood condition and makes the cat more comfortable.

It’s also helpful to pets if the owner runs a humidifier in the home.

“It adds moisture to the air and helps prevent dry skin,” she said. She also recommends hydrating sprays to remoisturize a dog’s coat.

Mirror Staff Writer Patt Keith is at 949-7030.

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