The days of domestic animals living their lives outdoors are becoming largely a part of history. It was not uncommon years ago for dogs to live their lives in suburban backyards… often with the family cat. These days however, the trend is for pets to live indoors, and there are a number of factors influencing it. Some are to do with lifestyle changes, and others are to do with a changed perception of the safety of a completely outdoors lifestyle. Even for those who still believe an outdoor lifestyle is the most appropriate option, Adelaide’s winters often prompt the question, “is it okay for pets to be outside in winter”?
More people in cities live in townhouses and apartments these days, and don’t have backyards. Many choose not to have kids and have pets instead, and as we are living longer and often by ourselves, companion pets have taken on a new importance. The definition of “family” has changed and so too has how, and where our pets live with us. Of those whose pets live indoors because their homes have no outdoor areas, many wouldn’t let their pets live outside even if it was possible.
Cold weather isn’t the only outdoor risk to animals
Temperature isn’t the only consideration of course, when it comes to the safety of animals being outdoors. There are numerous potential dangers including poisonous plants, toxic pesticides, and cruel passers-by. And even when they’re confined to fenced yards, other animals can get to them such as poisonous snakes.
In spite of these, the thing that is probably the biggest danger to outdoor pets is the weather. Animals can freeze to death and suffer heat stroke just as we can, and even if being outdoors isn’t life-threatening, it can be unpleasant and uncomfortable under certain circumstances.
Extremely low temperatures can cause hypothermia which is a potentially deadly condition that occurs when body temperatures drop below normal levels. Symptoms vary depending on the level of severity, and mild hypothermia is evident through shivering, weakness, and lack of mental alertness. Slow, shallow breathing, low blood pressure, and muscle stiffness are indicative of moderate hypothermia, and severe hypothermia is characterised by dilated and fixed pupils, difficulty breathing, inaudible heartbeat and coma.
Cold temperatures are the usual cause of hypothermia, however new-borns may experience it in normal environmental temperatures. Older pets, the very young, and smaller breeds, are more susceptible to rapid surface loss of body heat, and are therefore at a higher risk. Animals under anaesthesia also have an increased risk.
Disease of the hypothalamus, which is the part of the brain that regulates body temperature and appetite, and hypothyroidism which can result from low levels of thyroid hormone, can both increase the risk of hypothermia.
How cold is too cold?
The answer to this question is somewhat complicated, however using outdoor temperatures as a guide, as well as taking wind-chill into account, is the best way to estimate it. How it actually feels is important, which is why wind-chill should be included.
At around 12 – 15 degrees most pets will probably be quite safe. At 10 degrees, you need to keep an eye on them as it can be potentially unsafe depending on their age, general health, and breed. Seven degrees indicates that there is certainly potential danger, and at four degrees the temperature is potentially life-threatening. Animals shouldn’t have prolonged periods outdoors when temperatures are as low as this. Adelaide is currently experiencing overnight lows of 4 -5 degrees and pets shouldn’t be outdoors for long during these conditions.
There are some caveats however, and acclimation to cold is a relevant factor. Working dogs that are used to being in the cold are likely to have better resistance than indoors dogs. Larger dogs with thicker coats may also have more resistance to cold. Wet weather can influence the impact of cold, however it can go either way and make cold temperatures either more or less dangerous.
Common sense and going with your gut is always the best approach, and if you think that your pet will feel the cold regardless of the temperature, then keep them indoors. Any animal will suffer if left outside in extremely low temperatures, but shorthaired dog breeds such as Labradors, greyhounds, and beagles will be more susceptible. You are your pet’s best advocate, therefore when in doubt, don’t risk exposing them to the cold.
Diagnosis of hypothermia
When hypothermia is suspected, temperature is measured with a thermometer and in severe cases, with an oesophageal or rectal probe. Breathing and heartbeat irregularities will be checked. ECG’s record the heart’s electrical activity and may be used to determine cardiovascular status, and urinalysis and blood tests are often used to diagnose other causes of abnormally low body temperature such as low blood sugar, metabolic disorders, or heart disease.
What to do if you find an animal suffering hypothermia
If you come across an animal that appears to be suffering from hypothermia, move them to a warm place and cover them with blankets or towels. Use warm water bottles if possible, but be particularly careful if using electric blankets and heating pads as they can cause burns unless several layers are placed between them and the animal. Take the animal to a vet as soon as possible.
If it’s not too cold for them to remain outside, they still need to be warm and comfortable
If your dog normally lives outside, and the temperatures aren’t dangerously low, they still need to be protected from the elements that draw heat away from their bodies. Insulated dog-houses with waterproof roofs and weather-resistant door flaps provide shelter from the harsh outside elements. A house that is just big enough for the dog will warm up faster and retain heat better than one that is too big. Dog-houses should be large enough for dogs to comfortably stand-up completely and turn around, and pets all need their own house if they live in multi-pet households.
Don’t forget fresh and clean water during winter. Just because it’s cold doesn’t mean that hydration is any less important.
In most cases it’s best to keep your pets indoors in cold weather. Never leave them unattended outdoors for extended periods and bring puppies, short-haired dogs, and kittens inside when the temperature drops to seven degrees or lower. Sometimes it’s simply too cold for pets to be outside regardless of whether they’re an outdoor pet, and Adelaide’s lows are currently at that point.
If your pet or an animal you find, exhibits any of the symptoms of hypothermia, call us for advice, and bring them in as soon as possible. Our Golden Grove hospital provides 24-hour emergency care and can handle even the most demanding treatments. It’s open 24-hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year. Our vets and nurses are here to help no matter the emergency.