Javascript is not enabled.

Javascript must be enabled to use this site. Please enable Javascript in your browser and try again.

Skip to content
Content starts here
Leaving Website

You are now leaving and going to a website that is not operated by AARP. A different privacy policy and terms of service will apply.

How to Keep Your Pets Safe in Winter

From frostbite to flu, winter brings seasonal hazards for dogs, cats, birds, reptiles and even fish

spinner image left a sleeping cat wearing a sweater right a dog in the snow wearing booties and a jacket
Coats and booties can protect from the weather as well as dangers poisonous to cats and dogs such as antifreeze and deicers. 
MamiGibbs/Getty / Annaartday/Getty

Dog mom Temma Martin has three pit bulls: 14-year-old Pansy, 12-year-old Petunia and 2-year-old Clyde, who’s also part Chihuahua. At first glance, all three of them look tough as nails. But when the mercury drops, Pansy, Petunia and Clyde shiver like the sensitive souls they really are.

“All of our dogs have very short coats, like seal fur, and none produce undercoats in the winter. We live in Utah, so they need protection from our freezy winters,” says Martin, 55, of Salt Lake City.

spinner image Image Alt Attribute

AARP Membership— $12 for your first year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal

Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine. Find out how much you could save in a year with a membership. Learn more.

Join Now

To keep her doggos warm, Martin dresses them in fleece jackets, checks for ice on the steps so they don’t slip, and shovels paths in the snow so they can get to the yard to pee — especially important for Clyde on account of his short legs, Martin says.

What might look like pampering is actually protection, says veterinary medical adviser Rebecca Greenstein, a veterinary practice owner in Toronto. “Pet owners through no fault of their own sometimes overestimate their pets’ cold tolerance,” Greenstein says. “They figure, ‘Oh, they’re animals. They’re covered in fur. They must be heartier.’ And that can sometimes be a quite dangerous assumption.”

That’s true of not only dogs, but also cats and other common pets, including birds, fish and even reptiles. Keeping all of them safe in winter requires pet owners to be vigilant about seasonal risks and quick to mitigate them.

Limit their outdoor time as much as possible. Like humans, pets can suffer from hypothermia and frostbite, extreme cases of which can lead to illness, disability or even death. For that reason, it’s important to keep pets indoors when temperatures are at or below freezing, says veterinarian Heather Berst, medical lead at animal health company Zoetis.

“Be sure to bring your pets inside overnight, and during the day they need to be watched when outside in the cold,” advises Berst, who says smaller dogs, pets with thinner coats, and younger and older animals are especially vulnerable.

Provide protection if pets can’t or won’t come inside. Even pets that spend much of their time outside should come inside, if only for the night. If they won’t — an outdoor cat who doesn’t come when you call, for instance — you need to provide it with protection, Berst says. For outdoor cats, she suggests putting out a cat shelter filled with towels and bedding in which to burrow. You can purchase shelters or create your own out of a plastic tote, a foam cooler and some straw. For dogs, an insulated and well-sealed doghouse may provide protection for short periods; however, experts recommend all dogs come indoors when temperatures reach freezing.

Keep the thermostat warm enough for pets. To save money on utilities, many people dress in layers and keep the heat low, or turn the heat way down when they leave the house. Because pets can’t decide to throw on a sweater like you can, however, it’s important to be mindful of your thermostat.

“Your pets will be happy indoors at the same temperatures we keep our houses at in the winter — 60 to 70 degrees” Fahrenheit, Berst says. 

spinner image gold fish in a tank
Don't forget other types of pets when it gets cold. Fish, reptiles and other pets need to stay the right temperature too. 

Don’t forget your fish, bird and reptile friends. Fish owners may need to increase the temperature on aquarium heaters, while owners of birds, reptiles and amphibians might need to upgrade pet enclosures with additional heat and humidity sources, including drippers and foggers, suggests licensed veterinary technician Amanda Fredal, director of live pet care at pet retailer Pet Supplies Plus.

“Pets that enjoy tropical environments … need to maintain a tropical environment, even in the winter,” she says. “For exotic pets [like birds, fish and reptiles], a drafty window or area in the home must be avoided. It may not be an issue in other seasons, but could become a real health risk to your pet. Keeping a thermometer in the area of an exotic pet’s enclosure can help identify drafts that must be addressed.”

Health & Wellness

Target Optical

50% off additional pairs of eyeglasses and $10 off eyewear and contacts

See more Health & Wellness offers >

And make sure they don’t get too hot. “Be careful of fireplaces and space heaters,” Berst says. “Pets may like the feel of the heat and get too close and get burned. They could also knock over a space heater and cause a fire.… Consider putting up fencing or blocks so they can’t reach heaters or fireplaces.”

Watch for outdoor weather-related hazards

Slipping on ice and heavy snowdrifts. Senior dogs, especially, can slip on icy surfaces and sustain serious injuries, Fredal says.  And even moderate snowdrifts can pose serious dangers for small dogs that can’t get out of them, Berst notes. Therefore, keeping a path cleared for walks and bathroom breaks is critical.

Frozen bodies of water. Avoid frozen ponds, rivers and lakes, which can be deadly for pets who fall through the ice, Greenstein says. Because bodies of water can be invisible under snow, it’s best to keep pets on leash at all times, says Lindsey Wolko, founder and CEO of the Center for Pet Safety, who says off-leash pets are more prone to getting lost in winter because snow can cover up the scent cues they might otherwise use to navigate home.

spinner image a cat hiding in the wheel well of a car
Be sure to check your car before turning it on. 

Car engines. Cats may seek shelter in warm nooks and crannies — like automobile engines. “You want to pound on the hood of your car before you start it in the morning to make sure you don’t have a cat or any kind of rodent that has gone up there to absorb the warmth,” Wolko says.

Chemicals used to treat cold and ice. “Antifreeze is highly toxic to dogs and cats, and when you put the fluid in your car for the windshield wiper you have to make sure there’s none that they can get into or lick,” says veterinarian Grant Little, veterinary expert on the website JustAnswer. “Antifreeze has a sweet aroma to it and dogs and cats typically like the taste of it, but it is extremely deadly.”

Also be careful of deicers. Use ones that are safe for pets, but note that some people don’t. “Most salts can be safe for pets to walk in as long as they aren’t licking it off the paws. You will find the bags at the store can say ‘pet friendly’ or ‘dog friendly’ to show they don’t have added chemicals that are harmful when ingested,” Little says.

Cars that might not be able to stop quickly. Be careful when crossing streets with your pet, cautions Greenstein, who notes that cars may require extra stopping distance on snow and ice.

spinner image membership-card-w-shadow-192x134


Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.

Outerwear can provide important protection

Indoor sweaters and outdoor jackets. Although some breeds are more cold-tolerant than others — Alaskan malamutes and Siberian huskies were bred to withstand winter temperatures, for example — most dogs need coats and boots when they go outside. Although a light sweater is suitable indoors, Greenstein prefers coats for outdoor use because they tend to be more protective. In particular, she suggests looking for waterproof coats with tapered sleeves that cover the limbs while keeping out snow and water.

Also pay attention to linings, says Wolko, who notes that waterproof material is better for exteriors than for interiors. “I’ve got some beautifully warm Thinsulate jackets myself, but the linings are so slippery that they can be very cold for dogs,” she says. “Something that’s warm — potentially fleece-lined — would be good.”

Footwear for safe winter walking. For footwear, look for both warmth and waterproofing. “In freezing temperatures, wet feet on a dog can cause frostbite of the pads on the paw,” Wolko says.

Foot protection is important to protect not only against cold, but also against the dangers of antifreeze and deicers, mentioned above.

If your dog resists boots, keep a bucket of warm water near the door and rinse their feet before they have a chance to go inside and lick them, Wolko suggests.  Another option, Berst says, is paw wax or balm.

Be alert against illness

Health conditions your pet already has may be exacerbated by the cold. Winter can be especially difficult for animals with osteoarthritis. “Osteoarthritis pain can be more painful in the cold,” says Berst, who suggests orthopedic beds — and perhaps medications or supplements, too. “Ask your veterinarian for ways to help your pet if they seem like they are not moving around as well in the winter months.”

And then there are viruses. “Some pets, like ferrets, dogs, cats and birds, can catch a virus like the flu directly from a human, so it’s important to practice good hygiene always, but especially during flu season,” Fredal says. “Practicing good handwashing and avoiding handling of a pet when sick is safer for you and the pet. Utilizing a medical mask around a pet if you are ill is recommended if you cannot avoid interaction 100 percent.”

Echoes Berst, “Pets may meet their pet friends indoors in the winter months and that could increase the spread of respiratory diseases,” such as the one that has been spreading among dogs across the U.S. “Be sure to make sure your pet is vaccinated, especially against Bordetella and canine influenza.”

No matter the season, accidents happen. Being cautious, however, pays dividends. “These creatures are fully dependent on us, and we as pet owners are responsible for them,” Wolko says. “These are not fun things for pets to go through — and from a pet owner perspective, they are expensive vet visits.”

Discover AARP Members Only Access

Join AARP to Continue

Already a Member?