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Cold comfort: Creatures need extra care in winter

New Hampshire Sunday News

January 04. 2014 7:38PM

If it's too cold out for you, it's probably too cold for your pets.

That's the word from animal welfare experts as New Hampshire braces for the next cold snap.

After a brief respite forecast for today and Monday, temperatures are predicted to plummet back into the single digits again overnight Monday into Tuesday.

At New Hampshire SPCA in Stratham, shelter dogs will still get their outside walks in frigid weather. "But they are much shorter walks, and we make sure that they're warm and certainly not spending too much time outside - both for the benefit of the dog walkers and the dogs themselves," said Sheila Ryan, director of development and marketing.

And that's what the SPCA suggests for all dog owners in New Hampshire. Even breeds with heavier coats can suffer the effects of exposure, Ryan said.

"Yes, it (their fur) is insulating for a period of time, but that doesn't help the pads on their feet; it doesn't help their noses that are exposed; it doesn't help their ears; it doesn't help a lot of the areas that are still susceptible to frostbite."

Deborah Turcott is executive director of Upper Valley Humane Society in Enfield. She said a few dog breeds, notably sled dogs, have adapted to colder climates and develop their coats progressively as the temperatures drop.

But for most pets, she said, "if you think about how we would behave as human beings, that tends to be our general rule of thumb. So if we don't want to go out and expose ourselves for a long period of time because of the risk for frostbite, we wouldn't want to do that to our animals, as well."

Turcott recommends getting a coat for your dog if you're planning on a winter hike and taking shorter walks than usual. She said it's also important to protect dogs' pads from salt and to inspect their paws to make sure ice and snow doesn't build up between the pads.

Barn cats are used to being outdoors, but Turcott recommends providing someplace where they can get out of the cold and wind. "Make sure they have access to water that's not frozen and ample places to curl up and get warm."

The UVHS has a special enclosure for barn cats, loaded with bales of hay and straw, heating mats and blankets.

It's not just domestic pets that need extra attention during cold snaps. Turcott, who owns a horse farm, said she has heaters in her water troughs, but had to change the water in the animals' stalls every four hours during last week's deep freeze.

Turcott noted state law requires horse owners to provide three-sided, covered "run-in" shelters for horses from November to April.

And the state's animal cruelty statute requires any outdoor dog houses to be of "proportionate" size, allowing the animals to stay warm and dry, according to state veterinarian Stephen Crawford.

"Typically, that would include some bedding inside the dog house to allow them to nest down into it and keep them out of the wind," he said.

It's different for livestock animals, he said. Under state law, "we have this definition that you have to provide adequate care, sustenance, protection and shelter."

And while most farmers have barns or three-sided shelters for their livestock, shelter could also mean hills and trees, he said.

Cows, horses, sheep and goats are "bacterial digesters," he explained, with bacteria in their guts that ferment the plant material they eat.

"The byproduct of that fermentation is heat," he said, which helps to keep the animals warm.

Even pigs are better equipped to handle the cold than we are, Crawford said, with extra body fat that keeps them warmer - not unlike whales that thrive in the icy oceans.

State Agriculture Commissioner Lorraine Merrill is a dairy farmer in Stratham. She agreed cows "don't mind the cold nearly as much as we do."

Still, she said, "When it's below zero or the wind chills are like this, they're not especially happy about it."

While sheltering cows from harsh wintry weather is important, Merrill said, it's equally important to provide fresh air and ventilation. That's why most modern dairy barns have open sides, often with curtains that roll down in bad weather to keep out the snow and wind.

The cows may not mind the cold, but farmers do, Merrill said. Last Friday, when her farm was buried under more than a foot of snow, she got up about a half-hour earlier than her usual 5 a.m. to deal with the extra chores.

And she's on the "late shift," she said; her husband, John, was up at 3:30 a.m.

"When it's days like this, it's long and hard and it's unpredictable because if you have something that freezes up or equipment that won't run ... farmers don't really like days like this."

Even her cows are reluctant to stir on bitter cold mornings, Merrill said. "They huddle, they'll get up close to each other or stay in their stalls," she said. "They want to stay in their beds longer."

Merrill's Stuart Farm has special "jackets" for their calves. "For the little babies, we do put little jackets on them just to keep them a little warmer, so they can put more of their energy into growing and feeling good rather than just having to heat their little bodies."

Ryan said concerns about the cold should not mean the family pet is banned from outdoor activities this winter.

"If you're going to be out running around, and your dog is running around and enjoying himself and being part of the family playing out in the snow, fine," she said. But "when you come in for your hot chocolate, bring the dog in. When you're cold, they're cold."

In fact, most dogs, Turcott said, will let you know when it's too cold to be outside. Her 3-year-old Great Dane, "L.T.," certainly does. "He's back at the door in a heartbeat," she said.

"He has no desire to spend any extra time outdoors; his body isn't built for that."

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