Cold winter weather is a fact of life here in Western Wisconsin. The only way to escape the cold is to migrate a long way south. This is not an option for most of us so we must find ways to cope with the extremes of weather that we live in. This is the same for all of the animals that live around here. While wild animals are equipped to live in this cold weather, the vast majority of our domesticated animals either do not have the necessary learned or instinctive behaviors nor the physical characteristics required to survive.

Through selective breeding we have created varieties such as the Boxer (dog) and the Cornish Rex (cat), neither of which has much hair. Neither of these animals would be able to maintain body temperature if left outside for long in this cold weather. Also, being raised in captivity, neither would have learned the skills needed for finding food, water or safety. Needless to say, very few would survive if turned out in our climate. Some would freeze to death in a matter of hours.

Because of our human breeding efforts to create such breeds in addition to the population densities of our domesticated animals, we have accepted much responsibility for them. In this cold winter climate here in St. Croix County, extra care must be taken of our pets (and farm animals).

People and animals all need the basics of food, shelter and water for survival. When we take an animal into our home or onto our farm we accept the responsibility for providing these for the animal.

Water: Water is one of the absolute essentials of life. The body uses water in every cell and to transport nutrients and waste. There is constant water loss from every external surface that must be replaced.

Neither snow nor ice is an adequate source of water for an animal. The volume of water in snow is actually quite low compared to the volume of snow. Ice is difficult to consume and can easily break teeth. Most importantly, the amount of energy required to melt the ice or snow and then bring it to body temperature is extremely high. This energy demand can easily become too much for an animal to maintain.

A clean source of liquid water must be provided. The amounts will vary according to the individual. Having the water available at all times is always best. However, providing a fresh container a few times per day may be adequate for the animal. There are a variety of heated drinking bowls and heaters for things like stock tanks and drinking cups. All of these must be closely monitored for problems.

Food: I am sure we have all seen nature documentaries about how much a wild animal eats going into winter in order to develop large fat stores for extra calories and insulation during cold weather. The amounts can be impressive. During the winter, food is often scarce and in the cold weather more calories are used just to maintain body temperature. A farmer recently told me that the steers they sold, just after the extreme cold, had lost weight despite getting adequate food. The only difference was the cold weather.

If we try to maintain a normal body condition in our animals we must account for this increased energy demand and feed accordingly. During very cold periods it may be necessary to feed 50 to 100% more to an animal just to prevent weight loss. Again, this will vary some from animal to animal and their living conditions.

Please note that the energy needs of strictly indoor dogs or cats may actually decrease during the winter months. They do not have to worry about the cold weather as the house is kept at a constant good temperature. In fact, they are often less active and burning fewer calories than during the warmer months when they go for daily walks or are outside more. We see many dogs and cats come in with their “winter weight” in the spring. So some animals may actually need to be fed less in the winter.

Shelter: Appropriate shelter will vary depending on the type and size of the animal but there are a few basic requirements. The shelter must provide adequate protection from the elements and must be of an appropriate size for the animal. For example, a horse can likely do well in an unheated pole shed and needs a bit of a higher ceiling, while a cat needs a cubbyhole that is only big enough to stand up and turn around in with insulation on all sides.

The principles for a dog house are very similar to that described for a cat. It needs to have all sides protected with a wind and waterproof material except for an opening on one side that is just big enough for the dog to pass through. The structure needs to have good insulation that is maintained in good condition. With the insulation in place the space needs to be just big enough for the dog to stand up and turn around in. Preferably, the insulation should be something the dog can curl up in.

People use many things for insulation. Some are better than others. While blankets are often warm, dogs frequently pull them out of the dog house. They also get soiled and wet very easily. Clean straw is often recommended as a good bedding. It is difficult for the dog to remove, provides excellent insulation and is comfortable to curl up in. It is also easy to change. With straw care must be taken to keep the floor dry. Dogs carry snow and water in that settles to the floor. The surface will often feel dry but just under the surface is water or ice.

Most of our domestic dogs need the protection of our houses during the extremes of our cold weather. There are a few exceptions to this rule, but even those dogs are not generally accustomed to these extremes here in our area and still need extra care. For strictly outdoor animals it sometimes works to bring them into the house for the worst of the cold weather.

Overall, when the weather is dangerous for people, it should be considered dangerous for our domesticated animals and special care needs to be taken to protect them. Just like us they can develop frostbite and even die from hypothermia. By taking some simple care steps we can protect all of our domestic animals from harm due to the extreme cold weather and even help them thrive.