The mercury is dropping. The days are short. And it’s time to adjust some of your pet care routines for winter. Here are some tips and products to help you make the transition to dog walking in a winter wonderland!
Walking in the dark
Summertime gives us daylight well into the evening, so finding a time to walk your dog while it’s still light out is generally not too difficult. But in the winter? I don’t know about you, but for me, the sun is just coming up when I leave for work in the morning and it’s on its way down by the time I get home. Going for walks in the dark is just a fact of life. So how can you make it safer?
If you walk somewhere with any traffic at all, such as on a road without good sidewalks or a multi-use trail, visibility is especially important. Even if you do walk on sidewalks, you don’t want to be invisible to cars as you cross the street.
Consider your own clothing: do you favor dark, muted colors? Neon may not be your thing in normal life, but we’re talking about a dog walk, not a fashion show. Brighter and lighter colors are easier to see in low light, so may be a good choice for walking duds.
Reflective strips or tape are also helpful and you may even want to get a high-visibility vest. Again, it looks a little cheesy, but it’s a lot cheaper than buying a winter coat in “safety green”.
Don’t stop at your own clothes- make sure your dog is visible as well! Get them a hi-visibility jacket of their own, use a light-up or reflective leash and collar, or attach an LED tag to their collar.
Your own light source
You have a flashlight on you pretty much at all times in the form of your phone, right? But when walking your dog, you’ll want something a little more versatile.
You might have a lot to juggle when walking your dog. Leashes, poop bags, gloves, a flashlight- and using the flashlight on your phone means it’s awkward to carry and can be expensive if dropped.
A regular flashlight is a good choice, since it’s made to light your way while moving around in the dark. But if you want to free up your hands a little more, you can try a flashlight that straps or attaches to another part of your body. There are lights that clip or strap at your waist, head lamps, wrist flashlights, lights you can strap around your knuckles for running- the sky’s the limit!
The important thing is that it illuminates the path in front of you, allowing you to avoid obstacles, and can safely be carried while keeping focus on your dog or dogs.
Depending on where you live, it may not be safe to walk around the streets after dark. Your dog may act as a deterrent for a person with nefarious intent, but it’s not a guarantee.
Don’t leave your street smarts behind when you’re out with your dog. Don’t carry any unnecessary valuables. Stay alert- no headphones, eyes and ears open. If you can, take another adult with you.
If not, make sure someone else knows where you’re going and when you’ll be back. If you live alone, text a friend or neighbor.
Consider adding some form of personal protection to your walk kit. Exactly what you choose is up to you. If you’re not comfortable with anything that could cause physical harm, use an air horn. If you do choose some form of weapon or physical deterrent, make sure you’re very comfortable with how to use it and have practiced before it becomes an emergency. The last thing you want is to have your pepper spray pointed the wrong way.
Even if you think your dog is big and mean-looking enough to chase off human predators (or that you are), not all threats to your dogs’ safety are human. Your dog may be friendly with everyone, but that doesn’t mean all dogs are. A loose dog can unexpectedly turn a regular walk into a traumatic event for you and your on-leash pet. It’s good to have some non-lethal way of interrupting an altercation or attack by a strange dog, such as pepper spray or an air horn.
What about kitty care in winter wonderland? It should go without saying that even pets who live outdoors part time should be brought in during freezing weather when possible. But what about when it’s not? How can you help your community cats? Or keep your inside pets comfortable?
Looking after community cats/ferals
Unfortunately, no matter how many times you try to explain to your feral cats that you’re only trying to help them, many will always prefer their independence. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to help them.
Start by providing some kind of shelter against the cold. Alley Cat Allies has a great tutorial on building outdoor shelters using common household materials. You can also buy shelters if you’re looking for something a little more aesthetically pleasing. Whatever you use, keep in mind that straw is the best way to insulate against the weather. Warm and fluffy blankets seem like a nice idea, but they can easily get wet and make the little cat house even colder.
Locally, if you’re not up for the arts and crafts aspect, the Jefferson County Pet Food Pantry distributes cat shelters to those in need.
Make sure your community cats have food and liquid water. If temperatures are cold enough to freeze the water in their bowls, use a thermal pet bowl to keep it drinkable. If you have an area that’s protected from weather, such as a barn or garage, a heated pet bed is also a nice thing to have.
Looking after your own pets
Like humans, animals regulate temperature differently. What’s too cold for one might be comfortable for another.
Keep breed, size, and age in mind when deciding how cold is too cold (or how warm is too warm) for your pet. Too cold for an Alaskan malamute is not the same thing as too cold for an Italian greyhound. A Sphynx cat might need a little more protection than a Maine coon.
Short-haired pets, pets with low body fat, and very old or young pets are more susceptible to the cold in general than others. Limit outside time on very cold days for these pets and help them get toasty inside. Sweaters or coats may help for chilly pets, especially outside.
Keep in mind, as always, that every pet is an individual. Do yours seek out heating pads or cool breezes? Do they seem to be panting in their jacket or are they making themselves a blanket cave?
While your pets can generally handle chilly weather a little better than you can and dogs can still enjoy walks for quite a while, inclement weather or hard freezes may mean you have to stay inside. For a pet who is used to a lot of exercise or outside time, being cooped up leads to cabin fever, which isn’t fun for anyone.
Keeping their minds busy
When your antsy best pal starts driving you crazy, is your response something along the lines of “well damn, Jackie, I can’t control the weather”?
You can’t make it stop being horrible outside, but there are things you can do to engage your energetic pup’s mind. Use the time to learn a new trick, make your own dog puzzles, or play hide-and-seek games. We have a whole article right here with lots more ideas for indoor entertainment!
This won’t work for every pet every time, but if the roads are safe and your dog is pet-friendly and enjoys spending time with strangers or other dogs, hit the road! Set your pet up with a few days romping with their buddies at dog daycare. Visit a dog park with an indoor space (Locally, we’ve got Bar K). Even just taking a trip to a pet-friendly store, like PetSmart or Home Depot, can provide a much-needed change of venue.
Are you not looking forward to the next few months of dark, chilly dog walking in a winter wonderland? Don’t worry- we’ve got you covered! We’ll make sure your pup gets the chance to run in the sun even on the shortest days of the year. Book an exercise walk or a mid-day let-out and come home to a happy dog!