The ravages of winter have already come to most of the county, according to daily news reports: snowdrifts, icy highways, and awful wind-chill readings result when polar air is deflected far from its normal territory. While many Kerries (and their people) love to play in the snow, it can pose some dangers, too, especially to our dogs’ paws. Cold weather is not the only problem for dogs’ feet, either: walking in hot summer temperatures can be harmful too.
Frostbite is one of the main threats posed by icy, snowy weather. It begins any time temperatures fall below the freezing point. Blood vessels in the extremities constrict, restricting blood flow to nose, ears and paws in order to preserve warmth in the body’s core. In extreme cold, paw leather may begin to freeze. (For an excellent discussion and essential advice on caring for frostbitten paws, visit this site).
A second danger of snow and ice are the little ice balls that form in the center of the paw pad or between toes. Both frostbite and ice balls are usually first indicated by limping or when your dog stops to lick at his feet. As frostbite becomes more and more serious, there may be discoloration of the paw leather, swelling, blisters or blackened, dead skin.
Prevent problems by keeping hair short between your dog’s toes, and trim nails regularly. Nails can be helpful to the dog in gripping snow or acting like cleats on ice. However if they are too long, they can cause the foot to splay out, allowing ice balls to form more easily. Before a walk, you can apply petroleum jelly on the paw leather to form a protective barrier against snow and ice or try other effective products such as bag balm or Musher’s Secret™ paw wax.
Booties are also a good solution, although some Kerries hate them and even tolerant dogs take some time to become accustomed to them. Look for booties that have two straps (one above the ankle and one below it), and ideally with reflectors and with soles that provide some traction. Quite expensive but also very good are the “Full Feature Boots” offered by HandicappedPets.com, which I have found to be very good for durability, secure fit even through active play, and fairly good ease of putting on/off.)
Finally, in extreme cold (e.g., below zero degrees Fahrenheit), do keep walks short.
Snow and ice also raise the secondary danger of chemical burns to dogs’ paws due to the de-icing salts we use on roads and sidewalks. These salts can also be toxic when ingested by licking as our dogs try to keep their own pads and haircoat clean.
Prevention is the main strategy to reduce the problems caused by salt. As with snow/ice, you can use petroleum jelly or a specialized paw wax to provide a protective coating for the paws, and booties too are good protection. Out on a walk, you can steer your dog away from visible salt and onto grass, dirt or snow instead. A bowl of water close to your door (with a broad flat bottom so it won’t tip easily!) would allow you to rinse the dog’s feet and towel-dry them as you come in from walking.
If you need to use a de-icing product on your own driveway and sidewalks, choose one that is environmentally friendly and pet-safe. You can use non-clumping kitty litter or sand, but you’ll most likely need to clean these up after the weather clears. There are also commercial products, such as Safe Paw™, which also provides a bit of traction.
Not everyone lives in a cold climate, of course – some people winter by the beach or where desert sands heat up to searing temperatures. Very hot sand and pavements can present serious dangers to our pets’ sweet feet. As with dire cold, the first sign that something’s wrong is usually limping or foot-licking. Pads may show as darker in color, blistered or reddened, or some of the paw leather may come off. (Swimming for a long time can increase the problems caused by walking on hot surfaces because water softens the pad so it’s less protective.)
The “ounce of prevention” rule applies here as much as to extremes of cold. Avoid outdoor walks or play during the hottest part of the day, plan walks that take advantage of shade, and try to stay on grass, dirt or light-colored surfaces. If you can carry your dog over extremely hot surfaces (builds upper-body strength!). Booties can be helpful, though you might try to find ones that are designed to protect against heat, such as those made by UltraPaws™ or Neopaws™.
It can also be helpful to moisturize the paws daily with a balm, wax or cream. And -- Kerries will like this bit of advice -- frequent, short walks help build up calluses on the feet, making them less susceptible to the dangers of snow, salt or sand.
So…let’s all get out there and enjoy the winter!