Pet Care Blog

Common Winter Illnesses In Pets: 7 Conditions You Should Know

Aliyah Diamond
Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine
cold dog and cat

Did you know that our four-legged family members are also susceptible to illnesses during the cold winter months? Leaving your cat or dog outside in the cold for longer periods of time can result in serious illness or injury.

In order to make sure your pet stays safe, we are sharing some of the most common winter illnesses along with tips to prevent them, and the best course of treatment.

Watch out for these seven winter illnesses common in dogs and cats this season:

Pro Tip: Having pet insurance allows you to treatment your ailing pet based on the best medical option available, not your financial situation. Depending on your provider and plan, you can get reimbursed for up to 100% of money spent out of pocket on covered vet costs once your deductible has been met.

1. Kennel cough

Canine infectious tracheobronchitis, also known as kennel cough, is a viral infection that affects dogs and cats. While it can strike at any time of the year, pets are more susceptible to developing the disease during winter due to the fact that dogs are indoors and in close contact with one another more than they are in warmer weather.

The most common sign of kennel cough is dry, goose-like, honking cough. Other symptoms include runny nose, sneezing, eye discharge, loss of appetite, and fever.

Minor cases of kennel cough usually clear up on their own. In more severe cases, the condition may need cough suppressants and antibiotics to help your pet feel better. Kennel cough is a virus so it will not be treated by these medications, but they will help relieve symptoms and prevent a second bacterial infection from making your pet more ill.

Kennel cough can be contagious, so if your pet is infected, you should keep them isolated in order to prevent the disease from spreading. Kennel cough got its name as a disease that is commonly spread in kennels, as well as doggy daycare facilities, dog parks and other places where many dogs congregate for long periods of time.

A kennel cough vaccine is also available but it is not 100% effective. If your pet attends daycare or you are planning to board them, be sure to consult your veterinarian about options for kennel cough prevention, especially if your pet is very old or young, or has preexisting health conditions.

2. The sniffles

Just like us, cats and dogs can catch a cold in the winter. In most cases, a common cold is not serious. You may notice symptoms such as a runny nose, slight cough, or lethargy. At-home treatment may include wrapping your pet in a warm blanket, allowing enough rest, and giving plenty of water to drink.

You can also feed your pet a bland diet of boneless skinless chicken and rice or chicken soup broth to help with congestion. Just make sure none of this “people food” includes garlic or onions as these can make your dog sick. Placing a humidifier in the room your pet frequents or lives in can help alleviate the cough.

However, if your pet is very young or old, or suffers from any preexisting medical conditions that could complicate the cold, it’s best to have them examined by a vet. You should also always make an appointment with your vet if the symptoms persist or if your pet has difficulty breathing, or refuses to eat.

3. Flu and Pneumonia

Flu is a general term for a highly contagious upper respiratory disease that affects dogs and cats, whereas pneumonia refers to inflammation of the lungs.

Typically, senior and young pets are more susceptible to flu and pneumonia, but any animal that spends a lot of time outside in the cold can suffer from these ailments.

The most common symptoms of flu and pneumonia include sneezing, runny nose, dry or moist cough, watery eyes, loss of appetite, and fever.

If your pet exhibits any of these symptoms, you should take them to the vet for treatment. Pets with mild clinical signs will receive supportive care, typically including cough suppressants, antiviral medication, or fluids. More severe cases can require prolonged hospitalization with fluid and oxygen therapy.

4. Frostbite

Extended exposure to cold temperatures, ice, and snow can lead to frostbite. Frostbite occurs when the animal’s body gets too cold and starts drawing blood out of the limbs and other structures farther away from their core in order to maintain a safe body temperature. As a result, ice crystals will form in the tissues of the ears, tail, nose and paws, which can lead to tissue damage.

The symptoms of frostbite depend on how far it has developed. First-degree frostbite is characterized by hard skin on the nose, toes, ears or tail that becomes red and swollen when warmed. Second-degree frostbite leads to blistering on the skin, and third-degree results in darkening of the skin over a course of several days, increasing the risk of gangrene.

If you suspect your pet has frostbite, be sure to bring them inside right away and apply warm water to the frostbitten areas to help melt away the ice crystals, and restore normal blood flow. Avoid massaging the affected body parts as this can cause pain. Once the animal is warmed up, take them to the vet. In cases of severe frostbite, emergency veterinary care is required.

The best way to prevent frostbite is by limiting the time your pet spends outside during the cold months. You can also use a jacket or sweater to help keep them warm and booties to protect their paws when going outdoors in cold weather.

5. Hypothermia

Hypothermia can occur when your four-legged friend is exposed to low temperatures for longer periods of time and can be fatal if not treated immediately. Pets suffering from heart ailments and diabetes are at an increased risk of hypothermia during the cold months.

Symptoms include shivering, weakness, lethargy, and depression. Severe hypothermia can also result in a slow heart rate, stiff muscles, and a failure to respond to stimuli.

To check if your pet has hypothermia, take its temperature with a rectal thermometer. If the temperature is below 95°F, wrap the animal in blankets and take them to the vet. Normal temperature for a dog should not go below 100.5°F.

6. Arthritis

Arthritis is one of the most common winter illnesses, especially in senior pets. Typically, as the weather gets colder, the pain caused by arthritis intensifies.

Symptoms include walking stiffly after getting up from a nap, increased aggression when you touch them, sleeping more than usual, inability to jump, urinating or defecating in the house, etc.

If you notice any of these symptoms, take your pet to the veterinarian for proper examination. Treatment may include joint supplements, pain medication, light exercise, dietary support, or physiotherapy.

7. Accidental poisoning

Antifreeze poisoning is fairly common when it comes to household pets but can be fatal. Antifreeze contains ethylene glycol, a chemical that gives the substance a pleasant taste, which makes it appealing to pets who might lick the liquid off streets, driveways, rock salt, garage floors, or drink it out of toilet bowls in homes that use it to winterize the pipes.

Symptoms of antifreeze poisoning include unsteady gait, vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, excessive urination, increased heartbeat, weakness, depression, euphoria, delirium, seizures, and coma. If you notice any of these signs, get in touch with your vet right away. Do not give your pet any substances unless advised by your vet. Antifreeze poisoning is an emergency and is potentially fatal if not treated by a veterinary hospital right away.

The best way to prevent antifreeze poisoning is by storing all household chemicals out of your pet’s reach, cleaning up any spills, protecting your pet’s paws when walking outside, and considering alternative options to winterizing pipes (for instance, by insulating the pipes or by applying electrical heating tape).

Consider purchasing pet-safe rock salt for your walkways or anywhere that your pet might have access to. Also, take special care to wipe their paws before coming inside so they do not potentially lick off any salt or chemicals they may have tracked in from walking outside.

Pro Tip: Pet insurance is the best way to protect yourself from extremely costly vet bills in the event your pet happens to fall ill this winter. Compare pet insurance plans to find the one that best fits your pet’s needs and your budget.

Key Takeaways

  • Just like humans, our four-legged companions are prone to getting sick during the cold months.
  • The most common ailments that affect pets during the winter season include kennel cough, frostbite, hypothermia, flu, pneumonia, arthritis, etc.
  • Keeping your pet safe and warm during the winter will definitely help prevent them from catching these common illnesses.
  • If you do believe your pet is sick, call your veterinarian to determine if they need to be seen by a doctor.

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Aliyah Diamond

Aliyah Diamond
Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine

Aliyah Diamond has more than ten years of experience in animal hospitals - working with dozens of species from dogs and cats, to elephants and snow leopards. Her lifelong passion for helping animals currently has her earning her doctorate of veterinary medicine at Cornell University and helping Pawlicy Advisor educate pet parents.

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