VALPARAISO — Porter County Animal Control officers were called out on Christmas Day to rescue an elderly dog covered with ice and snow and spotted lying in a ditch alongside a roadway.
The dog was reunited with its family, who said it had escaped during all the holiday confusion, according to Porter County Animal Shelter Director Toni Bianchi.
While this story had a happy ending, it isn't always the case when pets, particularly those accustomed to living inside homes, are confronted with the types of dangerously low temperatures predicted across the Region through much of next week.
"If you’re cold, your pets are cold,” said Dr. Lori Ross, an emergency veterinarian at North Central Veterinary Emergency Center, which operates in Highland and Westville.
The general rules are to keep indoor cats inside and limit outdoor time for house dogs, she said.
When the thermometer plunges below 25 degrees and winds are creating a dangerous chill, dogs, like people, are susceptible to frostbite, Ross said. They are most vulnerable on their paws, and the tips of their ears and tails.
The frostbit areas turn dark and may have to be removed, she said.
"It's painful," Ross said. "Avoidance is key."
Dog jackets and booties provide some protection for those animals willing to tolerate wearing them, she said. But time outdoors still should be limited during periods of extreme cold.
"It's a cost-benefit ratio," Ross said. "It's just not worth it to get that little bit of exercise."
She suggested seeking out indoor dog play parks or exercising pets at home.
While cats can take care of all their needs inside thanks to litter boxes, most dogs will eventually need to go outside a couple of times a day for potty breaks. Ross suggested having an area in the yard with some of the snow cleared away and then wiping down paws and removing any attached snow or ice when the animals return to the house.
Pet-safe ice melt products can help reduce risk, she said, but that too should be wiped from paws to avoid being licked and causing irritation to a dog's mouth.
LaPorte County has an ordinance requiring dogs and cats be brought inside a shelter when the temperatures reach 10 degrees or less, said Eric Hayes, assistant animal shelter director.
Shelter is required to be available at all times for horses, he said.
"The best case scenario is to have them inside," Hayes said.
As shelter officials returned to work Wednesday after a holiday break, they expected cold weather to become an issue.
"I'm assuming we're going to get calls," he said.
Bianchi said she would like to see Porter County also adopt a requirement of moving dogs and cats indoors when the temperature reaches a dangerous level.
But in the meantime, she urged pet owners to take action on their own when the mercury plunges and provide access to at least a barn or garage for animals typically kept outside.
"Especially at night," she said. "They have no way to warm themselves."
Information is available online about building warming shelters for feral cats, Bianchi said.
Ross urged caution when moving outdoor animals into barns or garages. She said antifreeze and other products that can be deadly to dogs need to be moved out of reach and any heating devices need to be monitored to avoid burns to the animals or a fire.
Water also should be monitored for all outdoor animals to make sure it does not freeze, she said.
While some breeds of dogs are more able to withstand the cold of winter and seem to be enjoying the weather, if they are typically kept inside, they remain at risk for frostbite and other problems, Ross said.
Extreme cold also is not the time to attempt to potty train a puppy outside with the "wait-and-encourage" approach, Ross said. It's smarter to move it inside using puppy pads.