Central Indiana is forecast to have temps down to -13 F with windchills of -30F for New Years day. For most of our dogs and cats that can live indoors, this should not present a serious problem. If you own a sensitive dog, you might find yourself shoveling a patch of snow in order to convince them to go outside to potty If, on the other hand, you own a cold-loving breed you might find yourself bundling up so you can stay outside as long as your Husky wants to play in the snow. But for a few individuals, there are some challenges that go beyond these inconveniences.
You may see some full-time outdoor dogs, and feel concerned for them. Some local farmers are getting continuously harassed because well-meaning passers-by do not understand that there are dogs well-equipped to live in these conditions, just as livestock and wild animals do. I have 2 of these dogs, the Maremmas in the photo below. This was taken at daybreak this morning, while they were patrolling and romping. They have doghouses with straw bedding, but they aren’t really interested in using them. Their breed originated in the Italian mountains, and they have double coats to protect them from cold weather.
So if you see a dog that just might be appropriate for the weather (long hair, looking content in the snow or cold, access to a barn nearby, etc) please don’t harass the owners and be thoughtful before you call law enforcement. If you own one of these outdoor dogs, do take extra precaution during this most severe weather to be sure they can get shelter from the northwest wind, have dry bedding, and thawed water. Checking their ear tips and toes is also wise. Jan Dohner has written an article on Winter Care for Working Farm Dogs
Some of the real problems the next few days may be for poultry that live in small chicken coops, of which we have many in Indianapolis. While it is true that a good wind shelter and bedding is enough to protect chickens in MOST cases, let’s make sure your coop is indeed set up for temperatures below zero and wind chills of minus 20F. A tiny coop is more easily affected by cold winds, and a smaller number of chickens can’t produce as much heat/protection as a larger group huddling together. The risks to the chickens are frostbitten combs or feet, dehydration, and death.
– Straw, straw, and more straw. Straw is a good insulator and easier to keep dry and fluffy than some types of bedding. If you don’t have some, pick up extra NOW from a farm supply store. Avoid storing straw where loose bits may blow around fuel sources and start a fire. You can, however, store it outside in a large lawn and leaf bag and still easily access it. Straw in the coop may freeze somewhat once it gets condensation on it from the animal activity. So pile on more straw once or twice daily. Also make it thicker on any side of the coop where the cold wind is likely to blow.
If you have never used straw before: take a small slab of it off the bale, and pull it apart so it lays down “fluffy”.
If your chickens will come out of the buildings (they probably won’t in this severe weather), put a path of scattered straw on the snow/ice for them to walk on.
–Get your small coops sheltered from the wind. The severe cold winds usually come from the northwest. If your coop is mobile, move it to a location southeast of a larger building or trees, for a wind break. Face any openings to the southeast.
If you can buy several bales of straw, you could also stack them up unopened against the north and west sides of the coop. This is probably one of the best ways to quickly insulate an outdoor building. The straw won’t go to waste. If it gets too wet to use as bedding, you can at least use it for garden mulch next spring.
-Cover large openings. It is always a conundrum to allow ventilation but not drafts. It’s true that if your coop is closed up tight the freezing condensation will be a negative for your birds. However, any large openings will leave the coop at such a low temp your birds simply can’t stay warm enough. If your hen door opening does not close at night, find something to block it off manually for the night during these sub-zero temps.
–Are food and water truly accessible? Few chickens will walk in the snow; even fewer will leave the building in frigid temps. Small coops usually aren’t set up for inside food and water. For the next few days, you may need to put some food and water inside the coop. You may need to check/change the water 2-3 times daily as it will freeze quickly. Animals not well-hydrated are more prone to frostbite. Use your judgment on this. If you put some straw down on the ramp and your birds still don’t come out to eat/drink , then you need to take food and water into them.
-Don’t be tempted to use unsafe heating methods that may cause fires. Heat lamps get far too hot to be used around bedding and wooden structures. They often cause coop fires. Do NOT use them. If you think your coop needs additional heat, there are products that get just a bit warm but not likely to take bedding to the combustible level. If you have electricity in your coop, there are some heating mats or similar products. I have also used a Snuggle Safe, which is a microwaveable disc the size of a frisbee. You can warm up a couple of those and put them against the wall to provide one more layer of protection for the most severe cold. You may be able to get some of these at farm supply stores or pet stores. Again, heat is NOT needed in most coops but may be needed if other circumstances are less than ideal.
Do read the instructions on any heating devices, even for heated water. Some of the heated waterers only work down to about 15F so won’t be adequate the next couple of days. The metal-base water heaters work well up on a cement block in a large coop, but should not be used out in the snow/ice where the heating base itself could get wet and become an electrical hazard. Thus, in tiny coops where your chickens normally eat/drink outside you may have no option but to place smaller food/water containers inside as mentioned above.
-Emergency procedures if your coop just isn’t adequate for this weather. Below is a photo of a coop from some new chicken owners. I saw this coop for the first time a few months ago. The door opening has no cover and faces north. The owners put a fence and netting outside the coop (presumably to protect the chickens from raptors). The fence and netting have collapsed from the snow. Now this tiny coop is exposed to north wind, and also wide open for any predators such as coyotes that may come by for a meal. Using this coop this way for chickens, would be like me putting my Maremmas in small doghouses, facing them north, and giving them no room to find better shelter. Even they would be unsafe with the north wind constantly blowing at them.
If you find yourself stuck with similar circumstances or you already have a chicken showing signs of frostbite, you can make a temporary home in a garage or other structure. If your coop is too large to bring in the garage, use a pet carrier with bedding and enough room to get food and water in twice daily. If it’s a taller carrier like a large wire dog kennel, you might even be able to get in a stick or broom handle to serve as a perch. Chickens should not go for long periods without being able to perch.
This is also true for chickens already frostbitten: take them to a slightly warmer place but do not heat them up too quickly with heaters or blow dryers. Heating the frostbitten area quickly may cause further tissue damage. If frostbite occurs, leave the wound alone initially. That damaged area cannot be fixed and meanwhile may protect the deeper tissues. After a few days when it starts to slough, THEN it can be treated as a necrotic wound and you can assess the damage underneath. Your veterinarian can help with pain medication or other treatment as needed.
When discussing pet behavior, I often use the phrase “It works far better to teach an animal what to do, than what not to do”.
In light of that, I would like to share this fun article about a reindeer who was being a pest at feeding time at the zoo. The trainer gave him something better to do.
Please enjoy “Reinder Games” from Karen Pryor’s clicker training website:
We have received word that a new product has been approved for noise aversion in dogs; SILEO is expected to be available within a few weeks.
Having a label for “noise aversion” is new. This is a distinction from some sedatives which can actually increase noise sensitivity.
I’m currently taking courses in holistic medicine and herbal use in pets. I’m fully committed to always use treatments that are scientifically validated, not using guesswork. I think herbs may have a place in supplemental treatment. Please share your thoughts regarding using herbal medicine as treatment or supplements in your own pets, or what questions you have on certain uses.
As most of you are aware, there has been a severe canine influenza outbreak occurring sporadically in the US in 2015. I have promised you that I would notify my clients if I became aware of a confirmed case in Indianapolis.
I am not aware of a confirmed case. However, we are aware of a suspicious case in the area. This may turn out just to be an upper respiratory infection, which are always present. The cough is more severe than usual, but it is too soon to know the cause.
If you do not have a need to take your dog around other dogs this weekend, it may be a good time to leave them home. Also, if your dog or cat shows upper respiratory symptoms, please let us know.
We will follow up as soon as we have a better idea if this is actually a case of influenza or turns out to be a more mild (and less contagious) respiratory infection.