Dr. Walt's happy tails: Safe outdoor play during winter

By: Dr. Walt Ingwersen

Author: Canadian Living


Dr. Walt's happy tails: Safe outdoor play during winter

By: Dr. Walt Ingwersen

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Did you know dogs can suffer from congestive heart failure? This may catch some by surprise - "what, man's best friend can be afflicted with the same illness as people?" The answer is yes and, for those dealing with pets experiencing congestive heart failure, the goal of balancing treatment with the preservation of quality of life is an all-to-real daily struggle.

Briefly, congestive heart failure is a medical condition that occurs as a consequence to an underlying heart disease. Often, the first indication that a potential problem may exist is the discovery of a heart murmur by your veterinarian during your pet's annual physical examination. As the heart disease progresses, the body attempts to overcome this weakness and, in the early stages there may not be any outward symptoms.

Unfortunately, as the disease progresses, the body can no longer compensate and this can make the outward symptoms more severe. The eventual result is congestive heart failure, which is characterized by various symptoms including reduced exercise capacity and appetite, coughing, and breathing difficulties.

Dogs (and cats) can suffer from a variety of different heart diseases with the two most common in the dog (accounting for over 90 per cent of heart disease in the dog) being a defective heart valve (often referred to as mitral valvular insufficiency) and a weakened heart muscle (commonly referred to as dilated cardiomyopathy or DCM). Estimates suggest that approximately 10 per cent of dogs are affected by heart disease, not an insignificant figure! To date, treatment has been focused on alleviating the clinical signs and restoring the pet's quality of life.

Recently, a drug that represents an entirely new type of heart medication has become available for use in dogs suffering from either mitral valvular insufficiency or DCM. This new drug is called Vetmedin. Vetmedin is unique in that it address the root cause of congestive heart failure rather than focusing on alleviating the resulting symptoms. International and Canadian studies (preformed at the Ontario Veterinary College), clearly demonstrate the significant benefits that Vetmedin adds to the traditional congestive heart failure therapies that have been used to date. The result is not only added longevity, but an improvement in the pet's quality of life, which for the majority of pet owners, is the defining measure of success of any treatment.

From both the study results and anecdotal information from pet owners, the outcome is a pet that not only breathes easier and coughs less, but a pet that also rejoins the family as an involved family member with a renewed vigor for life.

Sound too good to believe? My personal experience, as someone that has worked with Boehringer Ingelheim (the manufacturer of Vetmedin) and the various researchers involved, is that Vetmedin translates the aforementioned study findings into true benefits for those dogs afflicted by mitral valve insufficiency and DCM, and will literally revolutionize the way veterinarians currently treat these diseases. So, if you have a dog suffering from congestive heart failure, contact your veterinarian to determine if Vetmedin would be something that your dog could benefit from as well.

Dear Dr. Walt: My dog loves to spend time outdoors in the colder weather to the point where I am often concerned that this may be harmful to her – especially on colder days. What is an appropriate or safe length of time that a dog can stay out in the cold weather?

Dogs do, as a general rule, love the great outdoors and the winter is no exception. In fact many seem to prefer the colder months and seem invigorated by it. Fortunately, dogs were born with “fur coats” and a higher tolerance to colder weather than their owners; but not all of them like to spend extended periods of time outdoors.

To properly answer your question, a number of factors need to be taken into account. These include:

• breed
• coat type
• general health
• age
• acclimation to colder weather
• availability of shelter
• individual differences in the desire to spend time outdoors

Smaller, short-coated, ill, or geriatric dogs have less tolerance for the cold and therefore are limited to the time they may be able to spend outdoors. Alternatively, one may want to consider purchasing a coat or sweater: with many different styles and prices to choose from, it should not be hard to find something that suits every budget and pet personality.

Conversely, certain breeds that are bred for colder weather, such as the northern breeds (i.e., husky), may actually prefer extended periods outside in the colder weather. If this is done, ensure that adequate shelter is available and only if they have been acclimated to the colder weather (i.e., have spent longer periods of time outdoors during the change in seasons to allow their coat and metabolism to accommodate the temperature change). Shelter should be an insulated dog house, off the ground with the door protected or facing away from the prevailing wind and some straw or a blanket for the dog to burrow into. As dogs rely on their body heat to warm their immediate environment, an appropriate shelter should only be large enough for them to lie down comfortably – making the garage an unsuitable shelter by itself. Ensuring a high quality diet and access to drinkable (i.e., not frozen) water is essential as outdoor dogs burn more calories to maintain their body heat. Also, pay attention and head cold-weather warnings when they occur.

Perhaps the simplest way of ensuring that your pet's outdoor time is enjoyable is to spend the time with them. This will allow you to watch for any signs that they may be becoming cold such as:

• shivering
• running towards and standing by the door
• wanting to be held, or
• losing interest in the activities that you are doing

Regardless, revel in your outdoor pursuits, as it is a wonderful way to enjoy your time together and a healthy activity that you can both enjoy.

About Dr. Walt Ingwersen
Dr. Walt Ingwersen is Chief Veterinary Officer at PetCare Insurance Brokers Ltd. He is a 1982 graduate of the Ontario Veterinary College. Board certified in Internal Medicine, he has the distinction of being the first Canadian editor of the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association, a position he currently holds.

Involved in many aspects of the national and international veterinary community, "Dr. Walt" is the recipient of the President's Award for outstanding contribution to the veterinary profession awarded by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA). He is also Chief Veterinary Officer and Chairman of the Veterinary Advisory Board at PetCare Insurance Brokers Ltd. – Canada's leading provider of insurance for dogs and cats.

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Dr. Walt's happy tails: Safe outdoor play during winter