Extreme cold weather tips for pets, people, and homes

January 7, 2014

Here are a few tips for dealing with extreme cold weather, and making sure you, pets and other animals, and your home are all safe. 

Protect yourself

In temperatures around or below zero degrees, especially in high winds that drop the wind chill substantially below zero, people spending time outside should be extremely careful. At temperatures and wind chills significantly below zero, frostbite and hypothermia can occur in a matter of minutes.

Bundle up.Bundle up.Wear multiple layers of light clothing, rather than just a single heavy coat. Multiple layers help to trap warm air close to your body and provide extra insulation. Wear socks and shoes that aren't too ventilated, wear gloves with cuffs that are snug on your wrist, and wear a hat to keep from losing too much heat through your head. Earmuffs will help protect your ears. A mask or a collar that can be zipped up will help protect your face. Don't lick a metal pole or other object to see if your tongue will stick.

When you're driving around, do not attempt to drive into a flooded roadway, and be extremely cautious about driving on roads without obvious surface water. A little bit of water on pavement could turn into black ice in cold conditions.

Always keep your gas tank at least half full, so that if you're stranded you can run your engine periodically to keep warm, and don't go driving without an emergency kit that includes warm clothing, blankets, drinking water, and a supply of food such as granola bars or beef jerky. If you're running your engine periodically to heat up the car, make sure your exhaust pipe isn't blocked, or the car could quickly fill with danerous carbon monoxide.

Protect your pets

SPCA of Tompkins County executive director Jim Bouderau encourages animals guardians to take extra measures not to expose their pets to harsh winter conditions. "I can't stress enough how important it is to avoid hypothermia and frostbite or worse."

Small or short-haired pets should be kept indoors as much as possible. Larger breeds and thick-coated dogs may remain outside for longer periods, if they have adequate shelter. Outdoor animal shelters should be well-built, waterproof, and insulated, with solid walls and a sturdy floor, and should have dry bedding material and a source of water that will remain unfrozen. Doors should be covered with a flap to block wind, rain, and snow.

Short-haired dogs need jackets when it's cold.Short-haired dogs need jackets when it's cold.When you're taking pets outside for even a limited time, short-haired animals, especially, should wear protective gear such as jackets to protect against cold and wind, and boots or other paw protection if they're sensitive when walking on ice or rock salt. Don't make a pet sit still and watch while you shovel the snow or do other outdoor chores; you and your pet should both keep moving while outdoors in extreme cold. Breeds like huskies and samoyeds are built for cold weather, but still need shelter and fresh water.

Outdoor cats should have a sheltered refuge they can head to when it's cold out, such as a barn, garage, shed, outbuilding, or porch. Make sure dry bedding and unfrozen water are always available. Cats may crawl into warm car engine compartments if they don't find other shelter, so hit the hood or honk the horn to give cats a chance to escape if they're hiding in your car, before you start the engine.

Companion animals are protected by New York State law. If you suspect animal abuse, please call the SPCA at 607-257-1822.

Outdoor livestock also need shelter, fresh bedding, and unfrozen water. Electric water heaters designed for outdoor use can be used to keep a water trough from freezing. "Frostbite is a serious issue and farm animals can easily suffer from the effects of the cold like dogs and cats," says Farm Sanctuary national shelter director Susie Coston. "With temperatures and wind chills below 0, the animals need to be indoors and out of the cold winds. The cattle actually can handle the colder temperatures, but not the wind," she says.

Farm Sanctuary's animals are kept safe in draft-free barns, some with heated floors. The organization's elderly, young, thin, or sick animals are kept in warmer indoor areas and/or are kept warm with coats, which Coston says they have for sheep, goats, and calves. "Our pigs have beds so big you cannot see them," she adds. "They are buried under mounds of straw and they stay in bed the entire night." 

"The chickens have heat in their barns, as do the turkeys. The ducks and geese have a concrete core filled barn which stays very toasty just with their own body heat. All the barns have straw bedding."

Protect your home

Alternating warm and cold weather can cause heavy snowmelt with broken ice, a combination that can and does cause flooding in our area's creeks and streams. The Ithaca Fire Department asks area residents to make sure storm drains around their homes are kept clear, and shovel out a three-foot space around all nearby fire hydrants.

Homeowners should check that sump pumps are in working order, and lift valuable items off the basement floor. If water floods your basement and gets too deep, shut off utilities if it's safe to do so, and call the Department of Emergency Response at 607-257-3888 for assistance.

To avoid frozen pipes, make sure warm air can circulate around pipes in the basement or other parts of the home that aren't well heated. Frozen pipes are especially likely in older homes, where pipes are more likely to be in outer walls; letting water trickle in the sink isn't a bad idea in such cases. IFD adds that residents should never use lighters, blowtorches, or any other open flame to attempt to thaw frozen water pipes. Recent fires on Slaterville Road and Linn Street were caused by attempts to thaw frozen pipes. They suggest a hair dryer aimed at an uncovered portion of pipe. It could take 20-30 minutes to thaw a pipe, but even if the frozen portion is outside the house, heat conducted along the pipe should thaw it eventually. Make sure you know where and how to turn off water in your house in the event a frozen pipe bursts.

If you're using a wood stove, fireplace, or other solid fuel to heat your home or cook outdoors in cold weather, always be careful when discarding ashes or embers, keeping in mind that embers can stay hot for days. Never discard ashes on or near a porch or in a combustible container.

In the event of a power outage or heat failure, don't use a stove, oven, or other cooking equipment to heat your home. Use electric space heaters if electricity is available, with plenty of clearance around them. There are emergency propane heaters available that are designed for indoor use; don't use propane stoves or other equipment not designed for indoor use. Never use a generator indoors.

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