Many animals need help in freeze

Extremely cold weather poses special challenges to pets, livestock, experts say

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LOS ANGELES — Backyard rabbit Mr. Bun-Buns has been calling a bathroom home for nearly a week, police K-9s have been relieved of chase duty in deep snow, feral cats got sugar and straw from a lot of good Samaritans and Ormsby, a skinny, toothless, blind and geriatric goat with a tendency to wander, has been locked in a barn.

As a fierce freeze gripped much of the country, animal lovers were rushing to protect pets, livestock and police dogs from historically icy temperatures that have led to deaths, transit shutdowns and school closures.

The blast of polar air breaking records in the Midwest, East and South sent shelters and pet owners scrambling to keep sensitive paws and wet noses warm.

Veterinarians say the smaller the animal, the higher the risk of freezing to death. In dogs and cats, shivering and lethargy are the first two signs of trouble.

"The smaller you are, the more body surface you have, and the quicker you will lose body heat," said Dr. Douglas G. Aspros, immediate past president of the Illinois-based American Veterinary Medical Association.

Subzero wind chills have been widely registered, and Aspros, who has offices in White Plains and Pound Ridge, N.Y., says they are a big factor because wind strips heat from pets faster.

If you need to warm a shivering animal, a quick and easy way is to heat a towel in the dryer and wrap it around them.

Many animals will be comfortable if they're moving but get cold when they slow down, said Dr. Brian Collins of the small animal clinic at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in Ithaca, N.Y.

"They may refuse to walk because their feet are so cold," he said. "They might alternate picking up their feet because they don't want to leave them down too long. I have seen little dogs just fall over. They will pick up one, two and three feet and fall right over."

The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department's dogs are still on patrol with their handlers, but they aren't being deployed for extended outdoor searches, Lt. Benny Diggs said.

All dogs are different, but a K-9 might be able to search for only 15 or 20 minutes in deep snow before showing signs of trauma to the legs, he said. Ice under snow can cut their feet and salt in wounds is painful.

"We haven't had anything like this in forever. You can't even put chemicals down because they just freeze," Diggs said.

Cats are probably the most resourceful animals in the cold, and feral cats are particularly hardy because they are so used to the outdoors, said Becky Robinson, president and founder of Alley Cat Allies in Baltimore.

But in this kind of a freeze, a helping hand could save a lot of lives, she said.

She says Samaritans have been making cheap, outdoor shelters with plastic tubs or foam coolers set off the ground and lined with straw. Blankets gather moisture, she said, and will freeze, so they use straw. She recommends putting water in plastic, rather than metal, bowls, with a pinch of sugar because it doesn't freeze as quickly, she said. It still has to be refreshed often, though.

The vets warned drivers to check before starting cars because cats, domestic and feral, are drawn to warm engines and car hoods. An open clothes dryer is a warm spot that could lure an indoor cat, so keep the door shut.

Livestock will head for the barn when cold.

At the 175-acre Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, all 640 horses, cows, sheep and goats were given shelter from the cold and snow, national shelter director Susie Coston said. That includes Ormsby, locked up for his own good.

Ormsby and at least 25 of the calves, sheep and other old goats are wearing coats specially made for them by a volunteer.

Chickens are susceptible to frostbite on their wattles and combs, Coston said, so they are covered with Vaseline.

At Dr. Caroline Flower's office in Chester, Conn., every dog through the door has been wearing a coat this week. Receptionist-technician Cathy Troncoso said her dogs would be wearing them too, but they don't make the outerwear big enough to fit her two 125-pound Pyrenees dogs.

The cold forced colleague Ashley Bogert to move her backyard rabbit, Mr. Bun-Buns, into her bathroom. "He loves it," she said, but she's looking forward to getting the room back to herself.

Dr. Jeff Werber in balmy Southern California offered a few tips for helping pets de-stress after being cooped up indoors for a week — pheromone collars or a natural calming herb like California poppy, Valerian root, passion flower or chamomile.