Dog Smarts: Winter Wonderings With Dr. Karen Rooney

When the temperature drops and snow begins to fall, it’s an entirely new environment for our adaptable companions. With this winter expected to be one of the coldest on record, we thought it would be a good time to have a conversation with our trusted South County neighbor and veterinarian, Dr. Karen Rooney, about caring for dogs through the next few months.

Dr. Karen Rooney

Dr. Karen Rooney

Dr. Rooney has been practicing since 1993 and frequently brings her dog, Rylee, to The Watering Bowl for some cage-free fun. At her home in Ballwin, she and her husband raise two daughters, two dogs and three cats.

Before taking on her own practice, Dr. Rooney worked at Stray Rescue, taking care of unwanted and abused dogs—two of which ended up coming home to live with the Rooneys.

In 2011, Dr. Rooney was awarded the Stray Rescue Hope for the Holidays Award of Gratitude, so she’s not only an expert in pet care. She also knows a thing or two about compassion.


Do dogs need sweaters? 

While sweaters are really cute and fashionable, dogs don’t really need them. They lose their heat through their paws and through their mouth, but if your dog likes to be fashionable, let him go ahead and rock that sweater!


What to use to safely deice/snow the driveway?

All ice melts are not created equal. Just because something says “pet safe” on the label, does not mean it’s harmless. Many of them can cause the paw pads to dry and crack. While ingestion is a concern, a dog would have to ingest a lot to make it sick. Be careful that your dog does not eat snow or drink out of puddles that may contain ice melt. The most common symptoms are vomiting and diarrhea, but they can also cause neurological signs. If you suspect your pet has ingested toxic amounts of an ice melt, get veterinary attention immediately. To be entirely pet safe, use sand or kitty litter to aid traction rather than using an ice melt product.


How do you remove snowballs from paw pads safely? 

Preventative measures for this problem include trimming the fur between the paw pads or the use of booties. However, some dogs still get snowballs between their pads. It’s very important to make sure you use only lukewarm and not hot water. Water is lukewarm when it doesn’t feel cold or hot to the touch. You can apply it via washcloth, a small bowl, or for smaller pets, carry them to the tub. Gently bathe the areas where snow has accumulated and the snowballs will melt right off. If your dog does not like his paws being touched, you can just let them soak. Make sure you dry them well so they don’t have wet paws the next time they go out.


How much outside time is appropriate for certain temperatures? 

There is no cut and dried standard here. Cold tolerance varies from pet to pet depending on the size, age, health, length and thickness of coats, to name a few. Pet owners need to be aware of their pet’s limitations and adjust their outside time. Even walks may need to be shortened for some pets. A general rule of thumb is that if it’s too cold for you, it’s too cold for most dogs. Dogs that are getting too cold may exhibit the following symptoms: shivering, anxiety, whining, barking, reluctance to walk, or hunched over appearance. If you notice any of these symptoms, get him back inside to warm up. Life threatening hypothermia symptoms are lethargy, stiffness, muscle weakness and slow breathing. If you suspect your pet has life threatening hypothermia, seek veterinary help immediately. Re-warming must be done at a gradual controlled rate to prevent an irregular heartbeat and possible death.


How much does this vary between short-haired and long-haired dogs?  

Generally dogs with longer and thicker coats have a higher cold tolerance, but age, general health, and size among other factors also play a part.


What can I do to help my dog’s paws if they get red/raw from too much snow or walking in parks that use salt? 

I’ll start with prevention. Wash the paws off in lukewarm water and pat them dry every time they come inside. If your dog will tolerate boots, they are the best prevention. I have even seen disposable booties sold in pet stores. A paw balm, which are usually made of non-toxic waxes can both protect and treat paw pads. Read the ingredients and to make an informed choice in a balm.  Be aware that human balms are not always safe for pets. Vaseline is inexpensive and effective to protect paws and treat cracked sore paws. Some people use vitamin E cream, but you need to rub it in well. Too much vitamin E can cause health problems. For dry, cracked pads, clean first with a mild soap and water, pat dry and apply balm. Make walks and outside time short. Redness, odor, discharge and pain are signs of infection, so be on the lookout. Don’t hesitate to consult a veterinarian with any concerns. I’ll summarize general paw care with clean, clean, clean and moisturize, moisturize, moisturize.


Any tips for managing the dry/flaky skin lots of dogs get in the winter time?

Dry weather and dry skin go hand in hand. First of all, don’t over bathe your dog. It robs his skin of natural moisturizers and causes the skin to dry out more. I recommend using oatmeal shampoos when you have to bathe your dog in winter because it’s not only soothing, it’s moisturizing. Omega-3 plus omega-6 fatty acid supplements can help improve skin and coat condition, but it can take a few weeks to see any changes. There are a lot of supplements out there, so ask your veterinarian which one(s) they recommend. If your dog is scratching himself so much that he is losing hair or making himself bleed, there is more going on than just dry skin.

I know there is a lot of information about pet care out there, so please consider the source when you are searching and make sure the information is coming from a veterinary professional or an organization such as the ASPCA, AVMA or AKC.


Thanks, Dr. Rooney. There are a lot of helpful tips in here, and we appreciate your time in helping keep our dog owners informed.