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In brutal cold, volunteers helping keep pets safe

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News
A dog thanks Detroit Dog Rescue’s Kristina Rinaldi as she supplies straw for the dogs’ igloo. Volunteers have stepped up efforts in recent weeks during the cold weather, canvassing the city to check on reports of endangered canines as well as distributing donated igloos, straw and food.

A wandering white husky mix weighing only 17 pounds.

One black pit bull whose paw pads had frozen off, leaving a trail of blood in the snow to his refuge under a porch.

Four dogs, including a puppy, found dead, having succumbed to the cold.

This winter, volunteers with the nonprofit Detroit Dog Rescue have encountered numerous cases during their efforts across the city illustrating just how brutal the season has been for some of the area's most vulnerable inhabitants.

"This has been one of the worst winters," said Kristina Rinaldi, director of operations at DDR. "Last year was bad with the snow, but the cold is horrible this year."

As an arctic stretch lingers at the end of what the National Weather Service says is the second coldest February on record, Metro Detroit animal rescue groups and advocates are urging residents to watch out for four-legged creatures.

"The bottom line is: if it's too cold for you to stay outside, it's too cold for your pet to stay outside for a long period of time," said Ryan McTigue, spokesman for the Michigan Humane Society.

The National Weather Service forecasts near record lows Saturday, then highs around freezing by Monday. The average high this time of year is near 40.

Raven, taken from an abandoned house after neighbors called Detroit Dog Rescue for help, was adopted by a family in Farmington Hills.

The American Veterinary Medical Association advises pet owners to limit their animals' time outdoors when the mercury drops.

"Many people believe that pets' fur will prevent the animal from freezing but that's not the case," the group said. "Animals can get frostbite and hypothermia just like humans. If you're making the trek outside, an animal sweater or coat will help, as will booties ... ."

While it's not against state law to leave a dog outside, doing so without adequate housing or access to food and water is illegal, McTigue said. Dog houses offer protection, he said, but should be well-insulated, elevated and stuffed with proper bedding. "You don't want to use blankets or towels because they can absorb the moisture, which can freeze."

That's why the society offers straw for pets, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Wednesday, at its Detroit Center for Animal Care on Chrysler Drive.

"The straw will stay nice and dry and keep the warm air close to the body," McTigue said. "It's really the best thing to give your outdoor dog. But we want all dogs to be living inside with the family where they're safe."

This month, Humane Society officials spent a night sleeping outside in doghouses to raise awareness about the dangers of leaving pets outside in freezing temperatures.

To spread the word about suitable pet practices this season, Detroit Dog Rescue volunteers have stepped up outreach efforts in recent weeks, frequently canvassing the city to check on reports of endangered canines as well as distributing donated igloos, straw and food, Rinaldi said.

They aim to tell residents that even if a canine is considered a heartier breed with a longer or double coat of fur, the pets still need protection from extreme cold.

Each igloo is numbered so volunteers can keep track of the location where a dog was helped.

"Mastiffs, bulldogs, bigger dogs you would think would be able to handle the cold better, but they can't. Even their triple coats aren't enough," Rinaldi said. "When you're getting negative 18, negative 10 degrees ... it's just too cold."

Pets should have more food in winter months, too, since they need energy to stay warm, Rinaldi said.

Staying warm is key even for cats, which are known to cuddle against car engines — as was the case for a curious feline earlier this winter, McTigue said. "They get themselves tucked up under there, which is also very dangerous for them."

Other choices are equally risky. This month, a good Samaritan called the River Rouge Animal Shelter to report a pair of dogs behind a home in Ecorse, director Patricia Trevino said.

One, an older chow mix, appeared unable to move after a cord apparently became wrapped around her back leg, restricting circulation. Trevino said. "She was literally frozen to the ground. (She) could not get up."

The dog, now named Elsa after the character in the popular "Frozen" film, also had "frostbite on all her paws, tip of her nose and ears," Trevino said. Rescuers spent nearly 30 minutes working to free her.

Elsa has been recovering at Healthy Paws Veterinary Medical Center in Westland, Trevino said, but her predicament underscores how unsafe the weather can be for animals.

"It is not safe for dogs in this weather," she said. "People should be bringing them in."

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Winter safety tips

Limit time outside. It's best to keep your pet indoors when the thermometer gets low, and avoid leaving them outside for long. Bring small or short-haired pets in when temperatures reach 15-20 degrees.

Feed more . Increase the amount of food for dogs left outside by 10-20 percent. Regular access to clean, unfrozen water is also critical.

Pay attention to signs. If your pets start to whine, limp, etc., they might be telling you to bring them indoors. If your pet is shivering, cold to the touch, has pale paws and ears, it may be suffering from hypothermia.

Check vehicles. Before you move your car, check under it for any animals seeking shelter. Also, don't leave your pet locked in a vehicle for any stretch of time.

Groom regularly. Your pet needs a well-groomed coat to stay insulated. Consider a sweater for short or coarse-haired dogs. Long-haired ones should have paw hair trimmed.

Source: American Veterinary Medical Association, Michigan Humane Society, Detroit Dog Rescue