With low temperatures hovering near freezing at night, officials with the Rhea County Animal Shelter are encouraging pet owners to take the necessary precautions for protecting pets from the winter weather.

Rhea County Animal Control Officer Cheyenne Swafford said that, ideally, pets should be brought indoors when the temperature outside is frigid.

“Cats and dogs should be kept inside during cold weather,” Swafford said. “It’s a common belief that dogs and cats are more resistant to weather because of their fur, but it’s untrue. Like people, cats and dogs are susceptible to frostbite and hypothermia and should be kept inside.”

Swafford said that when pets are outside in the winter months, it’s important to understand how the weather may affect each animal based on breed, age and health issues.

“You will probably need to shorten your dog’s walks in very cold weather to protect you both from weather-associated health risks. Arthritic and elderly pets may have more difficulty walking on snow and ice and may be more prone to slipping and falling,” she said.

Long-haired or thick-coated dogs tend to be more tolerant of cold weather, Swafford said, but are still at risk.

“Short-haired pets feel the cold faster because they have less protection,” Swafford said. “Short-legged pets may become colder faster because their bellies and bodies are more likely to come into contact with snow-covered ground.”

Likewise, Swafford warned that pets with health issues — such as diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease or hormonal imbalances — may have a harder time regulating their body temperature. She said the same goes for very young or very old pets.

According to the Humane Society of the United States, pet cats should not be left outside at all during the winter season, due to their likelihood to roam, and Swafford said that if there are feral cats in the area, check under car hoods since cats have been known to use the engine as a source of warmth.

“A warm vehicle engine can be an appealing heat source for outdoor and feral cats, but it’s deadly,” Swafford said. “Check underneath your car, bang on the hood and honk the horn before starting the engine to encourage feline hitchhikers to abandon their roost under the hood.”

When it comes to pet dogs being outside, Swafford said the animal shelter does not recommend keeping any pet outside for an extended period of time; however, if a dog must be kept outside, steps should be taken to keep it warm in temperatures that could become deadly.

“If you are unable to keep your dog inside during cold weather, provide it with a warm, solid shelter against wind,” she said. “Make sure that they have unlimited access to fresh non-frozen water by changing the water frequently or using a pet-safe, heated water bowl.”

Swafford added that the shelter floor should be off the ground to minimize heat loss into the ground, and bedding should be thick, dry and changed regularly to provide a warm, dry environment.

“The door to the shelter should be positioned away from the prevailing winds,” she said.

Additionally, space heaters and heat lamps should typically be avoided, Swafford said, due to the risk of burns of fire. Heated pet mats should also be used with caution, she said, since they are still capable of causing burns.