Tuesday 13 March 2018

Cold Comfort

The UK and Europe have recently experienced some pretty extreme weather. The 'Beast from the East' hit first, bringing an icy Siberian blast, followed immediately by Storm Emma, and storm-force winds, metres-deep drifts, and sheet ice.

There's no question that the disruption and damage wrought on our human way of life was disruptive, so just imagine how hard it was for our wildlife. Extreme weather such as this causes major problems for animals in the wild, whether in urban areas or countryside.

When the extreme cold, wet, and windy weather hits, we can all do our bit to help wildlife around us to survive, no matter where we live. Last year, when the freezing weather affected us, we posted about caring for your dogs and cats during the cold weather, but this time, we're focusing on advice on helping you help wild animals, and care for smaller pets.



Birds are often the first to struggle in freezing weather. Not only is it harder for them to find their usual food, but vital sources of water can freeze. During colder weather, animals require more food, as more energy is used to keep warm. Garden birds benefit from extra food at the hardest times of the year (and not only in extreme weather): try adding some high-energy wild bird seed mix, or suet pellets, to the feeding table. You can also feed apples, pears, soft fruit, and even cooked pasta, rice, boiled potatoes, cheese, raisins and sultanas (Blackbirds in particular love these!). 


Access to clean, fresh water is also essential, so check frequently to ensure water does not freeze, and do not place water or food near areas where cats and predators may hide. 

It's also vital that you keep your bird feeding areas thoroughly clean: diseases and parasites can readily and rapidly spread at contaminated feeding areas, and many are fatal to birds, as well as potentially harmful to us.


If you're lucky enough to have badgers visiting your garden, you may get a visit during very cold snaps. Badgers tend to stay put if they can't dig for their favourite snack of earthworms, but the extreme cold can see them visiting a favourite feeding ground. Peanuts, cheese, fruit, and lightly cooked meats all make a welcome treat for your badger visitors.


Squirrels are famous for 'squirrelling' away nuts for later consumption. However, if the ground is frozen, they may be unable to access their caches. Whilst squirrels usually help themselves to bird seed, eating sunflower hearts and peanuts with gusto, you can give them a little extra help during harsh weather. Try almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, and some chopped apple, beans, carrots, and spinach. And don't be surprised to see a squirrel take the food and bury it in your garden!


Ponds are havens for thousands of species of animals and plants, and even small ponds provide a big boost to wildlife, in any environment. Freezing is one of the biggest threats to ponds at this time of year. Animals can become frozen into the ice, if a rapid freeze occurs. It's vital that you check your pond every day for ice – more than once, if the weather is particularly harsh – and remove it. DO NOT POUR BOILING WATER ONTO THE ICE: the thermal shock could easily kill fish and amphibians. Break up the ice instead. It's also vital that the surface of the pond is as open to the air as possible. If a layer of ice covers the entire pond, it will prevent poisonous gasses escaping from the water, which can kill hibernating fish or frogs at the bottom of the pond.

Frogs will most likely not be in the pond itself, but hibernating under logs or stones nearby. Spring is when they begin to emerge to mate, and, hopefully, if the weather is too bad, they'll postpone spawning until it improves.

One final thing to consider. Be very careful to ensure that no road salt, grit, or runoff, from roads, fields or paths gets into your pond through meltwater or spray: salt can harm both animals and plants, and, in extreme cases, could make your pond uninhabitable.

General advice for pet owners

It's not just our wild animals that need extra consideration during extreme weather. Our own pets also need to be catered for, so here's some advice for your small, and not-so-small, animals

Stay indoors

If there's a covering of snow, I'll be the first to go outside with my dog! However, whilst we and our dogs may like a frolic in the snow, it's good advice to keep animals indoors when the weather is really bad. It's now believed that dogs are ideally suited to cold, arid conditions, having evolved in such climates – but don't think this means they are impervious to cold. It's particularly important to keep puppies, kittens, older, ill or infirm animals inside. If you have a short-haired or lean breed, a good quality weatherproof coat is a brilliant idea – particularly one with high-vis or reflective patches.

Minimising exposure to, and exertion in, extreme cold is also important advice for those of you with Pug or short-nosed breeds. Shorter-muzzle breeds are not able to pre-warm the air they breathe, as longer-muzzle breeds can, or filter pathogens and pollutants effectively. This can cause serious health issues, including rapid internal temperature fluctuations, and respiratory infections. Do not expect to go for a jog in the snow with your Pug!

No solo

During the cold weather, don't let your dog or cat roam freely outside by themselves. Dogs can come to great harm, especially around roads and rivers. Cats in particular have a habit of sheltering in places of vestigial heat, such as heating ducts, behind fridges and industrial equipment, and, of course, under cars and car bonnets. Many cats are injured or killed each year, when a car starts up or moves off. Before you get into your car, take a look underneath, near the warm parts of the engine and the exhaust, and check under the bonnet for any potential stowaways.

Hey: wipe your feet before you come in!

If your dog or cat has come in after an adventure in winter wonderland, particularly along roads or urban areas, give their paws, legs, and stomach a wipe, ideally with a clean microfibre towel or cloth. The grime and wet they pick up on their fur may be full of salt, grit, and other harmful chemicals, which can be ingested by your dog or cat when cleaning themselves.

Eat up

As with all animals, our pets need more food in cold weather, as they burn more calories to keep warm. Give your pet extra rations during cold snaps … they won't complain!

Anti-freezing, NOT antifreeze!

Vehicle antifreeze is one of the most toxic liquids an animal can ingest, and drinking even a small amount can prove fatal, particularly for smaller animals. Many brands contain a substance to make the fluid unbearably bitter, but not all, and not all animals are discouraged – so DON'T TAKE A CHANCE.


Outdoor pets

Some small animals are surprisingly hardy, coming from arid, mountainous, and very cold parts of the world, but they won't survive harsh weather without a little help. The best way to ensure your outdoor pets' safety is to bring them into the house, garage, or an outhouse, and keep food and water topped-up. 

If you can't bring in your animals, protection from draughts and damp is vital. Raise hutches off the ground by a few inches, and cover with a waterproof tarpaulin overnight, and whenever it rains. Animals should have an enclosed sleeping box to prevent draughts, lined with nesting material which should be changed once a week. Water must always be freely available, and should be changed twice a day. Check that it doesn't freeze, as small bottles and tubes rapidly freeze solid.

Keep your eyes peeled

When the harshest of weather hits, keep a look out for waifs and strays. If you come across an animal who appears lost, abandoned, or in distress, call a local animal shelter immediately; they should be able to offer advice, and will likely take the animal into its care.

If you come across an animal that is injured or in urgent need of help, call the RSPCA, SSPCA, USPCA, or ISPCA.


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