How to care for pets and livestock in cold weather

WITH freezing temperatures and snow on the foreceast the RSPCA is asking people to be mindful of the health of their pets and livestock.

The charity's Operational Superintendent Matt Sacks urged member of the public to contact the RSPCA in cases of emergency and reminded pet owners that antifreeze and rock salt can be poisonous to their fluffy friends.

The RSPCA offered the following advice:

Rabbits and guinea pigs

Keep a closer eye on outdoor pets such as rabbits and guinea pigs as the mercury drops. Guinea pigs should be housed indoors when temperatures are below 15 degrees Celsius but rabbits can stay in an outside hutch until it creeps towards 0 degrees, at which point you need to move the hutch indoors or into a shed or unused garage. 

Remember that guinea pigs and rabbits still need time and space to exercise indoors. 

If you have to leave them outside you must provide lots of extra bedding, such as dust-free hay, and make sure their home is protected from adverse weather. For example, buy a cover to help insulate hutches but ensure there is adequate ventilation.

For rabbits and guinea pigs housed in a hutch, a sloped roof is preferable to allow water to drain away. Hutches should be raised off the ground by at least four inches and placed in a sheltered position, facing away from wind and rain.

If your rabbit or guinea pig gets wet, rub them dry with a towel and make sure they have plenty of warm bedding.


Your cat needs constant access to the house or to a warm, inside area such as an outbuilding or barn with appropriate heating.  Also ensure its bedding or sleeping area is warm, dry and away from draughts.


If you have an elderly or sickly dog, you can buy a special coat or jumper to keep it warm when out for walks. Check the fit, you want to make sure your dog can still behave normally, for example, go to the toilet easily.

Keep your pet away from frozen ponds, lakes or rivers which can pose a danger and make sure their paws don’t get impacted with snow. If you are walking your dog in the dark wear reflective clothing and consider a reflective collar or light for the dog's collar to keep you both safe.


Pet birds kept in aviaries, coops, or runs, also require protection from the cold. You can help keep them cosy with plenty of additional dry, warm bedding such as straw and by covering enclosures to keep out the wind and rain. Birds will eat more to keep warm in cold conditions so ensure they always have access to food and fresh water and ensure the water does not freeze over.

Don’t house animals, including birds, in greenhouses and take care if housing them in conservatories.


If you have a fish pond check it daily for signs that it has frozen as poisonous gases can build up under the ice. Don’t break the ice as this can harm the fish, instead carefully place a saucepan of hot water on the surface to gently melt a hole in the ice. Never tip boiling water straight on to ice or into the pond as this can also harm or kill fish. Never, ever use antifreeze or salt to thaw frozen ponds or birdbaths.

Horses & livestock

Be prepared to give them extra feed and good quality long fibre as grass is often sparse. Ensure they have adequate shelter to escape adverse weather and check there is no ice in water troughs and buckets.

Horses will benefit from waterproof rugs and if it is particularly wet and muddy check their hooves regularly for problems such as abscesses and loose shoes and their legs for signs of mud fever. Owners should ensure horses have access to a dry resting area, out of the mud.

When riding in the winter, beware of getting your horse sweaty as they can easily catch a chill. Always wear reflective clothing when riding on the roads.

Make arrangements with a reliable and experienced person to take care of your horse or livestock in case of an emergency, such as being cut off by bad weather. Farmers and smallholders should give extra consideration to young animals and whether they need extra protection from the cold weather.


Birds can struggle to find food during the winter months so to help them stay strong householders can leave out extra food such as suitable seeds and grains, like oats and sunflower seeds, cooked pasta or rice, boiled potatoes, cheese, or uncooked unsalted bacon rind, raisins and sultanas, net-free fat or suet balls, apples, pears and soft fruits and insects such as mealworms or waxworms. Only feed peanuts if unsalted, fresh and sold for human consumption or by a reputable feed shop and make sure to either chop them up or put them out in good quality mesh feeders.

Keep bird baths free of ice, leave out bowls of clean water and keep any feeders and water bowls clean.

Finally, make sure you carefully check any wood or leaf piles for wild animals such as hedgehogs, frogs and mice, before lighting fires or bonfires. If you find wild animals in hibernation, be sure to leave them be.

Remember - if you see an animal outside in the cold that looks like it is suffering, take a note of the location, the time and date and call the RSPCA on the emergency line 0300 1234 999.

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