The Benefits of Winter Heat!

Our pets have completely different environmental temperature preferences which are generally based upon their origins. The cat’s ancestor is the African Wildcat so they prefer to be warm. All cat owners are familiar with their pets finding the warmest places in their homes to sleep or how they follow the sunny spot around a room. In contrast the Scottish Wildcat has managed to adapt to a Highland climate by becoming bigger and having denser fur that it’s domestic cousin.

As usual dogs are more diverse and more complicated! The great majority of dogs can trace their origins back to three founding females in East Asia 15,000 years ago, but by the Bronze Age, 6,500 years ago, five distinct groups of dogs could be identified. The Arctic or Northern group were able to thrive in the cold and provided us with the purebred sled dog breeds such as the Siberian Husky and the Alaskan Malamute. However selective breeding of dogs particularly in the last 500 years has accounted for the huge variation in dog breeds we see today. Most dogs still prefer cool environments but there are some exceptions. Classic Sighthounds such as the Greyhound, Afghan Hound and Sloughi are lean dogs which feel the cold. Many breeds with short coats struggle in the cold, loosing lots of energy as heat and consequently loose weight which only makes the situation worse for them. Small breeds such as Terriers and Toy breeds have a high surface area to weight ratio so loose heat rapidly. Consequently dogs which are lean, short coated or small tend to prefer warm environments while the majority of dogs are more content when they are cool. This is why owners of these types of dogs often provide them with coats! In the home an alternative for small dogs and cats is to provide them with warm spots using pet bed warmers or hooded beds which they find very comforting.

Often pets with chronic diseases loose weight and develop a poor thin coat because they feel ill and don’t eat properly. The loss of weight together with a poor coat causes them to loose excessive body heat. Their bodies will attempt to keep warm by generating heat which uses energy reserves such as fat stores. Superficial body fat is a great insulator and its depletion caused further heat loss from the body which ultimately compounds the weight loss. This cycle of weight loss, increased heat loss compensated by increased heat production from fat reserves, and utilisation of fat reserves causing weight loss just completes the circle. Providing a generally warm environment, including warm spots by using pet bed warmers or coats to keep the pet warm, can reduce further weight loss.

Some disease processes draw heavily on the animal’s energy, actively depleting energy reserves including stored fat. This is a feature of many tumours and diseases which increase metabolic rate such as increased thyroid function (also known as hyperthyroidism). Hyperthyroidism is a common disease of cats over 10 years of age and its symptoms include weight loss and increased appetite. These poor old cats definitely benefit from having warm spots made available to them.

Not only can warmth help manage weight loss, it can be therapeutic. The benefits of a warm environment to chronic joint and muscle conditions are well known. Heat treatments are generally not appropriate for acute conditions.

If a pet has an uncomfortable joint, the muscles around that joint will become tense too. The muscles are attempting to prevent the joint from moving which may cause further pain. Unfortunately the muscle spasm can be as much of a source of discomfort as the joint itself!  Muscle spasms can be released by the direct application of heat to the area. If a pet lies with its chronically arthritic joint closest to a heat source, such as a pet bed warmer, it may help alleviate some discomfort.

The most common chronic joint disease seen in our pets is osteoarthritis caused by wear and tear. Often an inflammatory process is established in a joint that just grumbles on and is occasionally aggravated by a twist or a stretch. If a vicious circle of un-resolving inflammation is established in a joint, sometimes it can be broken by altering the pet’s existing inflammatory response. Warming a joint will encourage inflammation and may change a persistent inflammatory process into one that may ultimately improve. Arthritis is a complex condition and every pet suffering from it should be under the care of their own vet.

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