Animals need special care in stormy and rough weather
Irish winters seem to be getting bleaker. Every month we hear about another storm with a new name: the latest, just last week, was Storm Diana. We now expect high winds, torrential rain and cold weather during our winter months.
This weather is bad enough for humans, with a risk to life from falling trees or other accidents, but what about animals?
It isn't an easy time of year to be a farmer, or indeed to be a farm animal. It's a continual challenge for farmers to get food out to their stock, and open fields and hillsides can be inhospitable places for livestock.
What about pets? It's easiest to consider these in three categories: cats, dogs and other small animals.
Most cats are independent creatures who come and go as they please from the family home, often via a cat flap. They are sensible, enjoying comfort, so they seek out a cosy place to sleep during bouts of bad weather. My own cats are either curled up on a bed upstairs or snoozing beside the kitchen range when it is cold and wet outside. If they do venture out, I have no doubt that they find themselves cosy spots to hunker down, whether in a boiler house, a garden shed or simply deep in dense undergrowth.
More care needs to be taken with young kittens or very elderly cats: these weaker creatures may not be able to look after themselves as others, so they deserve some extra cherishing. At the very least, lockable cat flaps should be set to stop cats from going outside when extreme weather events are predicted. And there's a strong argument for the provision of a heated bed somewhere indoors: elderly cats, in particular, benefit from a special heated bed. A warm, soft bed is good for ailments like arthritis, and it promotes more comfortable, deeper sleeps. You can buy plug-in heaters for cat beds.
A simple heated bed like this will make cats' lives more comfortable during stormy or cold weather: all cats will appreciate this, but for elderly cats, it can be life changing.
Dogs are more complicated than cats, as they are dependent on humans for their living conditions. While some people do have dog flaps, they're not widely used: there are security implications, since small humans can clamber through them just as easily as large dogs.
So most dogs go where their owners put them, and sadly, many owners choose to leave their dogs outdoors. I often hear tales of dogs being locked outside while their owners are at work. Their barks and howls disturb the neighbourhood. This is bad enough in good weather: any dogs left on its own all day will suffer from serious boredom. But when dogs are left outside in stormy weather, there can be significant suffering. Apart from the physical discomfort of cold and wetness., many dogs are over-sensitive to high winds, becoming terrified and distressed. It's a crime under the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2014 to keep any animal in conditions which adversely affect its welfare. However it would be difficult to prove that this was the case in many instances, and the courts are already busy enough with other, more severe, instances of cruelty. It's likely to be more effective to simply talk to owners of dogs in these situations, to persuade them that their pet needs a greater level of care.
So what do dogs need in foul weather? The bare minimum is shelter from the elements. This can be as simple as an outhouse or even a dog kennel, with soft bedding (even though the dogs may choose to ignore this) and a dry, draught-free interior. I know that most pet owners would feel that even this is not enough, and that an indoor bed is the only answer. However the truth is that many farm dogs have lived contentedly in farm outhouses for many generations, and there is no evidence that they suffer as a consequence. And even for some pets (e.g. larger dogs, with thick coats), it's possible to spend time outside as long as there is somewhere dry and draught free to shelter.
For most pets, an indoor life is still the ideal. Many dogs have short haired coats that offer poor insulation. And smaller dogs have a large surface area compared to their body weight, so they get cold far easier than larger dogs. For such animals, it's hard to beat a comfortable bed in a centrally heated house.
By the way, dogs know what comfortable means: I have one special memory foam dog bed, as well as several standard plastic beds lined with artificial fleece blankets. My dogs - and cats - all prefer the memory foam bed, queueing up to sleep there. The plastic beds are adequate, but for ultra-comfort, memory foam wins every time.
Even when dogs live indoors, the noise of the wind and rain can disturb them: I know a dog that gets hysterically upset in storms, rushing from room to room in a panic. So it can help to have a dog den deep inside the house (e.g. under the stairs), insulated from storm sounds. And a radio can be left on, to drown out other noises.
Finally, what about smaller pets like rabbits and guinea pigs who live outside in hutches in the summer? These should all be brought to a sheltered area in storms; an outhouse or garage is ideal. Just as large animals are buffeted and stressed by storms, so are these smaller creatures.
Look after your pets this winter: they depend on you.