The importance of a cosy night's sleep for animals
The saddest story from last week's snow storms was a quiet and simple one: it was reported that a pet Labrador froze to death after being kept outdoors in a wooden kennel.
No more details were released, but none were needed: a comfortable, safe, place to sleep is one of life's basic necessities. As pet owners, we all have an obligation to provide this.
When I visited Finland a few years ago, I was initially impressed by the fact that the country has no stray dogs at all. This is a complete contrast to Ireland, where thousands of unwanted dogs are collected and kept in local authority dog pounds, with many being euthanased because it's impossible to find homes for them. Then I discovered the likely reason for Finland's "success" in this area: it is so cold in winter, that any stray animals rapidly freeze to death because they don't have a warm, cosy home. Last week, we thought that it was cold in Ireland when overnight temperatures dipped to minus 4'C. At the same time, in Finland, it was -20'C. And that's a normal winter over there. Pets that are left to find for themselves - like stray dogs - don't have any chance of surviving.
While there was only one pet death publicly reported last week, I have no doubt that there were hundreds of others that received no publicity. The animals that I feel most sorry for are the smaller pets, like rabbits and guinea pigs. These are often kept in bare hutches in back gardens. There's no doubt that when sub-zero temperatures are expected, these creatures should be brought indoors. They are so small that they are at a particular risk of chilling: they have a very high surface area to body weight ratio, meaning that there's a bigger surface area to lose heat from, and a smaller body mass to generate warmth. Last week, many people may have come out in the morning to check their rabbits and guinea pigs only to find them chilled and lifeless. Of course we don't hear these stories: nobody in their right mind would share that type of tale.
It's true that many animals in Ireland do manage to sleep outdoors successfully, even in the most bitterly cold weather. Think about wildlife: foxes, badgers and rabbits, not to mention wild birds. They live outside all year long, and their bodies and habits have adapted to make survival possible. They tend to have insulating coats, and they seek out shelters and hollows that protect them from the wind and rain. At the same time, I am sure that many of these creatures died last week too: who is going to report those?
And then there's the feral cat population, thriving on housing estates, outside restaurant and hotel kitchens, and on many areas of waste land. These cats have learned about survival because they have no other option. They have acclimatised to some extent to the winter weather, and most of them will have survived last week. Some of the frailer, weaker animals, such as the sick, the young and the old, may have died, but the population as a whole will carry on.
So what can be done to help animals in cold weather?
The first thing is that we all need to provide appropriate care for those animals under our direct care: in fact, under the Animal Welfare Act 2013, we are legally obliged to do this. That means we need to give them a safe, comfortable place to sleep at night. A bare wooden kennel is not enough to do this, even in a normal winter. For nearly all pets, that means that they need to be brought indoors when the temperature goes below zero in winter.
I know that many farm dogs sleep in kennels and in outhouses, but even then, it's essential that their housing is as cosy as possible. Sleeping areas need to be dry and draught proof, with plenty of bedding for the animal to nestle into. Ideally, they should be insulated (one company, Funkycribs.ie, even makes bespoke insulated kennels for people who want to do their best for animals that have to sleep outdoors sometimes).
The second thing that we can do is to help animals that don't belong to anyone.
Make sure that you care for the wild birds in your garden: leave out a regular supply of food, especially when the snow is thick on the ground, and make sure that you crack the ice on any water bowls, so that they can drink.
It's difficult to help other wild animals: nature is tough, and they tend to hide out of the way, hunkering down on their own.
As for feral cats, the best thing you can do is to take action once the snow has gone away: help to set up a trap-neuter-release programme for feral cat colonies in your neighbourhood. Controlling the over-production of kittens is the best way to help feral cats: most of the suffering happens because there isn't enough food to feed the dozens of weak kittens that are born every spring. Preventing their births is the best way to help them, so that the cats that are left are well fed, strong and able to survive.
I've been focussing on keeping my own pets cosy this week: my two dogs and two cats are in our kitchen at night, tucked up close to our always-on Aga. And we set up fan heaters to come on if sub-zero conditions hit the sleeping areas of our canaries in their aviary and the hens in their run.
No animal deserves to freeze to death.