As temperatures plummet and icy weather blasts the country, the RSPCA is offering advice to animal lovers on how best to protect their pets and wildlife from the harsh elements.
Severe weather can sometimes leave people with little time to prepare but there are some things that people can do to try and reduce the risk to their pets and help wildlife.
From wiping off a horse after exercise to reduce the risk of chills and providing a tray of grass in your house for indoor rabbits, to some very simple things that wildlife lovers can do - these small steps could make a big difference.
Winter can also be challenging for birds, hedgehogs, squirrels. Every year between one and two thousand wild animals are brought into RSPCA wildlife centres in December, January and February suffering from dehydration, hunger and cold.
But there are things you can do. From making your garden wildlife-friendly; maintaining your garden pond and leaving out food and fresh, clean unfrozen water can make all the difference to how well wild animals survive the colder months.
“Taking action early really can make the difference to animals,” said Lisa Richards, RSPCA companion animal scientist. “We are mostly a nation of animal lovers, and many people will happily go that extra mile.”
Horses and ponies need extra care and attention during snowy weather.
To ensure your horse is happy and healthy during the cold snap, owners are advised to visit your horse as early as possible each day. This way, if there are any problems, you can seek assistance during the daylight hours. It is also important to make sure your horse has dried off properly after exercise as sweat can lead to chills.
If rabbits or guinea pigs are usually housed outdoors, it’s best to bring them indoors or into an unused garage or shed while it is snowing, but they will still need free access to a secure exercise area.
If keeping rabbits’ outside, their home should be placed in a sheltered position, facing away from the prevailing wind, snow and rain.
In the case of cats, the RSPCA suggests providing enough litter trays, filled with the cat’s preferred litter, indoors at all times of year. During the icy blast the ground outside may freeze, and cats who usually toilet outdoors may be put off from doing so.
Dog owners should dress them and their dogs in reflective coats when out on night-time walks, to help you both stay safe and seen.
RSPCA wildlife expert Nicola White said: “Sometimes it is the small things that can make all the difference.
“A little bit of extra food left out for a hungry robin or badger may be the help it needs to last through a spate of frosty weather, and just melting a small hole in your garden pond can make all the difference.
“We can all struggle when the weather takes a turn for the worse, and our wildlife friends are often the most vulnerable to the extremes the elements take. They just need a bit of a helping hand sometimes.”
Ways to help include:
>If your garden pond freezes over, make a hole in the ice. Otherwise toxic gases can build up in the water of a frozen pond, which may kill fish or frogs that are hibernating at the bottom. It is important to do this by gently melting a hole by carefully placing a pan of hot water on the surface. Never break the ice with force or tip boiling water onto the pond, as this can harm or even kill any fish that live there.
>Birds may have difficulty finding natural foods such as berries, insects, seeds, worms and fruit. Any alternative extra food you can put out during these cold months will help – try giving a range of seeds, fresh unsalted peanuts and table scraps, cheese and fruits like apples and pears. Garden birds love dried mealworms or waxworms, which can be bought from bird food suppliers.
>Although badgers do not hibernate they do sleep through most of the severe weather, and have a tough time finding their favourite food of earthworms when the ground is frozen. Nibbles such as lightly cooked meats, cheese, peanuts and fruit would be welcomed.
>Squirrels also do not hibernate – instead they ‘cache’ (store) food when it’s in good supply to eat when food is scarce. To help squirrels survive the coldest times of year offer nuts such as hazelnuts, walnuts and almonds, plus some chopped apple, beans, carrots or spinach.
>Farm animals can also be affected by severe weather. They need good sources of drinking water and extra food available if necessary. If it is not possible to bring animals such as sheep inside, be extra vigilant and if possible keep them away from frozen water where the risk of falling in is great.
If you would like to help the RSPCA, you can give £3 now by texting HELP to 78866 (text costs £3 + one standard network rate message).