As reluctant as we may feel sometimes, our pets still need to get outdoors for exercise and fresh air in the cold winter months. But even as we bundle up to take Fido for a walk, it's important to be aware of some outdoor hazards, in particular, road salt and other ice melting products used for de-icing roads and sidewalks.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, about 10 million tons of salt are used on roads in the United States each year, and that number doesn't include the amount of salt individuals and businesses use on walkways on private property.
Road salt and ice melting products used for de-icing roads and sidewalks are an irritant and are increasingly recognized as a serious environmental toxin. They are described as a toxic substance as defined by the Canadian Environmental Protection Act of 1999 and pose a risk to plants, animals, and the aquatic environment. Most road salt is composed of chloride combined with sodium, calcium, magnesium or potassium, they may also contain ferrocyanide salts. Unlike table salt, they may contain other contaminants, including heavy metals depending on where they are sourced. While data on toxicity in people and pets is limited, the Precautionary Principle suggests that we should do our best to limit or eliminate our pets' exposure.
Many dogs suffer from painful burning and cracked and dried out pads from walking on salt-treated roads and sidewalks. If not washed off, your pet can also ingest the salt through licking. This can cause serious irritation and inflammation in the mouth and digestive system, and possibly electrolyte imbalance if a significant quantity is taken in. Chronic ingestion adds to your pet's total toxic load, which could contribute to a variety of degenerative diseases.
Where possible, avoid roads, sidewalks, and walkways that have been salted. As soon as you get in from a walk, wash your pet's feet with warm (not hot) water and dry them thoroughly. Also wipe or wash off other areas that have been exposed such as the underside, especially in small or heavy coated dogs.
If your dog tolerates them, boots are also a good solution, but an alternative is to use a natural cream or wax-based paw protection that is applied before going out. An added advantage is that these can soothe and moisturize dry, cracked pads. One caution: Be sure the ingredients are all-natural and food grade. Not only can different compounds be absorbed through the skin and pads, but your dog is likely to ingest some even after the paws are wiped clean. If you do not recognize the ingredients, contact the manufacturer to be sure.
As far as what to use on icy areas on your own property, look for an environmentally friendly, non-toxic alternative to salt such as EcoTraction. Made from an all-natural volcanic mineral it provides excellent traction on ice, and unlike salt, does not lose its effectiveness in really cold temperatures. It is safe around children and pets, even if accidentally ingested, and is actually beneficial for the garden and the environment generally. It releases beneficial minerals into the soil and even helps remove toxins from the environment.
By simply employing preventative care, avoiding salted areas, and using a non-toxic alternative to salt, your pet can enjoy the outdoors this winter without the resulting sore paws or toxic effects.