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Health, Science & Tech

As Severe Cold Descends on Southwest PA, How to Keep You and Your Pets Safe

Wind chill temperatures are expected to dip to more than 30 below zero in southwestern Pennsylvania Monday night and Tuesday morning, which means exposed skin could freeze in less than 5 minutes.

The Allegheny County Health Department and the Department of Human Services are recommending that senior citizens stay in their homes if at all possible. Officials are asking anyone who knows a senior who is living alone to check on them to make sure their homes are warm and that they have all of the supplies they need. The same recommendations are being made for the handicapped and others with special needs.

The county is suggesting that residents prepare an emergency kit with enough food, water, medicine and other supplies to last for at least 72 hours.

Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Health Department, is urging anyone who has to be outside for any period of time to take precautions to protect themselves.

“If you must go outside, wear several layers of loose-fitting, lightweight, warm clothing rather than one layer of heavy clothing," Hacker said. "Wear mittens, wear a hat, and cover your mouth with a scarf to protect your lungs.”

Hacker said the outermost layer of clothing should be wind and water repellant if at all possible.

Any part of the body that might be frostbitten should be warmed slowly with warm – not hot — water.

Hypothermia can also be a problem as the mercury falls. To stave off the effects of the cold, Hacker recommends drinking plenty of warm liquids, including chicken or vegetable broth and warm water. 

However, she said you should “avoid alcohol and caffeinated beverages (because) these will help the body lose heat more rapidly.”

If anyone is starting to show signs of hypothermia they should be moved to a warm place and wrapped in warm blankets after removing any wet clothes. A warm bath can also help, according to Hacker.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists the following as symptoms for hypothermia; shivering, exhaustion, confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred speech, drowsiness.

The symptoms for frostbite include a white or grayish-yellow skin area, skin that feels unusually firm or waxy, and numbness. The CDC notes that a victim is often unaware of frostbite until someone else points it out because the frozen tissues are numb.

To help avoid medical emergencies, Pittsburgh officials have sent out crews in an effort to track down homeless individuals and strongly encourage them to move into a shelter for the next few days.

Pittsburgh has suspended trash collection Tuesday in an effort to protect refuse collectors. The Department of Public Works is asking those on Tuesday routes to place the trash at the curb as normal. Extra trucks will be sent out over the remainder of the week to collect the trash.

Animal advocates are urging the public to take extra precautions to ensure the safety of their pets during these dangerously cold temperatures.

“While it’s easy to think that dogs are immune to cold because of their fur, the fact is that more dogs perish in the winter than at any other time of the year,” said Joel Hersh, executive director of the Pennsylvania State Animal Response Team.

David Janusek, executive director of the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society, said they received more than 100 calls Monday morning from concerned people.

“It’s calls of people calling to want to report animals in the cold rather than calling and saying ‘Give me some more information, what can I do to prevent this or what can I do for a neighbor’s animal or my own animal.’”

According to Janusek, if you see a dog left outside don’t take the animal into your house, contact authorities. 

“We have three investigative officers, another organization here has investigative officers, the police are also getting involved.  Dogs for the most part are property in the state of Pennsylvania.  When someone sways they’re going to take the dog themselves and take it into their house, you have in fact broken the law” despite your good intentions.

Janusek said that during these extreme cold temperatures, dogs and cats should be brought inside, but some animals are used to being outside. 

“The best idea is not to bring it into your living room and put it next to the fireplace,” Janusek said. “That may cause more problems than you imagine.  If you bring an animal in from this extreme cold, keep it in an unheated room—a garage, a basement—you may cause illness to bring a dog that’s used to the cold into a well-warmed area.”

And if the dog cannot be brought inside? 

“Give it extra food to help generate body heat,” Janusek said. “Make sure the water is not being frozen, use blankets in the dog house, use hay in the dog house.  A real simple idea if the dog is not an indoor dog, is to put a piece of carpet over the opening to the enclosure with a slit in the middle; that keeps a lot of the elements outside.  A dog will generate heat just as a human being will.”

Some steps to take to protect your pets:

  • If your dog or cat stays outside much of the time in the winter, be certain that they have a proper shelter raised several inches off the ground with a flap over the entry. Keep a fresh blanket, cedar shavings or straw to keep the pet warm. The shelter should be large enough that your pet can sit and stand, but small enough so the pet’s body heat will be retained in the house.
  • Use a plastic water bowl to ensure your pet’s tongue does not get stuck to cold metal, and change the water often to keep it from freezing.
  • Be alert for signs of frostbite and injury. Dogs’ ears, paws and tails are especially susceptible, and if you suspect frostbite, contact your veterinarian.
  • Always be alert for signs of hypothermia such as shivering, lethargy, low heart rate and unresponsiveness.
  • Never leave your dog inside a parked car. During the winter it can act as an icebox and trap cold air inside.