Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

WINTER GAMES

WINTER WEATHER PROVIDES OPPORTUNITIES FOR OUTDOOR AND INDOOR FUN

With the Midwest and Eastern U.S. experiencing deep freezes this winter, plenty of dogs and their people will either be reveling in the snow or huddling by the fireplace trying to stay warm. Snow sports are a great way to take the edge off if you have an energetic dog who loves the outdoors, and you indoor types -- canine and human -- have options as well.

Of course, you and your dog can go for walks or hikes in the snow, but you might want to try snow-specific sports such as snowshoeing and skijoring. These activities are naturals for Nordic breeds, including Alaskan malamutes and Siberian huskies, but any athletic, conditioned dog can enjoy them.

Snowshoeing is as simple as strapping on a pair of snowshoes and striding out. Your dog doesn't need them; his paws are already equipped for traversing the snow.

Cross-country skiers with a need for speed may want to try skijoring: being pulled by one to three dogs. You'll need a skijoring belt or harness for yourself, a sled-dog harness for your dog, and an 8-foot or longer line to connect the two.

Any dog who loves to pull can skijor, but if he weighs less than 35 pounds, expect to provide most of the propulsion yourself.

Your dog will need to learn the commands "hike" (start), "haw" (left), "gee" (right), "on by" (ignore those squirrels) and "whoa" (no explanation necessary). Practice without skis first so you don't accidentally get pulled into a tree.

Places you can snowshoe or skijor include your neighborhood, golf courses, some wilderness areas or national and state park trails, or Nordic or snowshoe centers.

Avoid snowmobiling trails; there's too much risk of accidents when you're sharing the path with motorized vehicles. Know the rules wherever you're going and obey them. Dogs may be required to be on leash so they don't frighten or knock over others.

Does your dog need clothing in frigid weather? Veterinarian and canine sports medicine expert M. Christine Zink says a dog exercising continuously shouldn't need a coat because he creates his own heat. If your dog is out in the cold but not exerting a lot of energy, choose lightweight, stretchy items that don't restrict front-leg movement.

"Most that are non-stretchy restrict front-leg movement," Dr. Zink says. "That wastes energy and can even cause injuries if used a lot."

She also advises protecting a male dog's penis and testicles from the cold. You can find special coats made for field dogs that cover those vulnerable areas. He'll thank you for it.

Booties can be beneficial if your dog will be walking on salt-covered surfaces or has hairy feet that will collect ice balls, but only if they fit well, are comfortable and don't rub against the dog's paws. If your dog doesn't wear boots, soak his paws for a few seconds in a bowl of water to remove ice-melter chemicals.

Finally, be sure your dog has access to plenty of fresh water. He can quickly dehydrate in cold, dry weather.

Rather stay indoors with your dog? Take a handful of kibble or tiny treats, scatter it on the floor, and say "Find it." Some people feed whole meals this way. Play the muffin-tin game: Place a treat in each cup of a muffin tin and cover some of them with tennis balls or other dog toys. Then let your dog have at it. See how long it takes him to find the covered treats.

Whatever you do, be safe, have fun and snuggle often!

Q&A

Fur factors: Diet and

grooming improve coat

Q: My cat's coat is kind of dry and not very shiny. Is there any way I can improve it? What about supplements? -- via email

A: A cat's coat is more than a beautiful covering. It not only keeps the cat warm, it also helps to protect the skin from environmental or chemical damage. Healthy skin and hair offer better protection than dull, dry skin and hair. Hair also serves as an environmental sensor for cats, alerting them to heat or other threats.

If your cat's coat is rough, dull, dry or brittle, take her to the veterinarian. If he rules out ringworm or other health problems, the fault may lie in your cat's diet or grooming routine.

Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they need high-quality protein and fat from meat. The body needs protein to produce hair and fat for shine and to improve absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Whether you feed a canned or dry food, it should have a protein content ranging from 34 percent to 53 percent. Simply feeding a high-quality diet may be the only change you need to make to improve your cat's coat.

Can supplements make your cat's coat even better? If you are feeding a good food, supplements won't help and can even throw the diet out of whack if they're given in large amounts. It's more cost-effective to spend a little more on a high-quality diet than to try to supplement one that doesn't contain enough protein.

Supplements can be a good call if your cat has a disease that changes her ability to digest and absorb food or that requires her to eat a low-fat diet. Your veterinarian can recommend one that's right for your cat.

You can also improve your cat's coat from the outside by brushing and combing the fur to remove dirt and dead hairs. Specialized glands beneath the skin produce sebum, an oily substance that coats and waterproofs the hairs. Brushing distributes sebum and helps make the coat shiny. Weekly brushing is plenty for shorthaired cats. Depending on the breed, longhaired cats may need to be brushed a couple of times a week or daily. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton

THE BUZZ

The poop: Dogs sensitive

to Earth's magnetic field

-- We know that several animal species align their bodies to the Earth's magnetic field lines when performing certain behaviors such as grazing, hunting or migrating, but until now it wasn't known whether dogs did the same thing. In a two-year study published in Frontiers in Zoology, European researchers proved magnetic sensitivity in dogs by measuring the direction faced by 70 dogs of 37 different breeds when defecating or urinating and comparing the data to geomagnetic conditions at the time. Turns out that when the Earth's magnetic field is calm -- only about 20 percent of the daylight period -- dogs prefer to line up along the north-south axis.

-- Got dust? And dogs? Good news! Your child may have less risk of developing asthma and allergies. A new study suggests that exposure to dust from homes with dogs may change the immune response to allergens and other asthma triggers by affecting the makeup of the bugs that inhabit the gut: the microbiome. The findings, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that dog-associated house dust can play a key role in preventing allergic inflammation. They help demonstrate how environmental exposures may protect against airway allergens and asthma.

-- An 85-pound black Labrador retriever named Bubba was killed recently at his home in Glendale, Calif., likely by a mountain lion. The big cats are capable of bringing down 150-pound deer and have been known to drag 100-pound deer into trees to dine on them at their leisure. Bubba was dragged over a 3 1/2-foot wall. To protect your pets from predators, don't leave pet food or water outdoors at night and keep pets indoors after dark. Motion-sensitive lights can also scare away the predators. -- Kim Campbell Thornton

ABOUT PET CONNECTION

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" and "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are joined by professional dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twiwtter at MikkelBecker.