Agrilife Extension experts provide tips on how to protect plants, pipes and pets

Temperatures are dropping and it is time to think about protecting outdoor plants.

Winter solstice, the first official day of winter, Dec. 21, is still more than a month away. But with freezing temperatures around the corner, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service experts have tips on how to protect your plants, pipes and pets.

Many areas in the Texas Plains and North Texas have already experienced their first freezing temperatures, but much of the state’s average first-frost date is beyond mid-November. Planning and preparation before temperatures are expected to dip below freezing are the best way to avoid being caught off guard.

Protect Your Plants

Frosts and freeze can damage or kill exposed plants, especially those in containers, said AgriLife Extension horticulture program specialist, Lisa Whittlesey, Bryan-College Station. Damage can vary greatly among plant varieties, so cold-sensitive plants will require more protection than hardier plants.

Plants in containers are more susceptible to freezing temperatures because they lack the insulation the soil provides. They should be moved inside the home or garage — any space where temperatures will stay above freezing.

If container plants cannot be moved indoors, put them on the south side of the house, water them well and pile on mulch, leaves or hay to protect the roots and/or cover them with a frost blanket. Cold-sensitive landscape plants can also be covered with similar protection.

AgriLife Extension has a comprehensive take on protecting landscape plants and horticultural crops from frost and freezes.

When covering plants, drape them with cardboard or cloth material to the ground and secure it, she said. The idea is to trap enough warmer air escaping from the soil to protect plants from a killing freeze.

Stringing holiday lights around sensitive plants and covering them with a tarp can provide protection from light freezes, she said.

Watering plants and making sure they are not drought-stressed before freezing temperatures arrive can help, Whittlesey said. Watering just before the freeze can also help because water creates warmth and loses heat slowly.

“Drought-stressed plants are more susceptible to the cold,” she said. “And if you can’t bring a plant inside, the best option is to cover them and remember to place them in a location that gets ample sunlight and to water them.”

Protecting Pipes

When it comes to freeze damage to homes, protecting exposed pipes is critical when temperatures dip below freezing. AgriLife Extension provided tips for preventing and thawing frozen pipes during severe weather.

Joel Pigg, AgriLife Extension program specialist and Texas Well Owner Network coordinator, Bryan-College Station, said homeowners should protect pipes around the house or in wellhouses now while the weather is good.

“It’s best to act early, rather than when the storm is coming in,” he said. “Prepare now because supplies of insulation and parts might be limited during a rush for items needed to protect pipes just before freezing temperatures arrive.”

Water pipes can freeze and burst when the outside temperature reaches 20 degrees or below, but Pigg said take precautions anytime temperatures dip below freezing. Pipes with northern exposure face increased risk of freeze.

Exposed pipes, including outdoor faucets, water sprinklers, water pipes in basements, crawl spaces, attics or garages, pipes that run along exterior walls, swimming pool supply lines and well houses are especially susceptible to freezing temperatures.

Outdoor water systems should be drained and covered or allowed to drip slowly to help protect from damage, he said.

Products made to insulate water pipes like sleeves, insulation or heat tape should be applied to exposed water pipes. Many products are available at local plumbing supply retailers. Newspaper can also provide some protection to exposed pipes as long as exposure is not prolonged.

Foam faucet covers also add protection to an area susceptible to freezing, he said.

“Covers are around $4, and insulation or heat tape are very inexpensive relative to paying for repairs,” he said. “Adding protective elements to any weak points is a good investment against short-term freezes.”

Leaving water running slightly does help during prolonged events, and heat lamps to raise temperatures in lesser-insulated spaces with pipes like well houses or basements can help prevent breaks, he said.

“Insulating exposed pipes goes a long way to protect for a few hours of freezing temperatures but draining pipes inside the home is easy and draining pipes to any well head is a good idea when freezes are prolonged,” he said. “Winter Storm Uri was an exception. Weeklong freezing temperatures and rolling power outages only compounded the problems for a lot of Texans.”

Protect your Pets

Pet owners should be prepared to protect their animals from cold temperatures, said Lori Teller, DVM, clinical associate professor of telehealth at the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Texas A&M University.

Breed, age and health are significant factors when it comes to dogs, and a pet’s acclimation to temperatures is also a consideration for companion animals, she said. Younger and older dogs or dogs with health problems may be more sensitive to cold temperatures.

“There is really no set temperature of concern. A young adult husky will tolerate the cold much better than an older chihuahua,” Teller said. “But very young and much older pets do not tolerate weather well, so I would recommend talking to a veterinarian who can give pet-specific advice.”

Shivering is a good first indicator of a cold animal, while reduced alertness or looking “out of it” relative to normal behavior can indicate hypothermia, Teller said. She said sweaters can help insulate cold-sensitive animals and booties or paw wax can help protect their feet in ice and snow.

Companion pets like cats and dogs, even if they are acclimated to the outdoors, need access to well-insulated protective shelter that keeps them dry, and an unfrozen water source. A doghouse without cracks or loose boards lined with hay or blankets or providing access to the garage or shed can protect them from the elements.

“The key is that the space is well-insulated from wind and rain and has some good bedding,” she said. “If the bedding gets wet from rain or snow, it should be replaced.”

Teller said she does not recommend the use of heat lamps outdoors to keep animals warm because they pose an electrocution and fire hazard. A water bottle with hot water wrapped in a blanket and placed inside the bedding can provide additional warmth for a few hours.

Animals also need access to fresh, unfrozen water, she said. Heated water bowls can reduce the need to address frozen water.

Pets that spend more time outdoors burn more calories to stay warm and may need additional food to meet their energy requirements, Teller said.

“Hunting dogs and outdoor dogs that come in at night may be using more energy to stay warm and need some additional calories,” she said. “But a couch-potato dog that goes out for their regular walk will be fine.”

A College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences posting provides answers to the question, “How cold is too cold?” when it comes to pets, and gives more recommendations on protecting them from winter weather.

Other Potential Winter Pet Hazards

Teller said pet owners should be mindful about a few additional winter hazards when it comes to dogs and cats.

It is difficult to predict an outdoor cat’s shelter of choice, but Teller said one location — a car’s warm engine block — can pose a danger. She recommends a few good thumps on the vehicle’s hood to make sure any sleeping cat exits the space before starting the car.

Antifreeze is highly toxic and can be deadly for cats and dogs, even in small amounts. Any spills should be thoroughly cleaned up because dogs and cats will consume it. Another poison risk is increased use of rodent baits around the house as rats and mice seek shelter from freezing temperatures. Prevent access to those poisons because they can be fatal to pets.

Salts and snow and ice melt products can be an irritant to pets’ paws, and when ingested can cause hypersalivating and induce vomiting, Teller said.

Backyard Chickens Need Protection Too

For backyard chicken producers, Craig Coufal, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension poultry specialist, Bryan-College Station, said well-feathered birds should be fine with temperatures just above freezing, but need protection from the cold. Temperatures at or below freezing can cause frostbite in their toes and combs.

Coufal said an enclosed structure to protect birds from the elements, including wind and rain, and providing bedding such as hay to help chickens stay warm helps for light freezing conditions, but that heat lamps in enclosures may be necessary to protect them from colder temperatures.

“It’s important to remember that heat lamps represent a potential fire hazard, so placing and securing them properly is important,” he said. “But for the most part, a good coop that provides protection from the elements and has good insulating bedding but still provides proper ventilation should be enough unless temperatures dip into the teens.”

Coufal said colder temperatures may also negatively impact egg production.

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