Veterinary Wellness Briefs: Tips for Staying Warm as an Ambulatory Practitioner 

Preparation and proper gear are essential for ambulatory equine veterinarians working outdoors in cold winter climates.
Dressing properly for cold weather is essential for staying safe while seeing patients in the field. | Getty Images

This winter, record-breaking cold temperatures have reached all corners of North America, even in areas that rarely experience these conditions. In northern regions, extreme cold fronts disrupted normal winter routines. Wind multiplies the effects of ambient temperatures and causes dangerous wind chills that can freeze uncovered skin in a matter of minutes. For ambulatory practitioners, these conditions can be horrific, especially when emergencies include animals that are outside and unable to move. 

Winter Safety Precautions for Equine Veterinarians

It is important for ambulatory practitioners to be prepared and remember that human life supersedes animal life. Taking warming breaks can be necessary for safety. Whenever possible, move animals into shelter, and if they are recumbent, build a wind block or park your truck as one. Carrying and using pocket heat packs can be game-changing. They not only warm your hands but can also prevent bottles of medication from freezing in your pockets. If you have to run fluids, positioning the primary set tubing over a lightbulb or heat lamp can keep fluids from freezing. An insulated lunchbox can also keep medications warm, especially if you preheat it with a microwaveable heat pack. Many therapeutic cold packs also function as hot packs and can work well in this application.  

Vehicle Preparations

Your vehicle should be well prepared for the possibility of sliding off the road or getting stuck. Make sure it’s equipped with a shovel, sand, flares, good snow tires, and a strong battery. It is a good idea to keep an extra coat and a wool blanket or sleeping bag in your truck, as well. Most ambulatory veterinarians have a pile of coats for various conditions under their back seat, but adding extra socks and cold weather gear is smart. Carry high-energy snacks, water in an insulated thermos, and an extra blanket for your truck dog. Your cellphone battery will struggle in the extreme cold, so always have your charger in the vehicle. 

How to Dress for Cold Weather

Dressing for the weather is an art perfected by those who live in cold climates. The innermost layer is generally long underwear. Tucking the top into the bottoms and pulling your socks up over the ankles of the bottoms helps prevent cold spots. Bottoms that are too short are a nightmare, so be sure to purchase the correct size. A polypropylene liner sock is excellent for preventing perspiring feet from making your socks damp and cold. Then layer wool socks over the liner socks. Wear waterproof boots, and make sure they are roomy enough that you can wiggle your toes. Arctic rubber boots can be surprisingly warm and dry, especially when you are standing outside for long periods. However, many people are most comfortable in Pac boots that have a thick felt liner inside an insulated boot with a rubber bottom. Again, make sure you don’t put on so many sock layers that your boots feel tight.  

The next layer is often a lined or insulated pant. Fleece or flannel-lined pants come in denim, canvas, or stretchy modern fabrics. Water resistance is helpful. Snowmobile or skiing pants work well. In serious below-zero cold, insulated bibs as a third layer are fabulous, both for warmth and for keeping drafts from sneaking down your back. However, if your second layer is bulky, it can make moving more difficult; form-fitting wool pull-on pants work best under bibs. Full-length zippers on the legs make for easy undressing. 

You can top a wool sweater over a turtleneck with a thin vest and a down coat or windproof canvas jacket. Some canvas jackets purpose-made for veterinarians have zip-off sleeves, allowing vets to perform rectal exams without removing the coat. You might also consider the battery-operated vests, socks, and other apparel that have recently come on the market. They can make a big difference in your comfort. 

Finally, a full-face balaclava, a windproof hat that covers your ears, and warm gloves are necessary in bitter cold. You can wear polypropylene glove liners under latex or vinyl gloves while scrubbing or suturing. Glove liners also work well underneath insulated gloves or mittens, providing warmth if you need to remove the bulkier top layer.  

Final Thoughts

Preparation and smart gear choices go a long way toward keeping you warm and safe. Dressing in layers, keeping your head and extremities well-covered, and staying fed and hydrated will help you maintain your body heat while working in extreme outdoor conditions. 

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