With temperatures expected to hit below-zero levels over the next few nights, pet owners need to take precautions to keep their dogs and cats safe and comfortable.

While larger young dogs with thick coats can safely weather colder temperatures if they have access to proper shelter, smaller or older dogs and cats must be brought into a warm, dry place when temperatures plunge below freezing.

Cats, being smaller, are especially prone to freezing. Outdoor cats seek warmth, often climbing onto warm car engines. Be sure to bang on the hood of your car several times to give a cat a chance to escape before you start your engine.

Provide a shelter for outdoor cats by lining the bottom, sides and lid of a cardboard or plastic storage box with sheets of foam insulation, cutting a small entrance in a lower corner, and putting down a thick layer of straw or other soft bedding.

Immediately clean up any antifreeze spills; the substance is lethal to cats and dogs.

The Pennsylvania State Animal Response Team offered these tips for dog owners:

Ÿ Keep older, arthritic dogs inside. Escort them out, on a leash, for toileting.

Ÿ Inspect ears, tails and paws for signs of frostbite. Always wipe your dog's feet after he comes inside to clean them of irritating salt deposits and ice balls.

Ÿ Be alert for hypothermia. The signs include shivering, lethargy, low heart rate and unresponsiveness. bring the dog into a warm area, cover him with a light blanket, and call the vet.

Ÿ Keep antifreeze, which has a sweet taste attractive to dogs, out of reach, and immediately clean up any spills.

Ÿ Provide proper shelter: use an insulated dog house, raised a few inches off the ground. Provide warm bedding, and install a flap on the door to keep the cold wind out. the shelter should be only large enough for your dog to stand and move around, but small enough to trap body heat. Use a plastic water bowl, and make sure to change it as it freezes.

Ÿ Keep your dog leashed so he doesn't become disoriented and get lost in the snow.

Ÿ Don't leave your dog in a car, which can act as an icebox, trapping cold air inside.