There is nothing quite like coming home after a long day of work, ready to relax and play outside with your loyal companion. However, when cold temperatures set in, taking your dog out presents unique challenges to their health and well-being. Yes, your dog can be outside in cold, winter weather, but you need to make sure they have protection from temperatures extremes. The weather outside may be frightful, but there are plenty of ways to keep your dogs happy and healthy during the colder months.
Prepare Your Pup for Winter
Before the mercury drops, you can take some steps to prepare your dog for the change in seasons. The American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Animal Hospital Association recommend that pets have an annual examination. This can help identify problems that can be exacerbated by cold weather, including arthritis. If necessary, your vet can prescribe medications to help with symptoms that can worsen in the cold.
Puppies and geriatric dogs can be more susceptible to dangers from being outside in the cold. Pets with diabetes, heart disease, endocrine disorders, or kidney disease can have greater difficulty regulating their body temperature and are also at increased risk for negative health outcomes. Breeds with long hair or thick coats generally tolerate the cold better when compared to short-haired dogs. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), avoid clipping your pet's fur should short during the winter, and many breeds of dogs will benefit from a dog sweater or coat.
Dogs Outside in Winter
While no dog should be kept outdoors in sub-zero temperatures without protection and a warm place for shelter, in some climates, dogs can still spend a great deal of time outside if you take proper precautions. Some breeds do better than others in the colder months, so keep in mind, as well. Breeds such as the Alaskan Malamute, Siberian Husky, and Samoyed are more likely to do better outdoors in cold weather than a Chihuahua, Whippet, or Pekingese. Brachycephalic breeds, such as the Pug, Boston Terrier, and French Bulldog, who already have a difficult time breathing in warmer weather, struggle during the winter months.
How Cold is Too Cold for Dogs?
Although it depends on your dog's breed, most dogs shouldn't be left outside unattended for more than 10 to 20 minutes when temperatures fall below 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius). Smaller dogs, those with short coats, or breeds otherwise suspectible to cold weather, may need to come in when temperatures are 45 degrees or below.
Monitor conditions closely when cold weather sets in. Check the weather report, and keep a thermometer in your dog's shelter to make sure temperatures aren't dropping too low. Check at night, too, and in the early morning, when the thermostat is mostly likely to drop.
Ensure Access to Fresh Water
Ensuring your dog has access to fresh water is one of the most important things you can do. As temperatures drop, it can be tempting to reduce the amount of water you give to your pet. But this is not advisable as dogs will start to suffer from dehydration, which could lead to kidney or liver damage. Consider using a heated water bowl to keep your pet's water from freezing.
If you aren't able to heat their water bowl, a floating ball will help to stop ice from forming across the entire surface. Check to make sure that ice or snow accumulation has not blocked your dog's access to food, water, or other needs. Check every day to make sure liquid water is available, and change water often.
Provide Adequate Shelter
Strong winds often accompany cold weather, so it is vitally important that a dog kennel provides adequate shelter. Every dog, no matter their breed, needs unrestricted access to a shelter to escape inclement weather and cold temperatures. You need to make sure they can enter and exit their shelter whenever they want, and that conditions inside aren't too cold or inhospitable.
A well-insulated dog house should be sturdy, dry, and draft-free. The flooring should be raised a few inches off the ground and covered with cedar shavings or straw. The shelter should be large enough for your pet to turn around, but small enough to retain your pet's body heat. Shield the doorway with waterproof burlap or heavy plastic.
Many people bring their dogs inside when weather is especially cold. Even if you don't want to let your dog come into your home in the winter, preparing a garage or shed with a safe, warm area for your dog is often an acceptable way to keep your dog safe and healthy in cold weather. Provide an insulated dog bed, strewn straw on the floor, and make sure the area isn't took large and drafty.
Don't Rely on Heated Pet Mats
A heated pet mat that you place on the floor for your dog might sound like a solution to keep your dog warm outside. These products come in many shapes and sizes, but all have one thing in common: they pose a potential fire risk. Though some heated dog beds run on low voltage and are considered safe for use with pets, there is always a slight risk of fire when electricity is involved.
For this reason, avoid using any type of heating device around your pets, including heated pet mats, especially outside or if your pet is unsupervised. Instead, bring your pet inside when temperatures are too cold for them outside.
Give Your Dog More Food
When a dog gets cold, they use their own energy supply to keep warm. Provide your dog 10 to 15 percent more food than usual to make sure they have the extra calories they need to stay warm. Alternatively, added fat can help to provide those calories, but could also cause diarrhea or gastrointestinal disturbances.
Cold Weather Tips for Indoor Dogs
House dogs that spend most of their time inside will find sudden exposure to the cold quite a shock. Limit their time outside for potty breaks or play to around 10 to 15 minutes. You can also dress them in warm clothing to help stave off the cold.
The adage "if you're cold, they're cold" definitely applies. The American Veterinary Medical Association provides some guidelines to help keep your dogs safe:
- If a dog is allowed to play outside, monitor them closely so you're able to recognize any signs of chill.
- Help arthritic or elderly pets with stairs or ice. Slips and falls are more common in the winter months, as with people.
- Limit the length of your pet's walk in cold temperatures. When it drops below freezing, your pet should spend no more than 10 to 15 minutes outdoors. Even dogs you think are meant to endure the outdoors, like the Alaskan Malamute, should not be kept out in the cold for long period, especially if they are regularly kept indoors.
- Clear snow and ice to help encourage small dogs to eliminate outside. Small breeds can be trained to urinate and defecate on paper or diaper-like pads indoors when weather is too extreme. Avoid outdoor trips completely when the temperature or wind chill reaches 0 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Even indoors, your pet may feel the cold. Make sure that your dog's favorite bed is in a location free from drafts.
- Pet clothing can help provide some additional insulation. Make sure that you dry any wet clothing completely before dressing up your pooch. Protective boots are also available. Make sure that everything fits well and that your dog is accustomed to wearing it before the winter months arrive.
Dangers of Cold Weather
Cold weather can seriously impact your pet's health if they're not properly prepared for it. In fact, exposure to freezing temperatures can be fatal for dogs within minutes. Dogs need to be kept warm in the winter months. They can't regulate their own body temperature and need extra care when it comes to keeping warm during cold weather.
Even with their fur coats, dogs are vulnerable to frostbite. The freezing wind and ice crystals can cause damage to their skin and underlying tissues, leading to permanent damage. Severe tissue damage will occur with prolonged exposure to the cold and happens most commonly in the extremities such as the ear tips, paws, or tail.
The most damage occurs when the temperature or wind chill is near or below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. In humans, frostbite occurs when the skin reaches a temperature of 23 degrees for a long period. According to VCA Animal Hospitals, some of the signs of frostbite include:
- Pale, gray, or bluish discoloration of the affected skin
- Reduced sensation or complete lack of sensation in affected areas
- The area is cold or brittle to the touch
- Pain or swelling
- Blisters or ulcers on the skin
- Blackened or dead skin
Sometimes, the signs of frostbite are not immediately visible on your pet, and can develop days after exposure. Treatment includes gentle and gradual rewarming with warm water of 104 to 108 degrees. Dry the area afterward, and keep the pet warm. Seek veterinary care as soon as possible to prevent complications, such as infection.
Hypothermia occurs when a dog's core body temperature drops below the normal range. Many factors determine the temperature at which your pet is at risk of hypothermia. Temperatures below freezing are the most dangerous.
Having a wet coat will also increase the risk. Some dogs can even develop hypothermia at temperatures above freezing if they are small breeds, have little fur, or are outdoors for a prolonged amount of time. Small breeds, puppies, geriatric dogs, short-nosed breeds, and those with certain health conditions are at higher risk for hypothermia.
Hypothermia is life-threatening if unrecognized and untreated. The signs of hypothermia vary depending on how severe it is, but generally include:
- Shivering or trembling
- Muscle stiffness or stumbling
- Loss of coordination
- Pale or gray gums
- Fixed and dilated pupils
- Low heart rate and respiratory rate
- Collapse or coma
- Low body temperature under 100 degrees Fahrenheit, as measured with a rectal thermometer. You may not be able to take this reading if your dog isn't cooperative; contact your veterinarian right away if you suspect hypothermia and get permission before trying to take this reading yourself.
There are three grades of hypothermia:
- Mild hypothermia: 94 to 96 degrees
- Moderate hypothermia: 93 to 90 degrees
- Severe hypothermia: 89 degrees or less
Provide first aid if you are concerned that your dog is suffering from hypothermia. Gradual rewarming with a blanket or hot water bottles is safest. Seek veterinary care if you believe that your dog is suffering from moderate or severe hypothermia, or if your pet is showing symptoms other than shivering or mild lethargy.
Protect Paws From Rock Salt and Antifreeze
Watch out for your dog's pads and feet in the wintertime, as well. Their paws are sensitive to ice and snow, but you also need to watch out for rock salt, which used as an ice melter. It can be irritating to your dog's feet. Rock salt is made of naturally occurring sodium chloride and other minerals. The combination creates an abrasive substance that can harm your dog's paws if they walk across salt-covered ground.
Other dangers, such as puddles of the extremely dangerous toxin, antifreeze, can also end up on your dog's feet and fur. Wipe your pet's feet and underside off with a warm and wet towel after they come back inside from the snow. Ice balls can accumulate on the fur of the feet and can become painful. The snow can also mask dangers such as sharp ice or metal. Lacerations of the feet and pads are more common in the winter months and should prompt a veterinary visit.
Ice, Snow, and Unseen Hazards
While a person should know better than to run out onto a frozen pond, your dog won't realize the potential danger. The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency recommends that dogs be kept on a leash around bodies of water in the winter. Pets that run free can also become disoriented and lost in a snowy environment because they won't be able to recognize familiar landmarks.
Keeping Your Dog Safe
If you're going to leave your dog outside, make sure they have a warm, safe place to cozy up in. And remember, it's not just the temperature that matters; it's also the wetness of the ground. If it isn't convenient to bring your dog inside, you need to monitor their environment closely and ensure temperatures aren't too cold for them. If the weather is too cold or wet for them to remain outside, bring them in. If it's too cold for you, it's likely too cold for your dog. With vigilance and a few precautions, you can keep your indoor or outdoor dog stays safe from injuries, frostbite, and hypothermia.