Many people are aware of how dangerous overheating can be for a dog. But what about the cold? Is there anything to worry about medically for dogs when they spend time outside in the winter? Yes, in fact, wintertime can also pose hazards for dogs — especially if your dog is not acclimated to outdoor temperatures or if your dog has a short hair coat (Chihuahuas, for example).
When is it too cold for dogs?
Like humans, each dog will tolerate cold weather to a different degree. Factors that go into how well a dog tolerates the cold are breed, age, overall health, nutritional status, physical conditioning, coat density and acclimation. Obviously, northern breeds (e.g., Siberian and Alaskan huskies, malamutes, Bernese mountain dogs) tolerate cold temperatures best because of their thick undercoat.
As a general rule, it takes anywhere from one week to two months for a healthy dog to become acclimated to extremes in temperature. This wide range takes into account various individual physiological factors. Keep in mind that wind and wet will magnify the effects of low temperatures.
Outdoor dog houses
If your dog stays outside in cold weather for more than potty breaks and walks, he will need a warm, dry place away from the cold and wet. Provide him with an insulated airtight doghouse that is raised up off the ground at least a few inches, and is equipped with a door flap to keep out drafts. Also, make sure the doghouse always has dry bedding; a lot of hay or straw is a good insulator and they can burrow down in it.
How to tell if your dog is cold
Keep an eye on your dog for signs that he is not tolerating the cold — shivering, refusing to move or follow cues, refusing to come out of his kennel or lying in a curled-up position when outside. Above all, please remember that dogs are social animals and you are their family. They want to be with you, so don’t leave your dog outside in the cold all the time.
Coats and boots for dogs: Silly or necessary?
If you have a short-haired dog who spends most of her time indoors and goes out mainly for walks around the park or the neighborhood, consider having your pup wear a sweater or coat in chilly weather. Just ignore the eye-rolling by people who believe they are merely a silly accessory.
On the other hand, when it comes to doggie-wear, if you have a young dog of northern descent who has a thick coat, is acclimated to the cold and spends a considerable amount of time outdoors romping in the snow, a coat may actually cause some degree of overheating.
If you live in an area where there’s snow and ice, wipe your dog’s feet after walking her. She may have picked up ice-melting chemicals, which can irritate and burn the dog’s pads. In addition, some of these products are poisonous if ingested by pets. You may want to try getting your dog accustomed to wearing boots (see below), which protect your dog’s feet from sharp pieces of ice and balls of snow getting stuck between her pads, as well as ice-melting products.
Frostbite danger on paw pads, tail, nose and other extremities
Another danger in cold weather is frostbite, which can occur if a dog is left outside for long periods of time on a very cold day and if he does not have the ability to move away from the continued cold surface and maintain adequate circulation in his extremities, from pads to tail to nose. Because frostbite can be very damaging in these situations, pay attention to how your dog behaves when out in very cold temperatures. In general, a quick trip out and about, though, should not result in a condition as severe as frostbite.
If you’re at all unsure about how to keep your dog safe and comfortable in the winter weather, a simple conversation with your veterinarian about your dog’s particular situation can help you provide the appropriate degree of protection from the cold.
Introducing a dog to wearing boots
Many dogs aren’t happy campers when someone puts something on their feet. So if you want your pup to wear boots in the cold, you’ll need to introduce her to them gradually and positively. In fact, some dogs are even uncomfortable with having their feet handled. If that’s the case with your dog, work on that first and then introduce her to the boots. To learn how, see our resource called Grooming and Medical Handling: Dog Training Plan.
Once your dog feels OK with her feet being handled and having the boots put on, she still may not want to walk in them. That’s because wearing boots is not a natural sensation for a dog; it’s something that takes some getting used to. If your dog won’t move, bites at the boots, lifts her feet uncomfortably or just looks miserable when she has her boots on, here’s how to help her feel better about it:
- Try putting on one boot, feeding her a high-value treat, and then taking the boot off. Keep doing this until she looks happy when you put the boot on.
- Next, ask her to move around the room, wearing the one boot, with a special treat as a reward.
- Once she’s happy walking around in the one boot, repeat the process, adding one boot at a time until she is walking around the room wearing all four boots. Then you’re both ready to brave the snow and ice!