Man’s best friends can sometimes be a partner in our winter sports, happily joining us for snowshoeing or skijoring or cuddling afterward in front of a cozy fire. But just as we should follow safety guidelines during the winter months, so too should we make sure our furry friends stay safe.
Some dogs handle cold weather better than humans. Still, they can get frostbite and hypothermia just like we do. In addition, some breeds are genetically prepared for cold weather, while others need considerably more protection from the elements. Important considerations during the winter months are housing, coverage while out during extreme temperatures, foot protection, calorie intake, and hydration, with variation in these needs depending on where you live and the size, breed, age, and health of the dog.
Winter housing – Whenever possible, dogs should be kept inside the house. However, when they must be outside during cold weather, healthy larger dogs with double coats can be comfortable and safe, provided they have adequate protection from wind, snow, and rain. A well-built insulated dog house placed where it is protected from the elements, with the door facing away from prevailing winds (usually facing east in North America) can work well.
Many insulated (and even heated) dog houses are available, or you can purchase building plans for one. The floor should be raised off the ground and covered with a thick layer of straw. Straw is better than shavings or blankets as an insulator because it does not retain as much moisture. A corridor from the entrance to a sleeping compartment will help keep the dog comfortable. The size should be just large enough for the dog to stand up, turn around, and lie down, again to capture the dog’s body heat efficiently. Secure fencing around the house is essential; the dog should never be tethered to the dog house for an extended period of time.
Even with a good dog house, unless the dog is an Arctic breed (Siberian husky, Alaskan Malamute, or samoyed), it should be brought inside at night if the temperature drops below 10 degrees F or if blizzard conditions exist. Senior pets and those with arthritis or other health conditions should never be kept outside for extended periods of time during the winter.
Coats for warmth – Breeds with thick double coats are usually fine in cold weather while active; however, pay close attention to their ear tips, tails, and feet. Most short-coated breeds and toy breeds will appreciate a coat or sweater during very cold weather while out for brief walks. These can be purchased at pet supply stores, or a human sweatshirt or t-shirt can be used if necessary. A dog doesn’t need to be fashionable, just warm and dry.
Feet and toes – If you live where temperatures are extreme and there is snow cover for much of the winter, boots can protect the dog’s feet. This may seem silly to some people, but even dogs that run in sled races are usually required to wear foot protection. Sharp ice may cut the pads, and salted surfaces can be extremely caustic and will cause considerable pain for a dog. Salt alternatives containing the active ingredient acetamide or crystalline amide are less caustic than those with calcium chloride and are a good choice if you have dogs and need to melt ice on surfaces where the dog walks. Once inside, always clean off the dog’s feet if it has been in contact with ice melting agents. Follow package directions and pay attention to warnings on labels when working with these products. In addition, you may wish to coat the dog’s feet with petroleum jelly or another product designed for pet foot protection before going out into snow. Also keep the hair between toes trimmed to prevent ice balls, which can be painful to walk on.
Nutrition – Dogs should always have access to clean, fresh water. Although they will eat snow, it is not adequate to keep them hydrated. Heated water bowls can be used, but it is essential to encase electric cords so that the dog cannot chew on them. Calorie intake for any dog that is outside for considerable periods of time in cold weather will need to increase, sometimes dramatically if the dog is working and living outside. Pay particular attention to the body condition, feeling carefully under the coat of double-coated breeds because it is easy to overlook a change of condition. Unless your dog is inside with you most of the time, an increase in the amount of food fed by 20 percent or more is usually warranted during winter weather. This can be accomplished by providing additional food of the diet that your dog is already eating. Performance or life stage diets are preferred for dogs housed outside in cold weather as they tend to be more digestible and more nutrient dense. Choose a diet with high-fat and protein concentrations as well as optimal fiber levels to ensure adequate intake during cold weather.
Dogs housed predominately inside do not need any changes in diet or feeding management for winter weather. Pay close attention to ensure your dog does not put on excess weight during winter months, when it may be less active because of shorter walks or less outdoor play time. Find alternative indoor exercises during winter months.
Hypothermia – Dogs are subject to hypothermia just as humans are, and if your dog’s temperature falls below normal (100.5 to 102.5 degrees F) and stays there, it means your dog is unable to regulate its body temperature and needs assistance. Mild hypothermia may result in shivering or lethargy. Moderate to severe hypothermia can result in low heart rate, low respiration rate, coma, and even death. If you suspect your dog has mild hypothermia, get it to a warm area quickly, cover it with a blanket, and use your own body heat to provide warmth.
For small breeds, you can pick your dog up and put it under your coat, but for larger breeds, the best thing to do is to get inside as soon as possible. If the dog is also wet, it is important to not only raise its temperature but to get the dog dry as quickly as possible. Towel dry the dog first and then use a warm hair dryer until all of the coat is dry, including the undercoat, paying special attention to the underside of the dog. Be sure to keep the dryer on low setting and maintain a safe distance so as not to burn your dog’s skin. If your dog is not responsive and you suspect hypothermia, call your veterinarian immediately.
Frostbite – It is usually not easy to spot frostbite on a dog. When dogs get frostbite, it is usually on the tips of ears, tails, feet, and scrotum. The skin in these areas will appear very light in color and cold to the touch. Later, as the skin warms up, it will turn red. If you suspect frostbite, consult your veterinarian. Early treatment can make the difference between full recovery and losing part of an ear, tail, or other body part.
With some extra care, your dog will be able to join you and your family for winter walks and other activities you enjoy together. Getting out in the fresh air and exercising can be beneficial to the entire family.
Elizabeth Wells, Ph.D. – Michigan State University