Dogs and Cold Weather: How Cold is Too Cold?

Liz Palika
Too Cold for DogsEnjoy playing in the snow with your dog but look for signs he's too cold.

It’s cold outside! Playing in the snow is great fun and you and your dog both may enjoy it. However, keep in mind that the cold can also be dangerous to your dog.

A dog who gets too cold could develop hypothermia; a condition that occurs when the dog’s body temperature falls below normal. If the dog’s temperature continues to fall, the muscles stiffen, the breathing and heart rates slow, and he could potentially die. Frostbite is less common, but can still happen. The dog’s ears, tail, and paws are the most susceptible to frostbite damage.

There is no hard and fast number as to what constitutes weather that is too cold. A harsh winter wind can create more wind chill (the air will feel colder than the thermometer registers) and this will affect your dog as much as it does you. A cold, drenching rain just above freezing, sleet and ice, or a wet heavy snow can all create dangerous conditions. If you’re not comfortable and have to bundle up, your dog could potentially be in danger.

Who is Vulnerable?

The breeds of dogs bred to live in colder climates – Alaskan Malamutes, Siberian Huskies, Samoyeds, and other northern breeds – are generally going to have fewer problems with cold weather if they normally live in it. Dogs not used to frigid winter weather may suffer in it even if they have a heavy coat. An Alaskan Malamute from Florida, for example, may be uncomfortable in cold weather because he’s not used to it.

As a general rule, dogs with a short coat (and no undercoat) will not cope well with frigid temperatures. Short-legged or toy breeds dogs who have to wade or jump through deep snow will get chilled and tired quickly. Puppies, elderly dogs, and dogs with health conditions will also feel the cold quickly.

To make matters more confusing, some dogs simply feel the cold more than others. A friend’s Jack Russell Terrier starts to shiver when the temperature goes below 50 degrees F. That’s not cold – it’s just cool – but he’s uncomfortably cold. It’s important to know your own dog’s ability to tolerate cold.

Healthy dogs are more able to tolerate cold temperatures than those dealing with health issues. If your dog hasn’t had a check-up recently, or if he’s not doing as well this winter as he has in years past, take him in to visit his veterinarian. Heart disease, kidney disease, and diabetes can all interfere with the dog’s ability to maintain his body temperature.

Be Safe

If it’s cold outside and the wind is blowing, stay outside with your dog, supervising, and bring him in after he’s relieved himself. Don’t leave your dog outside if you can avoid it.

If you must leave him outside, do so only if he is healthy and has a well-insulated shelter with bedding that you know your dog will use. Don’t assume he will; many dogs will not.

Dogs who spend any time at all outside also need water that won’t freeze. There are excellent heaters available; check an online dog supply catalog. A high fat food will also help him deal with low temperatures because fat is an easily metabolized source of energy.

If you and your dog go for walks in cold winter weather, think about teaching him to wear boots and a jacket. If you walk near roads that are treated with de-icers, clean his paws with a warm washcloth when you get home. Salt and chemical de-icers can cause problems if he licks his paws clean. If his paws seem to stay damp, a dash of unscented baby powder can help dry them.

You may find your dog wants to play when outside in the cold, especially if there’s some fresh snow on the ground. Dashing back and forth in the snow is fun as long as the snow doesn’t have a crust on it. This can cut your dog’s pads or legs.

The most important thing you can do when the temperatures drop is to watch your dog. Pay attention and if you think it’s too cold, take your dog inside.

Signs of a Problem

When you and your dog are outside enjoying crisp winter weather, your dog will probably give you some signs when he’s had enough:

  • Whining or barking: Some dogs are more verbal than others, but if your dog suddenly begins ‘talking’ to you while making eye contact, he’s trying to tell you he’s had enough.
  • Stop moving: If your dog stops walking or playing, or is holding up a paw, he may have balls of snow or ice between the pads of his feet. He may also be too cold and needs to go inside.
  • Shivering: This is an obvious sign that he’s cold.
  • Anxiety: Many dogs, when they get too cold, will begin acting anxious or even fearful. He may try to climb up your leg to be held or may turn around and head home. The anxiety may turn into whining or barking.
  • Looking for Safety: Some dogs will begin looking for a place to hide – under a bush, under a car, or anything else that might provide shelter.

Watch your dog, know what is normal and what isn’t, and keep your dog safe in frigid temperatures.

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