As temperatures drop and we bundle up in our winter layers, don't forget about keeping your pets warm, too. Some may believe that certain breeds are well-equipped to handle the cold weather on their own, but all dogs are susceptible to hypothermia and frostbite.
These cold-weather conditions are unfortunately some of the most common winter illnesses in pets we see this time of year, so it's smart to take extra precautions that can protect your pup's health. Remember, our four-legged family members can't speak up to say when they're cold — learning how to recognize the red flags could make a crucial difference in the prevention of a possible pet fatality caused by cold weather.
Here are some essential tips on how to keep dogs warm, healthy, and happy all winter long:
- Limit your dog's exposure to cold weather
- Practice fire safety around pets
- Stash a pet emergency kit
- Never leave dogs in a freezing car
- Find new ways to exercise dogs during the winter
- Protect your dog's paws in the snow
- Watch for common winter toxins in pets
- Key Takeaways
Limit your dog's exposure to cold weather
Here's a good rule of thumb to go by: if it's too cold for you to be outside, it's probably too cold for your dog, as well. Just like humans, pets begin to lose body heat faster than they can produce it when exposed to the cold.
If a dog's core body temperature drops by as little as one degree, it can cause hypothermia. Hypothermia is a dangerous condition that may result in respiratory or cardiac failure in dogs. A severe temperature drop below 99.0 degrees Fahrenheit (°F) could even be life-threatening.
Never leave pets outside in the winter for extended periods of time. Instead, limit your dog's exposure to the cold with quick, 15- to 20-minute walks a few times a day. That should be enough time for a safe potty break and leg stretch — but always watch for the warning signs of hypothermia just in case.
NOTE: Those who typically walk their dogs off-leash should keep the leash attached on snowy, winter strolls in the interest of pet safety. The snow can cause dogs to lose their scent and easily get lost. If hypothermia kicks in, they could become even more disoriented
What are the symptoms of hypothermia in dogs?
The clinical signs of hypothermia in dogs include:
- Muscle stiffness
- Difficulty walking
- Pale gums
- Cold to the touch
- Dilated pupils
- Difficulty breathing
- Irregular heartbeat
If you see any of these hypothermia symptoms in your dog, immediately seek warm shelter. Consult your veterinarian or go to a local animal hospital if your pet's condition worsens.
How cold is too cold for dogs?
Most experts agree that 45°F could be too cold for some dogs to safely be outside.1 However, this can vary significantly because a dog's ability to regulate body temperature effectively will depend on their age, breed, activity level, body fat stores, coat type, and overall health.
Big snow dogs with thick, furry coats — like the Siberian Husky, Alaskan Malamute, Samoyed, Saint Bernard, and Bernese Mountain Dog — may have a higher genetic tolerance to the cold, but they are still susceptible to hypothermia in sub-freezing temperatures of 20° or less.
Naturally thin dogs like the Greyhound, and small dogs with short-hair coats (such as a Chihuahua or Dachshund) are less tolerant of the cold and risk hypothermia in temperatures around 32°. Small dogs typically have a larger ratio of surface area to body mass. They typically have less fat stores in their body to insulate their core, and more skin through which body heat can escape. Small and teacup breeds may need to wear a winter sweater or vest to safely go outside in the cold, even for a short period of time.
No matter what breed you have, you should never shave a dog's fur down to their skin during the wintertime. If necessary, trim longer coats around the face and between the toes to reduce the buildup of ice, salt, and chemical byproduct that can get stuck in your dog’s fur. These winter toxins are very dangerous to dogs if they're accidentally ingested upon licking their paw pads clean. It's a good idea to clean and dry dogs' paws and underbelly after taking a walk to prevent toxicosis, but decrease the frequency of full baths you give them during the winter. Otherwise, too many could strip their skin of essential oils that prevent dogs from becoming dry, flaky, and [itchy pets].
Your pet’s general health can dramatically affect how well they can regulate their body temperature. Dogs with heart disease, kidney disease, hormonal imbalances, diabetes, and Cushing’s disease are less efficient at maintaining their core temperature, especially in more extreme weather conditions, and are therefore more susceptible to hypothermia. Young puppies and senior dogs are also at increased risk of hypothermia because they have a difficult time keeping themselves warm.
Practice fire safety around pets
Protecting dogs from the cold can be just as important indoors as it is outdoors, so give them a warm place to sleep — ideally, on a bed lifted off the ground and away from cold drafts. But remember that many heat sources, such as space heaters and open flames, can be dangerous to pets. Never leave your pet unsupervised with a space heater because it can potentially burn out or get knocked over, resulting in a fire hazard.
If you use a fireplace or furnace, carefully examine it before lighting to ensure it’s working properly. Check your carbon monoxide detectors during the winter to make sure they are working properly and protecting your family, including the four-legged members who might not be able to say something if they smelled a gas leak.
Stash a pet emergency kit
Whenever there's a blizzard on your radar, make sure you have a pet emergency kit on hand. If you're snowed in for weeks or days, it could be very difficult to get provisions that ensure your dog stays warm, fed, and healthy.
Create a list of everything your dog needs on a routine basis that you'd need to provide for them with if you can't get to the pet store for awhile. Examples may include prescription pet medications, dog food, water, blankets, toys, and more. Keep these stored in a safe reserve in addition to pet first aid supplies in case you need to provide interim medical assistance before they can be seen by a vet.
All responsible pet parents should be prepared for an emergency not only during winter, but throughout the entire year.
Never leave pets in the car when it's freezing
When the weather is fowl and everyone in the family is stuck inside for days on end, many pet parents try to get creative when thinking about how to give dogs some fresh air before cabin fever kicks in. However, think twice before taking your dog along for the ride whenever you run errands in the winter.
Most pet parents know that hot weather is dangerous for dogs, but fewer are aware that cars can act like a refrigerator in the winter by sealing the cold in and causing pets to freeze to death, unless the engine is running and the heater is on. Cars have little insulation against the outer cold air, so although they might provide shelter from the wind or snow, they can't protect pets from the freezing air.
WARNING: Please keep in mind that warm car engines may be particularly attractive to cats and small wildlife during the winter. Before starting your engine, bang on the car to scare off any cat or critter beneath the hood and prevent an unfortunate accident.
If you're in a position that requires you to put the pup in the car, here's some tips on how to keep them warm:
- Make sure he or she is dressed for the occasion with an extra outer layer that can prevent them from getting wet when walking out to the vehicle. They'll lose body heat faster if their coats are soaked with snow, so do your best to keep them dry.
- Ask the store attendant if pets are allowed inside before leaving your dog in the car. Some places are pet-friendly and will allow your four-legged friend to seek refuge inside.
- If they can't come in, shorten your shopping list and try to keep stops to a minimum. Pack plenty of cozy blankets they can nest into in case they need extra warmth in the car while you're gone.
- When possible, have another adult stay and accompany the dog in the car with the engine on and the heater running while you run an errand.
- Before leaving the house, consider leaving your dog at home indoors. Depending on the situation, it may be safer to keep your pet in a warm, controlled temperature.
Find new ways to exercise dogs during winter
Taking your dog for a leisurely walk is a great way for both you and your pet to exercise when the weather is fair, but these opportunities can be hard to come by in the winter months. Most dogs (and humans!) will want to quickly do their business and return indoors when the weather is cold, limiting their amount of activity.
NOTE: Even if your pup loves to romp around in the snow, doing so could leave them vulnerable to frostbite, or tissue damage caused by the extreme cold commonly seen around the delicate skin of dogs' ears, paws, and tail.
So, what's the solution? Low-energy breeds might not have a problem with turning into winter couch potatoes, but this could put them at risk of weight gain and a host of secondary health issues. Highly energetic dog breeds like the Bordie Collie and Australian Shepherd, on the other hand, could demonstrate destructive behaviors without sufficient activity when cooped indoors.
Keep your dog happy and healthy by getting creative and trying new activities during the winter, such as indoor fetch, pet puzzles, play wrestling, hide-and-seek, and even running on a treadmill! Mental stimulation is a great way to counterbalance the lack of physical exercise they might get on those cold weather days, and simply filling a toy with their favorite treat could help keep them engaged.
Protect your dog's paws in the snow
When you do go outside, note that a dog’s paw pads need extra care during the cold months. If you live in a particularly snowy region, you might consider protecting your dog’s feet with booties when out on walks to keep them out of harm's way of salt and chemical agents that can irritate or burn your dog’s paws. Dog booties also defend against frost bite as well as ice shards that can slice their paw pads.
If your dog isn’t keen on wearing booties, try massaging a protective product like petroleum jelly into their paws before a walk. Immediately rinse and dry their paws off once they’re back inside to prevent them from licking their paws clean and thereby ingesting the residue of toxic chemicals found in snow melt that could remain on the surface of their paw pads. Remember to keep the fur between their toes trimmed down to prevent ice and snow buildup.
Watch out for common winter pet toxins
In addition to environmental hazards outdoors, there are a number of new, intriguing items that we have around the house during the wintertime — many of them are poisonous to dogs and cats.
From lethal antifreeze to aromatic essential oils, hazardous holiday decorations and poisonous household plants, there are all sorts of things dogs can accidentally get into with consequences that range from mild to life-threatening.
Pet insurance is designed to protect you during these unexpected incidents, but prevention is always best when it comes to protecting your dog's health. So, stay vigilant throughout the winter season and know when to contact your vet at the first sign of red flags.