Dog walks are delightful. For a short while every day, it’s just you, your dog and the fresh air of the great outdoors. You’re both getting exercise. You both get to take in the sights and sounds of the neighborhood. There’s almost nothing better.
But as the temperatures drop and darkness falls earlier, those walks begin to feel more like a chore. And, while you can layer your clothes and socks to stay warm and dry, your dog is at the mercy of mother nature.
Fortunately, there are things you can do to keep your pup protected from the elements in wintertime and make walks more pleasant. Below, find out why freezing weather can be dangerous to your dog and how to keep him warm outside.
Why Extreme Cold Is Dangerous
The list of cold weather-related health problems for dogs are similar to a person’s. When the temperature is below freezing, there is a potential for increased risk of hypothermia and frostbite, as well as a risk of falling due to snow and ice, says Dr. Robert Gonzalez, medical director at West Chester Veterinary Medical Center.
The symptoms of hypothermia include shaking, decreased appetite and activity, and in severe cases, lack of responsiveness, severe lethargy, and possible vomiting, Gonzalez says.
Frostbite, which usually happens in the extremities, can include discoloration, curling back of the ears, and lameness or trouble walking.
While the risk of respiratory infection in dogs due to weather is fairly low, Gonalez says, it can increase if you combine extreme cold with a trip to the dog park or pet store, where infectious diseases are more present and easily transmitted. “There, you may have a situation where your dog is more likely to get something like kennel cough or influenza,” Gonzalez says.
How Cold Is Too Cold?
Your dog might start getting uncomfortable between 40 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit, but below 20 degrees is when you can come across potentially serious problems, Gonzalez says. That said, you know your dog best and should be able to decide what is “too cold” for him based on a number of factors.
Dr. Giuseppina Bazan, an associate veterinarian at Village Vets of Long Island in New York, says a particular breed’s body and coat type generally say a lot about their ability to tolerate cold weather.
“Usually, smaller breeds, such as a Maltese or Yorkie, tend to have thin fur and are more sensitive to cold. Greyhounds also have very little body fat and thin fur and, as such, are very susceptible to cold temperatures,” she says.
On the other hand, northern breeds like the Siberian Husky, Alaskan Malamute, Saint Bernard and Bernese Mountain Dog, among others, have a thick coat of fur, making them better equipped for spending time outside in the winter.
Gonzalez adds that dogs of a certain age may also be less likely to tolerate the cold. This may be because of age-related muscle loss, decreased metabolism due to age, and/or arthritis, which can be exacerbated by the cold, he says.
Previous exposure to cold weather can also impact your dog’s tolerance to it. For instance, Gonzalez says that a dog who grew up in Maine is more likely to tolerate colder temperatures than one who spent a large portion of his life in Florida.
Keeping Your Dog Warm Outside: Dress Him Up
The best thing you can do to keep your dog warm outside is to put a coat and dog boots on him.
“Coats are very useful, and dogs are very receptive to wearing them,” Bazan says. “Boots can be a little tricky, as some dogs try to kick them off, but some do accept them over time.”
Gonzalez says the best dog coats are waterproof on the outside and have down on the inside. They should always cover the stomach area, as one of the most important things for your dog is keeping his core temperature up, and he recommends buying one without a hood.
Boots are especially helpful and may be worth your effort, despite your dog’s protests.
Salt rock on sidewalks can seriously damage to the skin around your dog’s paws and cause inflammation, Bazan says. If you choose not to put booties on your dog, you should wipe his paws off with either a washcloth and warm water or a baby wipe immediately after coming inside.
Consider buying salt that’s safe for pets for your own home, Gonzalez says. It’s readily available, clearly marked, and will help not only your dog but also other dogs in your neighborhood.
Keep Walks Short
Whether or not your dog will wear a coat or boots, winter walks in extreme cold should be kept as short as possible.
“Usually when it gets below freezing, most dogs will quickly urinate or defecate and come back in right away,” Gonzalez says.
Keeping your walks to a normal length when temperatures are in the 40s and 50s is fine, but Gonzalez recommends shortening them once the temperature dips below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. How much you shorten it is up to you. As a general rule of thumb, most dogs should be able to tolerate the same amount of cold you can, especially if he’s wearing a coat and/or boots.
You can also consider indoor activities over taking long walks in the winter. Food puzzles, hide and seek and other indoor games will keep your dog mentally and physically stimulated without making you or him uncomfortable in the snow, wind, and ice.
Monitor Him Afterward
After a walk in the cold, it’s normal for your dog’s body temperature, including his extremities, to be colder than normal. In almost all cases, the dog’s temperature should return to normal after a few minutes.
If it doesn’t, or if you note any of the physical or behavioral symptoms of hypothermia or frostbite, you should dry your dog off and warm him up with a blanket before seeking veterinary attention as quickly as possible. Gonzalez says it’s generally not a great idea to take your dog’s temperature because it could cause some unnecessary panic.
John Gilpatrick is a freelance writer who thinks bunnies make the best pets.