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How Cold Is Too Cold for Your Dog?

By Dr. Stacey Hunvald at Pet Coach

When cold weather hits, pet parents often ponder, “How cold is too cold for my dog?”

Because such a wide variety of canine breeds and mixes exist, there is no easy one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Some dogs sport the furry equivalent of a heavy winter ski parka, while some pups have a haircoat more akin to a light sweater. Keeping your pet comfortable and safe as the temperature dips depends on your individual dog’s traits, confounding weather factors and shelter protection options.

Canine Characteristics

Our pups come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. It is difficult to imagine that the dogs running the Iditarod in Alaska are the same species as a Rat Terrier, a breed that may resist going outside when there is any hint of snow on the ground.

Dogs’ myriad physical characteristics should be considered when deciding how much exposure is safe. Important traits to consider include age, size and coat quality.

Very young and very old dogs have more difficulty regulating body temperature and are at greater risk in low temperatures. Small breeds generally have a harder time in cold temperatures due to their greater surface area to mass ratio, giving them proportionally more area from which to lose body heat. Dogs with single-layer, smooth, short hair are less protected than those with warm undercoats and thick fur. Many of the winter breeds such as Siberian Huskies and Saint Bernards have highly protective coats in this latter category.

There is no specific temperature cutoff to evaluate cold weather risk and danger. Sensitive dogs may become uncomfortably cold at 40-45°F, while temperature thresholds may be 15-20°F for large, heavy coated breeds.

In all cases, wet weather may increase the minimum safe temperature an individual can bear by 20°F, so weather factors other than temperature must be considered. Wind chill is more important than absolute temperature and must also be evaluated.

How to Tell if Your Dog Is Cold

Signs of discomfort can be signs of impending danger.

Shivering helps produce body warmth but is a sign of decreasing body temperature and potential hypothermia. If hypothermia persists or worsens, the body will not be able to produce enough heat to keep up over time. Signs of hypothermia include listlessness and weakness followed by stiffness and shallow breathing, necessitating emergency treatment.

Additionally, barking or whining can be signs your dog is becoming anxious about his physical state or environment. Other signs of discomfort that may lead to danger are lifting up a paw off the ground or out of the snow, which often indicates the paw is becoming painful and the ground temperature is dangerous, which can lead to frostbite.

Frostbite can range in severity and appearance from redness to ulceration to blistering. Ears and tails are also at risk for frostbite. If you suspect frostbite on your dog, seek veterinary care, as warming the area in common sense ways is not always the safest option for your pet.

Apparel Tips & Tricks

For dogs who enjoy playing in the snow, winter recreation sports or just long walks on snowy days, safety apparel may extend the fun.

Take care in selecting outerwear for your pampered pup. Many dog sweaters and coats are designed with cuteness and fashion as a higher priority than warmth and protection. Protective outerwear often has a water-resistant outer layer. For increased warmth, also look for a fleece layer and possibly additional insulation between.

Clothing should be adjustable at the neck and bottom cuffs to allow for a custom fit around unique body types. Hoods are sometimes helpful, but difficult to fit universally over so many shapes and sizes of heads, necks and ears, so they may not be particularly protective for your dog.

Boots are also very helpful. More importantly than adding warmth, they provide protection from deicing materials as well as from extended exposure to snow and ice, which may cause frostbite. Furthermore, they can reduce the “balling” of snow on foot fur and between toes, which can be uncomfortable as well as dangerous.

As most apparel still leaves substantial area of the dog exposed, never assume outerwear is fully sufficient to protect your dog and pay close attention to the signs of discomfort.

Outdoor Shelter Safety

For dogs who spend substantial time outside in chilly snowy weather, ensure they have ample shelter and bedding, as well as a heated water bowl to provide an unfrozen water source.

Shelter must be watertight to provide safety. Never assume shelter is adequate; check to make sure your dog is using the shelter and that he looks safe and comfortable.

You should observe your dog in several weather scenarios and times before feeling comfortable his shelter is adequate and that your dog is using it effectively. Even dogs who enjoy the snow and cold should be monitored, as even resilient snow-loving breeds can be injured in extended exposure to extreme cold. Do not forget that wet or windy conditions reduce dogs’ ability to withstand otherwise reasonable temperatures.

Some dogs love to play or hike in the cold while others prefer to enjoy winter from a warm rug in front of the fireplace. If your pup is in the first category, help him enjoy the fun as safely as possible by following these care tips and always paying very close attention to your sweet pup’s behavior and comfort level.

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