Winter has a harsh beauty and sense of adventure that we love. It's even better when you have a four-legged friend to join you on your wintery wonderings or to snuggle up with on a cold day. Mental stimulation and exercise are key factors to keeping your dog healthy and happy during the winter months. So, when is it too cold to take your dog out? And how do you know if your dog is warm enough or susceptible to things like frostbite? Dr. Erin Krysinski from the University Veterinary Hospital & Diagnostic Center has shared some easy answers to help us keep our dogs safe and warm in the winter. Here are Dr. Krysinski's top 6 tips.
1. Protect their paws
Winter walks come with all kinds of danger for your dog. Some ice melting salts have extra chemicals in them that can dry out and cause irritation to the skin on your dogs paws. Stick with a "dog friendly" version for your own house but still get into the habit of wiping your dog’s paws with a wet rag before coming in from the day. But it's not just the salt that can be irritating, ice and snow balls can collect between your dogs toes when out on hikes. If you're like me and you hike more when the snakes are sleeping and the trails are quiet, you need to be extra vigilant in caring for those feet. If your dog has long hair, clipping the hair between the toes can be helpful to prevent extra buildup. For protection and further prevention, use a wax called "musher's secret" to prevent snow from building up and to help protect their pads. Several companies make boots that can be helpful as well- Ruffwear is a personal favorite.
Now let's talk frostbite. Dogs can definitely get frost bite on the toes ,but it is also common to see it on the ear tips, tail tips and scrotums (ew). Dogs are usually smart enough where if their feet are getting cold, they hunker down. Obviously, if your dog is holding a paw up for some reason, you need to inspect it for damage. Frostbite can look like redness, swelling, irritation and eventually necrosis of tissue. Necrotic (or dead) tissue can look blue, black, grey, green, all of the colors you don’t want it to be. Animals will tend to chew at their feet when irritated and especially if there is necrotic tissue present- if your pet is chewing its feet enough to cause damage or If your dog has any of these signs, you should seek veterinary attention immediately. Drying your dog after any activity in the snow will help to keep them warm - dry them off with a towel and then put a fresh towel or blanket in their kennel. Once that towel is wet, always replace it with a new one.
2. Adjust caloric intake to changes in activity
Remember, this goes both directions. Many dogs lose weight in the winter because they are active. That, plus they’re burning more energy keeping warm. As a result, dog owners may have to increase their dog’s caloric intake to keep the body weight adequate. On the alternative, other dogs spend most of the winter sleeping in front a fire- and as a result, one may need to drop their caloric intake to stay bikini body ready. So then, how much should I feed my dog - at the end of the day, feed your dog enough to keep their body condition at a 5/9 regardless of the activities they’re performing. If you’re unsure, look up the body condition scale online or ask your vet.
3. Know your dog
Not all dogs are the same, right? How does a dog's age, size, breed, activity level etc. affect their resilience/tolerance to the cold? Dogs do better in the cold when their metabolism is high enough to produce enough body heat to stay warm. That’s why dogs can feel plenty warm when running but then start to shiver when standing still. But there’s more to it than that- body fat, coat length and type, size of the dog can all affect their abilities to stay warm. All dogs are different, as are their tolerances to temperatures. A husky could spend all day in the snow and be fine whereas a greyhound would freeze. Small dogs lose body heat faster than large dogs due to their relatively larger surface area. If you have smaller dogs, keeping them warm is of utmost importance.
4. Be visible
Reduced daylight hours in the winter often necessitates more people walking their dogs in the dark. The shot answer is be aware and be smart. Obviously avoiding heavy traffic areas is key, but also wearing reflective clothing can be helpful. This goes for your dog as well - reflective collars and harnesses can help keep your and your dog safe. Keep them on a short leash- retractable leashes can present a whole other kind of danger, avoid them in low-light hours when possible.
5. Be prepared
There are many who live in places that are prone to blizzards, snow days, and/or power outages. Dog owners can do small things to be prepared and care for their pet in case of an emergency.
It’s easy to forget that dogs need water in the winter, almost as much as they do in the summer. Make sure to always have some fresh water available in your car in case it gets stuck. Lots of blankets, towels to keep them warm can be helpful as well. Remember that when traveling with a dog in the winter- it is most important to keep them in a crate to keep them safe. Winter conditions can lead to accidents, and a sturdy kennel is the best way to keep them and all other passengers safe. Using one that has been crash tested is always a plus.
How can you tell if a dog is getting too cold? Are their telltale physical or behavioral signs to look for? How can a pet owner find the balance between getting outside for the mental and physical stimulation their dog needs and knowing when it may be too cold?
Shivering seems obvious but it’s the truth. Dogs shiver when they’re cold, but you also may see them hunkering down, lifting paws, or refusing to walk. If this happens, know that your dog probably needs a break from the elements. With that said, the cold shouldn’t stop you from exercising- if it’s not too cold for you, it’s probably not too cold for your dog. As long as you’re protecting their paws, and giving them the right kind of outerwear for their coat type (Short haired dogs may need a coat in colder weather), they should be fine going out for hikes with you through the snow. Above all, listen to your dog, if they’re shivering, lifting paws up, or hunkering down, they’re probably too cold.
Don't let the cold and snow stop you and your pup from enjoying the winter season. Prioritizing paw protection, adjusting calorie intake, knowing your dogs' individual needs, staying visible when on walks, preparing for long term inclement weather, and providing appropriate shelter are simple ways for you to confidently care for you dog despite the cold season.