Winter is coming, and while we may want to stay warm and dry, many of our dogs have a different idea as temperatures fall and the risk of ice and snow increases. Gloves, hats, and scarves are reclaimed from their summer hiding places and reinstated to protect us from the cold.
But how about our dogs? Do our dogs need extra protection in the winter months, or does their natural fur coat protect them enough? Can dogs get sick from being cold? And if so, how severe does the weather have to get before it negatively affects our dogs?
How cold is too cold?
The benefits of a daily walk are enormous, not only for our dogs but for us as well. But when do the risks of spending time outside in the cold outweigh the gains of regular mental and physical exercise?
In general, once the temperature has reached freezing, dogs with thin or single coats, old or young dogs, dogs that are already poorly, and small breed dogs need to be monitored carefully.
If the temperature drops below freezing, then all dogs are potentially at risk. While temperature is one factor in determining how cold it’s likely to feel, it’s essential to also take into consideration the following;
The strength and speed of the wind can make even a moderately cold day feel much colder. Not only that, but vigorous gusts of cold air can affect your dog’s coat, limiting its ability to provide adequate insulation.
Rain or shine
A damp cold day is always going to affect your dog more than a sunny cold day. Whether it’s rain, fog, or just a walk through long wet grass, moisture can penetrate your dog’s fur and chill your dog quickly.
A dog running around is more likely to produce enough body heat to keep itself comfortable outside than an inactive dog. However, body temperature can quickly drop once a dog has slowed down or stopped, so caution is needed.
How does cold affect our dog’s health?
It’s never pleasant feeling cold, but severe weather can have serious health consequences for your dog. Even with the protection of a fur coat, prolonged exposure to extreme cold puts your dog at risk of colds, coughs, viruses, and the more severe conditions of frostbite and hypothermia.
Although treatable if caught quickly, all these conditions could have potentially serious consequences for the health of your dog. Frostbite can cause lasting tissue damage, and hypothermia is life-threatening. While prevention is by far the easiest way to protect your dog, early detection is vital. Recognizing the symptoms enables a quick response and will prevent any lasting damage to your dog.
Just like us, our dogs can catch a cold. Although it can make your dog feel miserable, it isn’t usually serious. Symptoms are very similar to a human cold, runny nose, cough, sneezing, and lethargy.
Most healthy dogs won’t require treatment for a common cold. However, if your pet has and pre-existing conditions that could complicate recovery, it’s better to take them to your veterinarian for a checkup. A stubborn virus may need antibiotics to treat it.
Dogs are susceptible to a respiratory virus called canine infectious tracheobronchitis or kennel cough. Dogs make a distinctive honk-like coughing sound once infected, occasionally accompanied by a runny nose, sneezing, discharge from the eyes, and loss of appetite.
Mild cases of Kennel cough, like a dog’s cold, can be treated at home. As kennel cough is highly contagious, your pet must stay away from other dogs while they are infectious. As with colds, if symptoms have not improved within seven days, make an appointment with your veterinarian because, in rare cases, kennel cough can develop into a more serious condition like pneumonia.
Frostbite can occur on any part of the body but more commonly on the extremities such as the ears, feet, and tail. With continued exposure to cold temperatures, a dog’s body will reduce the amount of blood that flows to the furthest parts of the body from the heart. This change in blood flow conserves body heat but starves the extremities of warmth and oxygen. As such, ice crystals form in the tissue and can cause the tissue to die.
While it’s not easy to see if a dog is suffering from frostbite as their fur covers the most affected areas. Signs to look out for are very pale skin that is cold to the touch. If caught early enough, frostbite can be treated by warming up the affected area. As the skin warms, it will swell and become red and painful for your dog. So don’t be tempted to rub your dog to raise its temperature.
Instead, try one of the following and contact your vet;
- Apply tepid water to the affected area until it no longer feels cold. Never use hot water as it can cause more damage
- Heat a towel on a radiator and wrap it around the affected skin. Don’t squeeze or rub
After a few days, the damaged skin may turn black and begin to peel as it begins to heal.
Hypothermia can be fatal and occurs when a dog’s core body heat is too low. In freezing weather or prolonged exposure, a dog can lose body heat faster than it can be replaced.
Signs to look out for are;
- Piloerection (fluffing up of fur)
- Confusion or lack of coordination
- Muscle stiffness
- Slow, shallow breathing
If you suspect your dog is suffering from hypothermia, it’s essential to warm up your dog. Move your dog to a warm room and wrap them in a blanket. A covered hot water bottle, warm hairdryer heat, or a warm bath can also be used to help your dog get back to a normal body temperature.
As with frostbite, it’s important not to use hot water if you put your dog in a bath. Ideally, the water should only be a few degrees above your dog’s average body temperature (90-94 degrees Fahrenheit).
Once your dog’s temperature is above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8-degree centigrade), remove any additional heat source, like the hot water bottle, to prevent overheating. But keep your dog in a warm room until they are back to normal. Be gentle with your dog as they are likely to experience extreme discomfort as they warm up, and contact your vet as soon as possible.
What dogs are vulnerable to cold?
Just like us, dogs vary. While some dogs may play happily for hours in the deep snow, others prefer to snuggle down in pajamas in front of a roaring fire.
However, some common factors can help determine whether your dog is likely to enjoy and be comfortable in cold weather.
What do the Siberian Husky, the Malamute, and the Saint Bernard all have in common? A thick double coat. Double coated dog breeds have an extra layer of protection against the cold. The fluffy undercoat acts as an insulation layer, keeping the dog warm in winter and cool in summer.
Dogs with single coats like Staffordshire Bull Terriers, Whippets, and Maltese often need a bit of additional warmth in winter to keep them feeling comfortable when it’s chilly outside.
When it comes to keeping warm, size does matter. Small dogs tend to suffer more in cold weather as they are closer to the ground, where the air temperature tends to be cooler. And any ice, snow, or freezing water is likely to get splashed on the dog’s chest and underbelly, cooling body temperature even more.
Health and Age
Both health and age will affect your dog’s resilience to cold weather. Elderly dogs, along with puppies and young dogs, are more vulnerable to the cold. What’s more, if your dog is already suffering from a health condition, cold weather can make it worse, especially if that illness or disease makes it difficult for your dog to regulate their body temperature.
Cold weather checklist
Prevention is much easier than treating either frostbite or hypothermia. The following guidelines will help keep your dog safe and well through the winter months:
Limit exposure to cold weather
If you’re feeling cold, wrapped up in a hat, gloves, and scarf. Your dog is likely to feel chilly too. The longer your dog is exposed to icy conditions, the more likely they are to develop problems.
Although your dog’s breed, coat, size, and health will affect how long they will be comfortable in wintry weather. Factors such as wind chill, damp conditions, and activity levels, however, also play a role in the time that your dog can safely stay outside.
Limit time outside and keep an eye on your dog. If you notice any changes in behavior, bring them inside and keep them warm.
Provide additional warmth
There’s no shortage of dog apparel available. From dog coats to jumpers to boots, all your dog’s winter wardrobe needs are catered for.
Dog coats help retain body heat, and dog boots help prevent paws from frostbite. But make sure that all articles are correctly fitted. As poorly fitted clothes are unlikely to offer much protection and can be uncomfortable for your dog.
Provide a warm shelter
If your dog spends most of their time living outside, they must have a cozy, dry place in which to shelter. Contrary to popular belief, dogs don’t become accustomed to cold weather, although they may grow a thicker coat.
All dogs need a safe refuge that offers protection from the cold, wet, and wind. Blankets, self-heating pads, and dog coats are readily available and provide extra protection to an outside dog.
Can dogs get sick from being cold?
Yes, they can. Winter can be hard for both our dogs and us. Despite the widespread view that our dogs don’t need extra protection because of their natural fur coat. Many dogs appreciate an additional layer of security when the weather gets cold.
Even the hardiest breeds are susceptible to winter illnesses if exposed to the cold for extended periods of time. Watch your dog for symptoms and changes in behavior, and keep your dog safe by limiting the time they spend outside when it’s below freezing.