Cold weather dog care

Keep your dog safe and comfortable this winter.

The cold weather of winter can be as hard on our dogs as it is on us. Sometimes we forget that our fur-covered friends need to be sheltered from winter’s nasty weather as much as we do.

Unless you have a northern dog, such as a Husky or a Malamute, most dogs cannot spend a lot of time outdoors comfortably. However, winter can be a fun time for both you and your dog as long as you take precautions. Here are some tips to get you and your pup through the summer months.

  • Take your dog to the veterinarian to make sure they don’t have any medical problems that will make them more vulnerable to the cold.
  • Limit the time your dog gets to stay outside when it gets especially cold. A good rule of thumb is to go out with them and when you’re ready to come in, they should be too. If they must stay outdoors for a significant length of time, be sure to provide them with a warm, insulated shelter with plenty of thick bedding, and make sure their water cannot freeze. For extra warmth, a hot water bottle–wrapped in a towel so it won’t burn your dog’s skin–can be placed in their bed.
  • While most long-haired dogs can spend more time outside than the short-haired breeds, remember that the smaller dogs, even if they have long hair, will get cold more quickly than the bigger dogs. Remember, those little pups are wading though shoulder-deep snow. Your dog’s health will also affect how long she can stay outside. Medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, and hormonal imbalances can compromise a dog’s ability to regulate their body heat, so a dog that is not in good health should not stay outside for long. Puppies and older dogs are also more vulnerable to the cold. No matter what their health is, though, no dogs should stay outside for unlimited amounts of time in freezing-cold weather. If you’re unsure about how long your dog can be outside safely, ask your veterinarian.
  • Watch your dog carefully when you go for a walk or if they are in your garage. Some dogs are very attracted to the taste of antifreeze, which is toxic and could kill them.
  • If you live near an open body of water, be very cautious about letting your rambunctious dog off the leash. Although it may seem to be solidly frozen, your dog could slip through a hole or step on a thin spot and not be able to get back out. Make sure you keep your dog near you at all times.
  • A warm fire in the fireplace or the soothing warmth emanating from a space heater is as attractive to your dog as it is to you. Keep your eye on your dog to make sure that she doesn’t accidentally burn her tail or her paws. Do not leave your dog unattended in a room with a space heater either, as she could easily knock it over and start a fire in your home. If you must leave your dog in the room with the fire still burning in the fireplace, make sure you have a secure screen in front of it.
  • You should get your furnace checked for carbon monoxide leakage before you turn it on for the first time each winter. Carbon monoxide is odorless and invisible, but it can cause problems like headaches, fatigue, breathing troubles, or even kill you. Dogs usually spend more time indoors than owners, particularly in the winter, so they are more vulnerable to carbon monoxide poisoning than the rest of the family.
  • Dogs can get rock salt, ice, and chemical ice treatments caught in their footpads. To minimize damage to her paws, wipe them with a warm cloth when she comes inside. This will also keep her from licking the salt off her feet, which could cause an inflammation of her digestive tract.
  • Cold dogs can be very resourceful in their search for warm shelter. They will burrow into snow banks, hide under porches or in window wells, climb into a dumpster or get into an unsecured cellar and be trapped. Observe them closely while they are loose outside and if you must leave them out, provide them with quality, easily accessible shelter.
  • Make sure that you dog’s water bowl is not frozen. A thirsty pet is more likely to drink out of puddles or gutters, which can be polluted with oil, antifreeze, household cleaners, and other chemicals.
  • Be especially gentle with elderly and arthritic dogs during the winter. The cold can make their joints extremely stiff and tender and they may be more awkward than usual. Stay directly below these dogs when they are climbing stairs or jumping onto furniture to catch them if they slip. Consider modifying their environment to make it easier for them to get around. Give them a thick, soft bed in a warm room for the chilly nights. Take special care when you walk them outside; a slip on the ice could be very painful and cause a significant injury.
  • If you want to put a coat or sweater on your dog and they will wear it, go for it. It may help a little, but remember that dogs lose most of their body heat from the pads of their feet, their ears, and their respiratory tract. The best way to protect your dog from winter weather damage is to watch them closely and make sure they are comfortable.

Watch for signs of discomfort when you’re outside with your dog during the winter. If they whine or seem anxious, begin to shiver, slow down or stop moving, or start to look for warm places to burrow, they’re telling you they want to get someplace warm.

The dangers of cold weather

There are two serious health conditions caused by cold weather. The first and less common is frostbite that begins when the dog’s body gets cold. The body automatically pulls all the blood from the extremities to the center of the body to stay warm. The dog’s ears, paws, or tail can get so cold that ice crystals can form in the tissue and damage it. The tricky thing to remember about frostbite is that it’s not immediately obvious. The tissue doesn’t show signs of damage for several days.

If you suspect your dog has frostbite, bring her into a warm environment right away. You can soak her extremities in warm water for about 20 minutes to melt the ice crystals and restore circulation. It’s very important that you don’t rub the frostbitten tissue, however–the ice crystals can do a lot of damage to the tissue. When your dog warms up, wrap her in blankets and take her to the veterinarian. Your veterinarian can assess the damage and treat your dog for pain or infection if necessary.

A second winter weather concern is hypothermia. This occurs when a dog spends too much time in the cold, or when dogs with poor health or circulation are exposed to cold. In mild cases, dogs will shiver and show signs of depression, lethargy, and weakness. As the condition worsens, her muscles will stiffen, her heart and breathing rates slow down, and she will not respond to stimuli.

If you notice any of these symptoms, you need to get your dog warm. Wrap her in blankets, and take her to your veterinarian who can monitor her heart rate and blood pressure and give warm fluids through an IV if necessary.

Winter is a beautiful time of year. It can be a dangerous time as well, it doesn’t have to be. With a few sensible precautions, you and your dog can have a wonderful time enjoying the icicles, the snow banks, and the warm, glowing fire at the end of the day.

Source: Adapted from the American Animal Hospital Association