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Here in Colorado, we love winter weather adventuring—and we love dogs. So it only makes sense that when the temps descend and fluff starts falling, we clamber outside with our furry companions in tow.
But given the arctic weather we’ve recently experienced, is it always wise to subject your pooch to chilly conditions? We tapped two local veterinarians for advice on keeping pups happy and safe as the mercury drops.
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First things first: There’s no set temperature at which dogs should be kept inside, as factors including a dog’s size and hair coat influence what’s safe, says John Kuck, doctor of veterinary medicine and medical director of Willits Veterinary Hospital in Basalt. In general, small dogs and those with short hair are “going to be much less tolerant to the cold” than their larger, thicker-furred counterparts, Kuck says.
He gives the example of a former client in Aspen who had several malamutes, an Arctic sled dog breed.
“The dogs actually refused to sleep inside,” says Kuck—even in the winter. The owner told Kuck that she would discover her pets in the morning as “lumps in the snow.”
“Obviously those dogs are tolerant of temperatures down pretty low, whereas a short-haired Chihuahua is going to be very susceptible to cold stress,” says Kuck. When subjected to too cold of temperatures for a prolonged time, dogs can develop health issues including frostbite and hypothermia.
Ashley Barnes, doctor of veterinary medicine and medical director at Louisville Family Animal Hospital, refers to the “danger zone” when discussing dog safety in the cold. For small breed dogs, the danger zone is 20 degrees Fahrenheit, meaning once temps drop to that threshold (or below), then pups should only venture outside for quick bathroom breaks. For medium and large breed dogs, the danger zone is 10 degrees, she says. These figures include windchill—so, for example, if it’s technically 30 degrees out but the wind makes it feel like 20 degrees, then you’d want to keep your teacup poodle indoors.
Now, if it’s really wet outside—say, it’s dumping down snow or sleeting—then the danger number goes up by 10 degrees. That’s because when dogs get wet, they lose some of their “protective insulation layer,” Barnes says. In non-wet conditions, if it’s between 20 and 30 degrees, most small and medium breed dogs can safely spend about 20 minutes outside at a time, while larger breeds can go for 30 minutes, says Barnes.
Keep in mind: These are just general guidelines, and factors like the thickness of a dog’s undercoat and how accustomed they are to the cold will also play a role in what they can tolerate. For instance, an Australian shepherd who’s lived in Denver her entire life would have a higher tolerance for winter weather than a greyhound who was recently adopted from Phoenix. Barnes often refers her clients to this infographic by Fetch Pet Insurance with general guidance on when it’s safe to take your dog outside.
On the whole, “winter time is a fairly safe time to be out and having fun with your dog,” Kuck says. “Most dogs love the snow, and they love the freedom of being able to play in the snow.” Just stay aware of shifting weather conditions and the various factors that can influence your pet’s tolerance for cold. The following tips from Kuck and Barnes can help you plan smart.
1. Pay attention to signs your dog is cold.
Dogs can tell you through their behavior that they’re cold. For example, Kuck’s wife has two small dogs—an 8-pound Brussels Griffon and a small terrier—and “they don’t love the cold,” Kuck says. During winter walks, they’ll communicate this by trying to walk back to the house or jumping up and begging to be carried.
Other signals a dog is chilled include whining, acting anxious, and lifting their paws because the ground is uncomfortably cold, Barnes says. Dogs may also exhibit physiologic cues such as shaking, shivering, and becoming less active, Kuck and Barnes say.
If you notice these signs in your dog, then it’s a good idea to cut your outdoor activity short and take them to a warmer place. Otherwise, if they are acting playful, sniffing their surroundings, greeting other pups and overall seeming happy, “then you can assume that they are enjoying themselves,” Kuck says.
2. Leash dogs near water.
Unfortunately, Kuck has seen dogs die of hypothermia, and it’s often because the dogs got wet, either from falling through ice or into a river on a chilly day. When the dogs emerged from the water, they became cold really quickly due to the evaporative effect of water that leeches heat from the body.
Keep this in mind when taking your pup near water in the winter. Even if the water seems frozen, it’s probably wise to leash your dog so they don’t barrel across the surface and potentially plunge through. Kuck learned this lesson the hard way as a kid. One winter day, when he was out with his Newfoundland, he called to her from across a pond, not thinking she would run across the ice. “She did and she fell through,” he says. “We were able to rescue her, but that was scary.”
3. Dress dogs in layers if appropriate.
Dogs with thin undercoats, like greyhounds, Chihuahuas, and German short-haired pointers, as well as those that aren’t well accustomed to the cold, may benefit from sporting a jacket during winter jaunts, Barnes says. This is especially true if there’s a chance your dog will get wet from snow or sleet. “You might want to have a garment around their core so they’re not constantly losing heat,” Kuck says. Dogs with really thick undercoats, like Huskies, probably don’t need a coat, Barnes says.
If you’ll be out in the cold with your pooch for an extended time—say, you’re going on a snowy hike—then you may also consider foot protection, like booties or musher’s wax, Barnes says. This can help guard your pup’s paws against frostbite.
4. Think twice about leaving dogs in your car while you ski.
Leaving your dog in the car while you shred the slopes may seem like no big deal, but if the temps inside your vehicle drop into the 20s or below, “then it can be dangerous for the dog,” Barnes says.
Now, most dogs wouldn’t die from the cold in that situation, but they could get hypothermia. At the very least, “it can be a long, uncomfortable day for the pet,” says Kuck, adding that “if you love your pet enough to take them along on the trip, you probably love them enough to leave him somewhere warm and comfortable.”
5. Consider indoor activities.
On days when it’s too cold for your pooch to safely spend time outside, Barnes suggests opting for indoor exercises. This could mean giving your dog training sessions or puzzle toys, or even just freezing peanut butter or baby food inside a Kong so it takes them a while to lick it clean. These types of mentally stimulating activities can tucker your pet out “just as well as physical exercise can,” Barnes says.
6. Know how to respond in an emergency.
Dogs in general are “pretty resilient,” says Kuck. In many situations, if your dog seems cold, then taking them to a warm, dry place “is going to be sufficient to restore them to health,” he says. Making sure they get something to eat can help, too.
The “really scary” situations that Kuck has seen involving pets in the cold centered on animals who were left outside overnight or got lost in the snow and sustained frostbite; or those who fell into water on a frigid day and sustained hypothermia.
According to the American Kennel Club, pets near a hypothermic state will shiver and curl up for warmth, and their breathing and heart rates may change. If you think your pet has hypothermia, go somewhere where you can dry their fur and gradually warm them up, Kuck says. You don’t want to dump them into a hot bath because that can shock their system. Of course, if the situation seems like an emergency, go straight to a veterinary facility for care, he adds.