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How cold is too cold outside for pets?

Contributed by: Shana Sutton LVT Elko Veterinary Clinic

Fall is here, and so is that frigid air that hurts your face in the mornings. This time of year I ask myself: Why am I living in a place where the air hurts my face? It also means that winter is around the corner. Playing in the snow is great fun, and you and your dog may both enjoy it. However, keep in mind that the cold can also be dangerous for your dog. We can live in the cold climates as a result of behavioral adaptations; such as wearing appropriate clothing and having a home or shelter to keep us from the extreme cold weather. Your pets rely on you to protect them from the cold.  

How can we help our pets live in Nevada’s extreme weather? Which brings us to the question: “How cold is too cold for my dog?” The answer is a bit complicated and there is no hard and fast number as to what constitutes weather that is too cold. A harsh winter wind can create more wind chill. A cold drenching rain just above freezing, sleet and ice, or a wet heavy snow can all create dangerous conditions. If you’re not comfortable and have to bundle up, your dog could potentially be in danger. Tuffs University developed an Animal Condition and Care System that was adapted into a chart. You can easily look at the chart and determine if it is safe for your pet. 

how cold is too cold for your dogSome breeds of dogs can handle much colder conditions than humans. It makes sense that a sled dog like an Alaskan Malamute or Siberian Husky may handle cold better if they live in extreme cold and are used to it. Dogs with a short coat and no under coat will not cope with frigid temperatures. Short-legged or toy breeds such as Chihuahuas who have to wade or jump through deep snow will get chilled and tired quickly. Puppies, elderly dogs, and dogs with health conditions will also feel the cold quickly. Before winter you might want to consider getting your pet a heath check up with your veterinarian to ensure that they can handle the cold weather. Healthy dogs are better able to tolerate cold temperatures than those dealing with medical conditions of any kind. Heart disease, kidney disease and diabetes are just a few conditions that can interfere with the dog’s ability to maintain their body temperature.  

A pet that gets too cold, or has prolonged exposure to cold temperatures, could develop hypothermia. This is a condition that occurs when a dog’s body temperature falls below normal. The muscles stiffen, breathing and heart rate slows. Hypothermia can kill your dog. Frostbite can also occur on the ears, tail, and pads of the feet. If it is cold outside and the wind is really blowing, try staying outside with your dog and see how long you could tolerate the weather. Remember: Sometimes it’s simply too cold for pets to be outside, regardless of their breed.

If your pet is going to be in the cold for long periods it would be appropriate to have them in a jacket or coat. You may find your dog wants to play when outside in the cold, especially if there’s some fresh snow on the ground. Dashing back and forth in the snow is fun as long as the snow doesn’t have a crust on it. This can cut your dog’s pads or legs. If the dog lives outside, as many in our area do, it is very important that you provide shelter from the wind and snow. If you must leave your pets outside, do so only if they are healthy, and have a well-insulated shelter with bedding. The shelter needs to be something that you know your dog will use. Don’t assume that they will as many dogs many be particular about shelter. If your pets live outside you need to make sure that there is water available and that the dish does not freeze. 

When you and your dog are outside enjoying crisp winter weather, your dog will probably give you some signs when he’s had enough:

  •  Whining or barking: Some dogs are more verbal than others, but if your dog suddenly begins ‘talking’ to you while making eye contact, he’s trying to tell you he’s had enough.
  • Stop moving: If your dog stops walking or playing, or is holding up a paw, he may have balls of snow or ice between the pads of his feet. He may also be too cold and needs to go inside.
  • Shivering: This is an obvious sign that he’s cold.
  • Anxiety: Many dogs, when they get too cold, will begin acting anxious or even fearful. He may try to climb up your leg to be held or may turn around and head home. The anxiety may turn into whining or barking.
  • Looking for Safety: Some dogs will begin looking for a place to hide – under a bush, under a car, or anything else that might provide shelter.

Some breeds seem to enjoy the cold and snow. It can definitely be fun to play in for short periods of time but not to live in. If your pet shows signs of shivering, waiting at door and wanting to come inside then they may not appreciate the cold outside. You are your pets advocate. Being domesticated means that your dog depends on you for food and shelter and to protect them from weather extremes and conditions like hypothermia. The most important thing that you can do when temperatures drop is to watch your dog. Pay attention. If you think that it may be too cold then, take your pet inside to keep your pet safe in frigid temperatures. 

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