I remember growing up on a farm with an “outside dog.” He was a Collie and had access to his dog house and a barn with lots of hay and straw. When it got really cold, he got to come in for the night. (He also was allowed in when I wanted him to be in and my mom wasn’t home. Sorry Mom!) But with all that I know now, I wouldn’t allow any of my dogs to be unsupervised outside for very long for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons is cold weather.
Defining “too cold” for a dog isn’t as straightforward as it would seem. Some dogs, like Huskies and Saint Bernards are going to do well in cold weather due to their size and coat types. Dogs that are meant to be out in the cold tend to have two coat layers and longer hair. Others, like Chihuahuas and Boxers, aren’t going to do as well due to short coats and/or small stature. Little dogs tend to have a harder time staying warm even in moderate temperatures.
So how do you tell when it’s too cold for your dog? In general, if it’s too cold for you in a coat, it’s too cold for your dog. That said, however, most dogs will tell you through use of their body language and behavior. For example, my Labradoodle gets really excited when temperatures are at 25° F and loves to play outside in that sort of weather. On the other hand, the Boxer that I am training looks at me like “Riiiiiiight” and only goes outside when it’s absolutely necessary. Other signals that may indicate that your dog is cold may include shivering, picking up a foot and holding it up, or a dog who normally loves being outside wanting to come in right after eliminating.
Even if your dog is one of the breeds meant to be out in the cold, remember that every creature hits a point where it’s just too cold. Frostbite for humans can happen in 30 minutes in temperatures of -5° F and 10 mph winds. And animals can definitely get frostbite! The most likely places that your dog may show signs of frostbite include pads of the feet, tips of the ears, and tip of the tail. Symptoms include pail or grey skin, coldness, hardness, and or swelling. If you suspect frostbite, contact your veterinarian immediately.
If you and your dog love being polar bears, there are ways to decrease the risks. One of the ways is to dress your dog in a jacket or sweater and booties. Even if your dog is made for this weather, it’s really important to protect the pads of their feet. (Imagine walking in sandals or barefoot on the snow in freezing temperatures!) I saw a large white fluffball on a walk today holding up his front paw while standing at a street corner; it was 20°.
If your dog is going to be outside for any amount of time unsupervised, remember that they need access to shelter and clean water even if they love the weather. Provide your dog with a dog house with clean blankets and/or hay or straw that’s free from fleas, ticks, or other pests. The best choice of dog house would include insulated walls, a floor that is raised off of the ground and that requires the dog to turn to get into the area they are meant to lay in. (The turn helps block wind.) If you have the option, face the opening of the dog house away from the wind. To keep the water from freezing, provide your pup with a heated bowl or a water tank with a heater in it. Check for the lowest temperature that the heater is designed to function at and check it at least daily to make sure that it’s working.
Lastly, when your dog has access to the outdoors in this weather, ensure that their coat is in good condition. If your dog has matted fur and/or ice in his fur, his coat won’t hold heat as well. Give him a good grooming and periodically bring him in at least long enough for the ice to melt and his coat to dry. Also check between the pads of his feet for ice and mats and remove any that you find.
Most of all, bundle up, bundle up your dog, and go have fun!