Winter is coming (or maybe where you live it is already here). But are you prepared to protect your dog’s paws from snow, ice, and road salt this winter? Depending on your dog and the weather conditions that you walk and hike in, the amount of protection against the elements that your dog needs may vary significantly.
This blog post is intended to help you determine when and how to protect your dog’s paw from winter weather.
So let’s start with a basic question…
At what temperature does cold weather hurt dog paws?
Most dogs are able to walk comfortably at temperatures down to 20 degrees F. Below this temperature, a dog’s ability to tolerate cold temperatures on their paws can differ significantly depending on a dog’s size, breed, and previous acclimation to cold temperatures.
The type of surface a dog is walking on can also affect how sensitive a dog is to the cold. Researchers have found that wet snow at higher environmental temperatures causes more paw stress than hard, crusted snow at lower temperatures.
Regardless of whether the snow is wet or hard, 20 F is significantly colder than you would want to walk without your own socks and shoes on, but dog paws have some major differences compared to human feet.
How are dogs able to walk on snow and ice without freezing their paws?
Scientists have wondered this very question. Dogs can stand on snow and ice without apparent discomfort and without freezing their paws, while people need socks and shoes in order to walk through snow or stand on a frozen lake with discomfort. Luckily, Dr. Hiroyoshi Ninomiya led a study to investigate this phenomenon.
In humans exposed to below freezing temperatures, vasoconstriction occurs in the extremities to reduce blood flow. This helps to reduce heat loss to help keep the body core warm. As a result, we send less warm blood to our feet, allowing the skin of our feet to cool off significantly, resulting in a higher risk of frostbite.
While dogs can also experience vasoconstriction of extremities in cold weather, Dr. Ninomiya’s study found that they have a handy network of arteries and small veins that work as a counter-current heat exchange in the paws.
Basically, blood arrives in the paws from the arteries. The heat from these arteries is able to transfer to the closely associated venules. The venules then return the warmed up blood to the rest of the body. By ensuring that the blood in the veins is warmed up, this helps a dog maintain a good body temperature in cold weather and reduces the need for vasoconstriction to occur.
Overall, this system helps prevent body cooling and keeps the paw temperature from dropping too low. This is the same system that the Arctic Fox uses to navigate its wintry habitat. Of course, please remember that that Arctic Fox is acclimated well to its environment. Your indoor dog used to a balmy 60+ degrees F year-round, will not be able to tolerate temperatures to the same extremes as an Arctic Fox.
Dog’s paw pads also contain a high amount of fat, which freezes less easily than other tissues. This feature, combined with the counter-current heat exchange, means that your dog is much more naturally equipped for a snowy hike than you are. But depending on your dog and the conditions that you hike in, your dog may still need some level of paw protection in the winter.
Winter Paw Protection Options for Dogs
While some dogs can make it through a Minnesota winter without any evidence of paw discomfort or injury, many dogs are not as lucky. Whether it is stinging from road salt, snow and ice balls forming in the fur between your dog’s paw pads, or paw discomfort from cold temperatures, there is a large portion of dogs who benefit from some added protection to stay hiking year-round.
What can you put on your dog’s paws in the winter?
Paw balms and dog boots are the two main options to provide protection for your dog’s paws in the winter. Paw balms, like Musher’s Secret, are made to be applied before walking on snow or ice to prevent dry skin and damage from salt. Dog boots offer more complete protection from salt and snow between paw pads, while also providing extra warmth.
Let’s take a look at these two options in more detail.
Paw balms, also known as paw waxes, pad creams, or musher’s wax, are generally combinations of wax and fats/oils that can be applied to a dog’s paw. They form a simple barrier between the paw pads and cold, snowy conditions.
A good quality paw balm will be soft at room temperature (making it easy to apply) but will solidify around your dog’s paws when it is exposed to the cold outdoor temperatures. The solidified layer of paw balm will help repel water, retain heat in the paws (acts like a layer of insulation), and protect your dog’s paws from ice and snowmelt on sidewalks and roads.
Paw balms also help moisturize paws, which can reduce cracking or rough paws year-round.
Musher’s Secret and other paw balms can be purchased on Amazon.com. This link will take you straight to Musher’s Secret. This is an affiliate link and, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualify purchases.
Can Vasoline be used as a paw balm?
Sure, Vasoline can be used as a budget paw balm. It will function similar to a commercial paw balm to help to keep your dog’s paws protected and hydrated on winter walks. However, it may not have all the added benefits of a paw balm specifically designed for dogs.
For some dogs, like my short-coated adventure dog, paw balms just aren’t quite enough protection for long winter hikes. These dogs often benefit from dog boots.
If you are wondering if your dog needs the full protection of boots, watch for signs of discomfort, such as holding paws up, reluctance to walk as far as normal, or whining. Also watch your dog for signs of paw irritation after a hike or walk, such as chewing or licking at paws after coming back inside. And examine your dog’s paws frequently to check for any cracks or redness that may develop during your winter hikes.
If you think your dog would benefit from wearing boots in the winter, the following are some options.
My current favorite dog boots are the lightweight and simple DogBooties.com dog booties (link to our full review). At only $3 dollars per bootie, it is easy to purchase your original four plus a few spares. It is also easy to mix and match sizes. This comes in handy as most dogs have larger paws in the front compared to the hind paws.
I typically hike all winter with a set of these booties in my pocket. If Glia starts lifting up her paws during a hike, I can quickly and easily slide the dog booties on her paws.
And an added benefit is that these booties stay on Glia’s paws the best of any we have used, including her fleece-lined Muttluks and several pairs I have DIY created for her. Despite the fact that these booties stay on well, I still recommend purchasing bright colors, as it is so much easier to notice when a bootie does come off.
Muttluks Fleece Lined Dog Boots
If you are looking for a warmer or more water-proof pair of dog boots than what the thin fabric of the dog booties provides, Muttluks makes fleece-lined dog boots with leather soles and a water-resistant outer layer.
The boots were created in Canada for snowy winter conditions and keep Glia’s paws warm and dry. Unless they fall off during our hike, which does typically happen a couple of times a hike, especially if the snow is deeper and dragging against the boots. But even with the boots occasionally slipping off, her paws are warmer when we get back to the car compared to the dog booties.
Muttluk fleece-lined boots come in a pack of 4, so you will have to pick the size that best fits all four paws. These boots are available for purchase on Amazon. Please remember that I am an Amazon Affiliate and earn from qualifying purchases.
If you want to read our full review on these dog boots, click here.
Ruffwear Polar Trex
If you are looking for full protection dog boots with a better grip on slick, icy snow surfaces, then Ruffwear Polar Trex dog boots may be right for your dog. The upper half of Polar Trex dog boots have an insulated softshell that is breathable and weatherproof. But the outsole is made from the Ruffwear-designed Vibram Icetrek to provide traction on frozen surfaces. This thick sole also provides great protection from cold and snow-melt chemicals.
You can find more information about these boots on Ruffwear.com. (This is an affiliate link through Avantlink.) And although the Polar Trex boots recently got an upgrade, if you are looking for a good review article before purchasing, Robin at RobinVentures has tried out the previous edition style.
Ruffwear Polar Trex boots come in sets of two so that you can choose the appropriate sizes for a good fit on both the front and hind paws.
Keep Your Dog’s Paws Warm when Winter Hiking
Regardless of how you decide to protect your dog’s paws this winter, make sure to check the forecast before you hit the trails. Remember that small, young, or elderly dogs will get cold faster than bigger healthy dogs.
And dogs that are acclimated to the snow and cold will be better able to tolerate the cold against their paws. It will take 15-60 days for your dog to acclimate to new temperatures. And remember, if your dog spends most of their time inside, they may never be truly acclimated.
Finally, breed and hair coat matter. A thick coated husky will be much better suited for winter hikes than a short-coated boxer. So be smart, know your dog, and show up prepared for the conditions.
Happy Winter Hiking Everyone!
Kate, Glia & Sasha
P.S. In addition to the links in the article above, the following posts were helpful when consolidating information for this blog post.