It’s official. December is upon us and the highest temperature in my forecast this week is 33 degrees F. Honestly this isn’t that cold for December, but it is time to start taking care when on outdoor adventures with my pup. Glia has lived in either Minnesota or Wisconsin her entire life, so we wanted to share some of our tips for walking, hiking, and living in cold winter temperatures. We have compiled the following Cold Weather Safety Guide for Intrepid Pups for those of you just getting started in cold weather dog-friendly adventures.
What counts as cold weather?
Have you ever heard the term “thermoneutral zone”? The thermoneutral zone (TNZ) is the normal range of temperatures at which an animal can maintain their body temperature without expending energy to increase heat production or heat loss. For the average dog this temperature range is between 68 degrees F and 86 degrees F. Outside of this range, exist the upper and lower critical temperatures. The critical temperatures are the cutoff for when an animal needs assistance to help improve heat production or heat loss in order to maintain core body temperature.
For this article, we will be focusing on how to keep dogs safe and warm as they approach the lower critical temperature zone. However, it is important to note that there is a very wide range of normal within the species known as domestic dogs. Based on information from an article by Purdue University the lower critical temperature of a healthy adult Siberian husky is less than 32 degrees F. But in some short-haired dogs the lower critical temperature can be as high as 59 degrees F. Also, puppies, geriatric dogs, and sick animals will have a reduced capacity to maintain their body temperatures. Smaller dogs will also lose heat faster than larger dogs.
A final consideration for cold weather safety, is whether or not your dog has been acclimated to the cold temperatures. Acclimation takes time. Partial acclimatization can take from 10 to 20 days. Full acclimatization can take up to 60 days. So if your dog lives in Minnesota (and are outside on a regular basis), they likely went through fall to get to winter. By the time it is 15 degrees F on a regular basis, your dog likely has some level of acclimation to the cold weather. But if you are making a trip from Florida up to Canada in the middle of winter, your dog may need extra precautions to stay safe in the cold. If your dog spends all of his/her time indoors, then they will only acclimate to the temperature of your house.
For the purposes of this cold weather safety guide, we can assume that all dogs may need some level of protection when exposed to long periods of below freezing (under 32 degrees F or below 0 degrees C) weather. Some dogs may benefit from light sweaters and other protection at warmer temperatures, but all dogs will need access to shelter and breaks from cold weather exposure once the temperatures are below freezing and/or there is snow on the ground. Just remember that dogs can be different. They are an incredible species that range from 5 lb Chihuahuas to 150+ pound Saint Bernards. The following guidelines are just guidelines and should be tailored to your individual dog.
Cold Weather Concern #1: Conserving Body Heat
The biggest concern for dogs exploring in below freezing temperatures is maintaining body heat. The less body heat they are losing, the less energy expended and the lower the temperature can drop before the dog reaches a critical lower temperature. There are several ways that body heat can be conserved.
One of the easiest ways to help a pet conserve body heat is clothing. In the fall as the temperatures begin to drop, I find that Glia will spend less time outdoors. She will return to sit by the back door earlier, and will sit with her feet/legs tucked tight to her body. When she comes inside, she often has some of the hair on her back standing on end. These are my early clues that she is getting cold. (As a puppy, I would even catch her shivering in the fall temperatures).
Prior to having Glia in my life, I always laughed a little about dogs that wore sweaters everywhere. I grew up with a Labrador Retriever with a thick double coat. I wasn’t expecting my own dog to chill so easily before snow was even on the ground. But before Glia was even six months old, she had a small wardrobe of sweaters, ranging from lightweight for fall to fleece lined and water-repellent for actual winter. You can see that she doesn’t have many thick coated breeds in in her DNA mix-up, so the sweaters helped her compensate for her lack of undercoat.
Many of Glia’s sweaters are cheap ones purchased at Menard’s on Black Friday sales or picked up from Walmart. They work well for adding some warmth, but don’t always fit the best on her deep-chested body-frame. I was also fortunate to find an online pattern (that I searched for to include in this article, but which appears to have been deleted from the web) that my mother used to sew Glia some custom fit fleece sweaters. These sweaters are great as they are easily washable and fit well. They also have wide leg openings that allow good movement while hiking.
If you are looking for a “higher quality” dog sweater/jacket made for a wide range of outdoor dog adventures, I recommend checking out the brands Ruffwear or Hurta. This is also a good dog jacket guide by Outdoor Dogs.
(Additional note: If you are planning on sitting still outside – camping, etc. – then you will also want to preserve body heat by offering your dog something to lay on. Finding a good weather proof dog bed to help insulate the dog’s body from the cold ground, can be invaluable. Many of the big outdoor dog companies even make insulated dog sleeping bags for camping.)
Cold Weather Concern #2: Protecting Paws
Winter weather comes with many hazards for a dog’s paws. This cold weather safety guide recommends using dog boots in cold, snowy conditions and if your dog will be walking in areas that are salted in winter. Salt or ice melts can be very irritating on a dogs paws.
Glia has a pair of home sewn winter booties that are more like thick winter socks with a waterproofing spray applied. Her original pair was a navy blue so I could see it against the snow. Ultimately, it was easier to see it against Glia’s fur, so her second pair was nice and light-colored. My parent’s pup, Sasha, has a pair of rubberized socks that we picked up at Petsmart. For more options, check out this dog boot review by the American Kennel Club.
Some dogs take a little while to acclimatize to wearing booties, but most dogs do great. The biggest problem most dog owners report regarding boots, is finding a pair that doesn’t fall off with a lot of running in deep snow. Try a few pairs on to find one that works best. And don’t be afraid to lace/velcro them on well. If straps are loosely secured, they will fall off.
Here is a video of Glia wearing her home-sewn boots for the first time.
And here is Sasha with her rubberized sock boots for the first time. It is amazing how much better phone cameras have become (although, unfortunately, the videographer’s skills have not improved at a similar rapid rate).
If you are looking for an alternative to dog boots, check out Musher’s Secret or a similar paw balm. I have yet to try it myself, but I know several people who have been very happy with these products.
Additionally, many dogs can hike in wintry conditions without protection for their paws. If your dog does not have booties, make sure to monitor each individual dog closely to make sure that he is not holding his paws up uncomfortably. Another sign of discomfort is licking at paws while outside. If you see either of these signs, your dog needs protection for his feet. (Or he has an ice-ball forming in the long paw hair. He may need hair trimmed prior to snowy activities).
Cold Weather Concern #3: Snow Glare
I have personally never had to worry too much about snow glare, but I know some hardcore adventurers use eye protection for themselves. If the snow glare where you are adventuring is bad enough that you need protection for yourself, consider eyewear for your dog. Check out this article by Baxter Boo for more information about dog eyewear.
Cold Weather Concern #4: When is it just too cold?
Honestly, this is a tough question to definitively answer and really does depend on your dog. My personal rules of thumb are as follows. If my unprotected skin is hurting, my dog’s unprotected skin is probably cold too. When you are cold with a down jacket on, your thick haired dog is probably cold too. If your dog is shivering or doesn’t want to keep walking, it is too cold. If you are unsure about whether or not it is too cold, keep outdoor exposure short. Watch your dog closely for any signs of discomfort. Error on the side of having your dog wear a sweater and boots and, when in doubt, offer plenty of opportunities for your dog to head back into a warmer area.
Head Outside and Enjoy Winter
With a little bit of preparation, most dogs love getting outside and enjoying the snow. So now that you are finished reading through the cold weather safety guide, it is time to find some great hiking trails and enjoy winter with your dog!
And a final thought. If you are going to be spending a long period of time outside in cold weather, pack extra food for your dog. Remember, it takes extra energy to maintain body heat when the temperature is outside thermoneutral zone!
What are your favorite winter activities with your dog?