How Cold is Too Cold: Helping Your Dog Stay Warm During Winter (Tips)

Just because your dog has a fur coat, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he can tolerate the cold better than you can. Most pet dogs are accustomed to the warmth of their owner’s home, and the cold weather can be as hard for them as it can for you. So, when winter arrives, your furry friend needs a little extra care.

In this article, we will explain what health risks your dog faces during cold weather, and we give you some helpful advice on how you can keep your canine companion safe and warm this winter.

So, are some dogs better suited to life in a cold climate than others?

Let’s find out!

Breeds That Can Handle Cold

Some dog breeds have evolved to withstand the harshest of winter conditions with ease. Often, these dogs were bred to work in snow and ice, so a few weeks of sub-zero temperatures are no problem for these pups.

If you live in a region where the winter climate is particularly severe, you might want to consider choosing one of these breeds.

Tibetan Terrier

The Tibetan terrier is the smallest winter-loving pooch on our list but he can still handle cold winters with no problem.

An ancient breed, the Tibetan terrier was bred in the Lost Valley in the mountains of Tibet where they worked as watchdogs, flock guardians and herders. These pups were also valued companions to the monks who lived in remote Buddhist monasteries way up in the mountains.

Tibetan terriers have long, thick coats and huge paws that act as snow shoes, making them perfectly adapted to life in a cold, icy climate. And if you have a dog allergy, one of these pups could make your perfect pet, as they are very light shedders!

Siberian Husky

The Siberian husky originates from Siberia where the breed was used to haul sleds across snow and ice for many miles, sleeping out in the open with no comfort or shelter, even in the harshest weather. Huskies have a water-repellent double coat that keeps them insulated, warm and dry in the harshest of conditions.

You’ll find the husky to be a loving, loyal, and cheeky companion who will thrive in winter weather.

Alaskan Malamute

The Alaskan malamute was also bred to work as a sled dog and looks similar to the Siberian husky, although the breed is typically bigger and heavier. The Alaskan malamute is one of the oldest Arctic dog breeds and has a heavy, long coat and is perfectly adapted for life in a climate where the winters are extreme.

Saint Bernard

The Saint Bernard is a giant breed, standing up to 30 inches at the shoulder and weighing in at a massive 140 to 180 pounds!

These gentle giant, teddy bear dogs have been around since 1050, when a monk named Bernard of Menthon founded a shelter way up in the Alps to where pilgrims could rest en route to Rome. The pass through which the pilgrims traveled was dangerous. At 8,000 feet above sea level, violent blizzards, avalanches, and snow drifts up to 40 feet deep were commonplace.

To help find and rescue lost travelers, the monks bred huge, powerful working dogs that could dig through snow and pull out those who became trapped. And so, the Saint Bernard was born!

Needless to say, a Saint Bernard will be more than at home living in a region where winters are on the chilly side!

Newfoundland

The Newfoundland is another massive breed of working dog that originates from Canada. These pups worked on ships, specializing in rescuing men who fell overboard, helping to pull in fishing nets, and hauling the day’s catch on carts to market.

The Newfoundland has thick, water-repellent fur and webbed feet, all qualities that make these dogs perfectly adapted for working in icy waters.

Japanese Akita

The Akita was once kept by Japanese royalty and used as a hunting dog in the chilly areas of Northern Japan. These dogs have a short, thick coat that’s perfectly adapted for keeping out the winter cold.

Akitas are quiet dogs who can be wary of strangers and don’t generally get along with other animals in a household. These big, strong canines are hardwired to protect their human family and must be well-socialized from birth.

Norwegian Elkhound

The Norwegian elkhound hails from the Scandinavia where the winters are notoriously frigid. These thick-coated, sturdy little dogs have been around since the time of the Vikings and were once used to guard farms, herd flocks, and defend their charges from bears and wolves. Elkhounds were also used to hunt elk and other large deer, holding the prey at bay until their masters arrived.

If you live in a region where winter hunting is a popular pastime, a Norwegian elkhound would make the perfect sporting companion for you.

Cold Weather Advice

Even winter-loving breeds need extra care when the temperature drops. Here are our top tips for keeping your dog warm and safe this winter.

  1. Wrap up well

If you have a dog who has a thick coat, he’ll probably keep warm naturally in very cold temperatures. However, thin-coated or hairless dogs will need to wear a coat or sweater when you head off out for a winter walk.

Remember to take into account the wind chill factor, as well as the air temperature. Even if the sun is shining, a stiff breeze can lower the air temperature considerably, putting your pup at risk.

Some breeds such as whippets and greyhounds may need to wear a sweater or fleece indoors too on particularly cold days.

  1. Outside-dwelling dogs

Dogs that spend part of the day or night in a kennel are especially at risk of becoming chilled.  Make sure that your dog’s kennel is sited in a sheltered spot that’s well away from drafts and facing away from the prevailing wind.

The sleeping area of the kennel should be just big enough to allow your dog to lie down in comfort, and it should be very well-insulated with clean, warm bedding material. A smaller space stops chilly drafts from creeping in and allows your dog’s body heat to act as a natural radiator.

The floor of the kennel should be raised a few inches off the ground and sprinkled with wood shavings or straw that will provide good insulation. Cover the doorway of the kennel with a curtain of waterproof canvas or plastic.

Even dogs that are accustomed to spending most of their time outside sans grooming should be brought indoors for part of the day during spells of extremely cold weather.

  1. Walk when the sun shines

During very cold weather, walk your dog late in the morning or early in the afternoon when the temperature is a little higher. If possible, avoid going out in the early morning or evening.

To help keep you and your dog warm, try playing fetch with a ball or Frisbee, and choose a sunny spot for your game.

  1. Winter bedding

If your dog usually sleeps on a cold, tiled floor, you’ll need to get him a warm winter bed. Elevated beds are perfect for keeping your furry friend off cold concrete or tiles and a few extra blankets can create a snug nest. Be sure to put your dog’s bed in a cozy spot away from drafts.

  1. No ice, please

A surprisingly common danger that owners often overlook is that posed by metal water bowls that are placed outside.

When the temperature drops below freezing, the water in the bowl can quickly turn to ice, and the bowl itself can become a danger to your dog. When your dog tries to take a drink, his tongue may easily become stuck to the bowl, causing a painful injury when he tries to pull away.

A tennis ball placed in a wide-topped plastic container can help to keep the ice from freezing over completely.

  1. Dry skin

When you put your central heating on for the winter months, the air inside your house can become very dry. A dry atmosphere can cause your dog’s skin to dry out and become dehydrated. That can cause itchy areas, which your dog will scratch and nibble at, causing sore patches and hair loss.

You can combat the effects of a dry atmosphere by grooming your dog regularly. Grooming is not only very enjoyable for your pet, it will also help to remove any dead hair and stimulates the production of natural oils in the skin that will help to keep it moisturized and supple.

  1. Antifreeze poisoning

Dogs find the ethylene glycol contained in antifreeze coolant irresistible. But consuming as little as one teaspoon-full of antifreeze can be fatal to your pet, as the substance attacks the dog’s kidneys, liver, and brain.

Ethylene glycol is used in the production of most brands of antifreeze coolant for cars, and it’s also present in some windscreen wash products. Always keep the caps firmly on containers, and if possible, restrict your dog’s access to your garage or any area where such products are stored.

If you top up your car on the driveway, be very careful to clean up spills immediately and thoroughly.

  1. Lost dogs

If you have a dog that likes to go exploring whilst out on walks, bear in mind that falling snow can prevent scent from lingering. That means that your dog might not be able to retrace his steps if he runs off in pursuit of a rabbit or squirrel, and your pet could end up becoming lost.

Snowfall can also change the appearance of familiar landscapes and hide potential hazards such as bodies of water. There are accidents every winter where dogs have wandered onto thin ice on rivers and lakes, only to plunge through into the icy water hidden beneath.

Invest in an extending lead for your dog’s walks during snowy winter weather if he is inclined to go ‘off-piste’!

  1. By the fire

When you come home from a chilly winter walk or settle down on an icy evening in front of a blazing open fire, spare a thought for your dog’s safety. Many dogs are just as keen as you are to cozy up to the heat, but stray sparks can land on your pet, causing singed fur and nasty skin burns. Gas fires can also present a danger to wagging tails and curious noses.

If you have an open fire or a gas fire with a naked flame, always use a fireguard to prevent your dog from being injured, and never leave your pet unattended in a room where a fire is burning.

  1. Don’t overfeed

Many owners make the mistake of feeding their dog extra rations during the winter months in the belief that a layer of fat will keep their pet warm. However, during cold weather, your pet may be less active than he is when the temperature is higher. Shorter days and inclement weather can also mean that you go for shorter walks or briefer play sessions.

Keep an eye on your dog’s weight, and don’t overfeed him!

  1. Cracked paws

Almost as bad as foxtails, the cold weather on a dog’s paws can cause them to become cracked and sore during very cold weather. The damage can be caused by walking on sidewalks that have been salted to remove ice. Always wash your dog’s paws after a walk to get rid of salt residue.

When you’re walking in snow, ice and salt can accumulate between your dog’s toes, causing discomfort. You can protect your dog’s paws by kitting him out with a set of waterproof dog boots. Although your dog might find his new boots a little strange at first, most pups soon adjust.

  1. Leave Fido at home

You know that you should never leave your dog in your car on a hot day. Well, the same applies during a cold snap. The temperature in your car can quickly fall down well below what’s comfortable and safe for your dog, so leave your pet at home in the warm when you go out in your car to run errands.

  1. Increase visibility

When walking your dog before the sun rises and at dusk, increase your dog’s visibility by attaching a small light to his collar and using a Hi-Viz harness with reflective strips, especially if you walk close to roads.

  1. Avoid frozen lakes and rivers

If your dog is a swimmer, the chances are he’ll head for his usual dipping spot when you’re out walking. It can be impossible to gauge the thickness of ice on lakes, ponds, and rivers, so always keep your dog on his leash or change your route until the weather warms up.

Winter Risks

The two primary health risks for dogs during very cold weather are hypothermia and frostbite.  Both of these symptoms are a result of being exposed to the elements far longer than any dog should be exposed for.

Let’s look at the differences, what they are, and how you can identify signs and symptoms of each condition.

Frostbite

Frostbite, or congelatio to give the condition its correct medical term, mostly affects dogs that are left outside in extreme cold for prolonged periods.

When the temperature drops below 320F, the blood vessels close to the surface of the dog’s skin begin to constrict and become narrower. That’s the body’s way of diverting blood towards the animal’s vital organs and away from the dog’s colder extremities. Unfortunately, the protective process reduces the blood flow in these areas to dangerously low levels.

The combination of low blood flow and cold temperature can cause the tissues to freeze, especially in areas such as the ears, tail, and paws. In severe cases, the tissue damage that results from frostbite causes the skin to turn black and eventually fall off.

Symptoms of Frostbite

If your dog shows any of the following symptoms, he may have frostbite:

  • pale, bluish, or gray skin
  • brittleness or coldness of the area when touched
  • pain and swelling in affected areas
  • skin ulcers or blisters
  • areas of dead or blackened skin

As frostbitten tissue thaws, the area may become painful, red, and inflamed. The signs of frostbite can take several days to appear.

As soon as you suspect that your dog may have frostbite, contact your vet immediately.

  • Move your dog to a dry, warm area right away.
  • Do not rub the affected area.
  • If you and your dog are outside and you can’t get indoors, don’t warm the frostbitten area with water; refreezing will cause even more severe damage to the affected tissues.
  • If you’re indoors, carefully warm the frostbitten areas with warm water. You should be able to comfortably put your hand into the water. Note that, if the water is too hot, you’ll cause more damage. Warm the area by applying warm water compresses.
  • Do not use direct heat such as a hair dryer or a heating pad.
  • When the affected area is warm, gently and thoroughly pat it dry.

En route to the vet clinic, wrap your dog in dry blankets that you’ve warmed in your clothes dryer.

Hypothermia

Hypothermia is the second serious cold weather condition that dog owners should be aware of, especially older dogs.

Hypothermia occurs when your dog spends a lot of time exposed to cold temperatures, especially if he gets wet too. Elderly dogs and those with poor circulation or that have conditions such as kidney disease, heart disease, and hypothyroidism are especially vulnerable.

A dog’s normal body temperature is between 1010F and 102.50F. If your dog’s temperature falls below 1000F, he is considered to be hypothermic.

If hypothermia is sustained, severe complications may occur, potentially leading to death.

Signs of Hypothermia

If your dog shows any of the following signs, he could be hypothermic:

  • pale skin
  • shivering
  • lethargy
  • cold ears and paws
  • depression
  • weakness
  • slow heart and respiration rates

In a case of hypothermia, here’s what to do:

  1. Warm some blankets with a hair dryer or in a clothes dryer.
  2. Wrap the dog in the blankets.
  3. Fill a hot water bottle and wrap it in a towel so that it doesn’t burn the dog’s skin. Place the hot water bottle against the dog’s tummy.You could also use a heating pad on its lowest setting, wrapped in a towel, and placed next to the dog. However, don’t put the dog on top of the heating pad or leave the pad turned on for more than ten minutes at a time.
  4. Check the dog’s temperature every ten minutes. Once the temperature is above 1000F, remove the hot water bottle, so that the dog doesn’t overheat.
  5. Keep the dog in a warm room and monitor his temperature every 15 to 30 minutes until his behavior has returned to normal.

Hypothermia is potentially life-threatening and always requires prompt veterinary attention, especially in younger dogs. If the dog’s temperature falls below 980F, it’s a medical emergency!

Wrap Up

Snowy winter walks and cozy log fires can be just as enjoyable for your dog as they are for you, but do bear in mind the dangers that cold weather can present for your canine companion, and take steps to ensure he stays warm and safe this winter.