How To Handle Cold Weather With Your Dog
Pet Care Advice

Winter can be ruff! How to handle cold weather with your dog

It’s that time of year again, getting colder, grayer and rainier. Those of us in temperate climates are digging out our turtlenecks, re-waterproofing our coats and airing those heavier blankets in readiness for the long dark nights that are coming.

We’re looking forward to playing outdoors, making snowmen (our younger dog once stole a snowman’s carrot/nose from our neighbor’s yard – oops), sledding, and throwing snowballs.

We have plenty of ways to keep ourselves nice and toasty, but what about our beloved dogs? Do they feel the cold too? How can we keep them warm?

The answer to whether your dog really feels the cold depends on a few factors including breed, size, age and more.

Huskies, with their weatherproof double-layer of fur and insulating layer of fat mind the cold and snow a lot less than skinny, virtually hairless, fat-free greyhounds do.

The answer to keeping them warm is more straightforward and it’s almost the same as keeping ourselves warm. You can put a coat on them, cover them in a blanket, and use paw wax or booties to keep their feet warm and protected.

Make sure they have plenty of shelter if they’re playing outdoors, and most importantly, keep them indoors in extreme weather.

Do all dogs feel the cold the same way?

How Dogs Feel Cold Temperatures

Cold weather can be very dangerous for dogs, who can get hypothermia – a potentially lethal problem – and frostbite. All dogs feel the cold, but they don’t all feel it the same way.

Our beloved Salukis are Arabian desert dogs, bred to run in the sands of the Middle East. Even though they were both born in a country that gets all four seasons, they have virtually no fat and not much in the way of fur, so they feel the cold a lot.

Our Golden Labrador had a luscious double-layer of fur and a good layer of fat to keep her warm, so she didn’t mind the cold as much, although she did feel it more in her last year.

Even within the same family of dogs there can be differences. Salukis and Afghan Hounds are closely-related members of the sighthound family but Afghans tolerate cold better despite being equally thin. The difference is the length and thickness of their coats.

Here are five characteristics that help determine how much your dog will feel the cold:

  • Coat type
  • Coat colour: darker dogs absorb more heat
  • Size: smaller dogs can feel colder
  • Weight
  • Age and health

Does the size of the dog affect how they feel the cold?

The size of the dog does somewhat influence whether they’ll feel the cold or not.

Smaller dogs have more skin (comparatively) and since a lot of heat is lost through skin they feel the cold more. Again, it depends though. A Lhasa Apso (Tibetan Terrier), rarely more than knee high, tolerates the cold much better than a Great Dane at three times the size.

The difference? A thick double coat to keep it warm, thicker skin and more body fat.

What are the signs that your dog is cold?

How can you tell if your dog is cold? There are a few signs that will give you a clue:

  • Shivering: mostly dogs shiver when they’re cold, although they can also shiver when they’re excited (which one of mine does). If you’re not sure, look for more signs
  • They’re curled up with their noses tucked under their tails. Dogs mainly do this to protect their hairless bellies and to minimise heat loss
  • They have cold ears and paws. Like humans, a dog’s body will heat critical areas like the internal organs first and leave the extremities until last
  • They’re hunched over with their tail tucked
  • They keep looking for shelter
  • They raise a paw

Really knowing your dog and their normal behavior is the best way to keep them safe. If they do something out of the ordinary for them, it may be a sign that they’re cold.

Our older Saluki sits if he’s cold when we’re out walking on leash. This is a dog that hates sitting because his body isn’t designed for it, but it’s a way for him to minimise the amount of his body exposed to the cold and especially the wind.

When he starts sitting outside, we reach for the thicker coats.

What is a safe temperature for my dog?

This graphic from Petplan (adapted from information provided by Tufts University) is a handy starting point, but remember that even within the size brackets there can be differences.

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What else matters?

It’s not just the outside temperature that matters. My two boys are happy to go out in the “sorta” cold as long as it’s not wet. Here are four things that can affect how your dog feels the cold:

  • Wind chill – A brisk breeze can quickly cut through a dog’s coat and greatly decreases its ability to insulate and protect against cold temperatures.
  • Dampness – Rain, wet snow, heavy fog, going for a swim … any form of dampness that soaks through the fur can quickly chill a dog even if the air temperature is not all that cold.
  • Cloud cover – Cloudy days tend to feel colder than do sunny days since dogs can’t soak up the sun and warm themselves.
  • Activity – If dogs are going to be very active while outside, they may generate enough extra body heat to keep them comfortable even if the temperature is quite low.

How cold is too cold for puppies?

Puppies and senior dogs can’t regulate their body heat in the same way adult dogs can, so they get much colder, much faster. Once the temperature goes below 32 degrees, you should start paying close attention to your dog’s wellbeing.

Also, as an aside, remember that puppies shouldn’t be walking more than 5 minutes per month of age anyway (e.g., a maximum of 20 minutes for a four-month old dog).

Is my house too cold for my dog?

The general rule is that if the house is too cold for you, it’s too cold for the dog. Of course there are nuances to that. Your Bernese Mountain Dog or Chow Chow, with its thick, winter-loving fur isn’t going to feel the cold in the same way you do.

Your Italian Greyhound, on the other hand, will need warming up long before you need to reach for the heater.

If you prefer a cooler house, then make sure you have plenty of other ways to keep them warm.

Related Reading: How to Keep a Dog Cool Inside the House

Do dogs need a blanket in the winter?

Some dogs need blankets in the winter. My two love nothing better than snuggling into a duvet when it’s cold out. In fact, on super-wintry days, it’s a challenge getting up and out.

One of them loves to have his whole body covered, head and all. The other prefers to leave his ears and nose uncovered, almost certainly a legacy from his days as a stray.

How to keep dog’s ears warm in the winter

My husband and I use dog snoods to keep their ears warm when we’re out in the cold. They don’t love them, but their ears get so cold!

Euro Dog Designs Fleece Snood Size:M(16inch/40cm) Color:Black

That’s fine when we’re walking them on leash but not great when they’re running free. After half a dozen long hikes searching for fallen snoods, I decided that if they were running that much their ears would be warm enough. They go back on when the boys go back on leash.

How else can I keep my dog warm?

There are a few ways to keep your pooch warm indoors and outdoors.

In addition to blankets and snoods, we use a fleece wrap to keep them warm indoors.

This is especially true in our bedroom which isn’t heated (yes, our dogs sleep in our bedroom – the “no dogs upstairs” rule lasted about a day with our first dog many years ago. The “no dogs on couches” rule didn’t even last that long).

There is a huge range of indoor fleeces and pajamas to satisfy any pet parent. Just make sure your dog actually needs one or you’ll risk Fido overheating.

Tooth & Honey Big Dog Pajamas/Unicorn Dog Pajamas/Lightweight Pullover Pajamas/Full Coverage Dog pjs (Large)

The fleece we use is water resistance and also works for outdoors if it’s not too cold.

We have much thicker, fleece-lined, waterproof coats for outdoor walks on really cold days.

We restrict on-leash walks on really freezing days to 15-20 minutes. If we’re going to be out longer than that, we go to places where we can let them run so they can keep warm. As members of the sighthound family, our boys don’t need much excuse to burst into a fast race against each other.

We also put quilts and duvets on their dog beds and on our couches; they love making nests out of them and they look so cute with their little heads peeking out.

And of course, there’s always snuggles to keep them warm. Our boys, normally pretty cuddly anyway, totally wrap themselves around us when they feel a chill settle in.

Mostly our dogs’ sense of self-preservation is strong and if it’s too cold, wet or windy, they just won’t leave the house. We’re lucky though, not all dogs are like that and often need our common sense to keep them safe.

A note on dogs’ paws

Dogs paws aren’t covered with shoes like our feet are, so they feel the cold ground more than we do. If you don’t have an “outdoor” breed of dog, you can look at getting them booties.

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QUMY QUMY Dog Boots Waterproof Shoes for Large Dogs with Reflective Velcro Rugged Anti-Slip Sole Black 4PCS (Size 6: 2.9x2.5 Inch)

Not only do they keep the pup’s feet warm, they protect them from winter chemical like the de-icing stuff and anti-freeze on sidewalks and roads.

Salukis have unusually long toes so we struggle to find booties to fit them, and besides, they’d chew them off so it’s not worth the effort. We do protect their feet with paw-wax which helps a little with warmth and protects well from chemicals.

These chemicals are problematic for two reasons:

  • They irritate the dogs’ paws
  • They’re dangerous if ingested when the dog licks their paws to clean them.

The best-case scenario is that they can cause an upset stomach, but at worst they can cause serious liver and kidney damage.

Also, some dogs have fur between their toes and in the winter months ice, slush, dirt and road salt can get caught there. It can be painful and lead to your dog licking their paws raw.

Related Reading: My Dog’s Paw is Swollen and Red between Toes

What temperatures can dogs stay outside?

What temperatures can dogs stay outside

According to NPR, “under 30 degrees, factoring in the wind chill, it’s not going to be safe for any dog to be outside for an extended period of time [although] you can buy yourself a little bit of time with warm weather clothing, such as dog sweaters and booties to cover their paws.”

It’s considered animal neglect to leave a dog outside without some kind of shelter from wind and rain, and you can be prosecuted for doing so.

According to the Humane Society “one of the most common forms of animal cruelty, cases of animals left outside in dangerous weather are investigated more by police and animal control agencies than any other form of animal abuse.

Our most constant companions—dogs and cats—feel the effects of winter weather as much as we do, only they are often cast outside to weather the cold or a storm owing to a misconception that the fur on their backs will insulate them from suffering.

Without proper shelter, food and water, these domesticated animals’ chances of survival in frigid temperatures is greatly decreased.”

In the UK, a law has been passed that makes it illegal for dogs to be kept outdoors for longer than half an hour if it’s colder than 32oF or warmer than 90oF.

Should I walk my dog in extreme cold?

The short answer is, unless you have a dog like a Saint Bernard who’s been trained for winter rescue, you shouldn’t walk your dog in the extreme cold. They should only go out for long enough to toilet and then come straight back in.

If they’re getting bored indoors there are plenty of games you can play to keep them out of mischief. Check out our How much mental stimulation does a dog need? post for ideas.

My dog wants to stay outside in the cold

Should you let them? It depends on what your dog is used to. If you’re in North Dakota, where average winter temperatures are 13 degrees, your dog will feel differently about 32 degrees than a dog living in coastal California where average winter temperatures are a balmy 45 degrees.

We can’t always rely on our dogs to know when it’s time to come back inside, so they should never be left out unsupervised in cold weather. If you catch the signs of hypothermia early it’s much more treatable than if your dog is already unconscious.

Related Reading: How to Keep a Dog from Escaping the Yard

What are the signs of hypothermia?

Signs to watch for include:

  • Weakness
  • Lethargy
  • Muscle stiffness
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Lack of mental alertness
  • Fixed and dilated pupils
  • Stupor-like state
  • Loss of consciousness

If you suspect your dog is displaying signs of hypothermia, wrap your dog in a blanket or coat, seek a warm shelter, and contact your vet immediately. Even if you only suspect that your dog may be showing signs of hypothermia, please call your vet immediately. Better safe than sorry.

Winter is a great time to be outdoors having fun in the snow (or at least the cooler weather). A good dose of common sense and some warm clothing will ensure that you and your dog(s) enjoy playing without freezing to death.