NutriSource Blogs

A guide to cold-weather care for dogs

January 08, 2020

We’ve all seen that dog go galloping toward the deepest snowdrifts with the enthusiasm of a dozen 7-year-olds home on a snow day. And then, others will straight up refuse to touch snow unless they absolutely have to. Living with dogs means it’s impossible to avoid going outside, because that’s where they do their business and for most families, it’s the best place to exercise their furry friend. How do you, as a pet parent, balance these needs with cold-weather comfort and safety? Use the following tips and insights to help you create a fun and safe go-outside routine during the cold months.

How cold is too cold for a dog?

There’s no single pat answer to the question. Even though dogs are more comfortable than we are barefoot walking on ice and snow (more on that below), they’re still susceptible to hypothermia and frostbite as a result of prolonged exposure. Here are four things to consider before spending time outside with your pet.

  • As a rule of thumb, a large cold-weather breed will likely enjoy a 30-minute hike in the snow, possibly longer. Smaller and short-haired breeds, however, shouldn’t walk outside barefoot for long, 15-20 minutes at most.
  • Keep in mind, the fast-changing weather conditions can change your pet’s ability to maintain her body temperature in a matter of minutes. Windchill, snow depth, even the presence of slush, can make a tremendous difference in your pet’s ability to keep herself warm and comfortable.
  • When in doubt, talk to your dog’s vet. They’re the experts about your dog, its health, breed, size, and age, not to mention your region’s weather patterns.
  • Under no circumstances should a dog be left outside for long periods, unprotected, when the weather is colder than 45 degrees. If being outside is part of their lifestyle, make sure they have easy access to shelter, including a bed that’s raised off the ground.

Is it safe for dogs to walk barefoot on ice and snow?

You may have wondered how your dog can prance and gallop on bare paws on snow and ice without any sign of discomfort. Science may have the answer.

  • According to published research, the arteries and veins in a dog’s foot are located close together, which scientists say creates a heat-transfer effect that keeps the feet warm.
  • As blood circulates, the warmth from blood entering the feet transfers to cooled-off blood as it exits the feet. This transfer minimizes heat loss. And the warm blood that keeps pumping into the paws maintains comfort.

However, human hands and feet respond very differently to cold temperatures. Icy temperatures trigger a powerful response to retreat and protect our extremities. That can make it difficult to wrap one’s head around the warm paw theory. Here’s what happens to us when our extremities get cold.

  • When our hands or feet get cold, the body constricts blood flow to the extremity.
  • This constriction is designed to protect the organs and the body’s core temperature against the cold.

Do your dog’s paws need protection against the cold? For most bathroom breaks and brief walks, probably not. However, dogs can suffer frostbite and there are reasons smaller breeds’ paws may be more vulnerable to the cold. To learn more about this, check out the Raising Your Paws Podcast, episode 6: Why Dogs Can Walk Barefoot in Snow, as well as the accompanying blog article, Why Small Dogs May Need Boots in Winter.

4 ways to clean your dog’s paws after a winter walk

In addition to helping you maintain a tidy home, cleaning off your dog’s paws after a winter walk can protect their health and well-being.

Always do a quick wipe down

Walking in a winter wonderland can result in your pet’s paws being coated with road salts and chemical deicers. Vets say these substances can irritate their skin and even lead to chemical burns. Worse, when the dog inevitably licks her paws, she’ll ingest these substances, resulting in irritation in the mouth as well as the digestive tract. A quick clean up of their paws with baby wipes is a safe and essential step you’ll want to take after every walk. There are some baby wipes that contain propylene glycol that is toxic for dogs if they lick their paws after being cleaned, so it’s best to purchase wipes designed for dogs. However, if your pet gets especially dirty on one of those sloppy, slushy days, use a wet washcloth followed by toweling off, or dip your dog’s paws in a pan of lukewarm water. There are also products you can buy at pet supply stores that allow you to plunge your dog’s paws in a container holding water.

Check for ice balls

Walking on snow can result in little balls of ice that get lodged in the hair as well as the spaces between paw pads, causing discomfort in some breeds. For injury-free removal, press a warm, damp cloth on the paw until the ice ball softens.

Carefully remove grit

Because walkways are frequently sprinkled with sand and kitty litter to improve traction, it’s smart to give your dog’s paws a quick inspection after the walk. Examine the nails and spaces between the paw pads to ensure they’re free of grit.

Invest in a set of waterproof dog boots

Prevention can be your best bet. Training your pet to tolerate shoes or booties can take some time. Creating a smoother transition back indoors and the ability to safely extend your walk makes boots well worth the money, time and effort.

Does your dog need a coat in cold weather?

It depends on the dog. Some dogs seem perfectly content in a blizzard, while others start to shiver when outdoor temperatures dip into the 40s. If any of the following applies to your your dog, slip on a warm, waterproof coat when it’s time to go outside.

  • Small, short-haired and toy breeds: (Boston Terrier, Chihuahua, Jack Russell) With their smaller statures and thinner coats, these dogs have little protection against the cold.
  • Short legs: Being a corgi or dachshund means the belly has less clearance from the snow-covered ground.
  • Elderly or senior dogs: Body functions, including the ability to regulate body temperatures, decline with age, and that makes older dogs more susceptible to colder temperatures.
  • Clipped coat: Winter weather breeds with their thick, dense coats (St. Bernard, Samoyed, Siberian Husky) can tolerate the cold and may even enjoy it. When their hair is clipped or shorn, however, it can’t do what it’s designed to do.
  • Wet weather: Slush, sleet, freezing rain or even snow can make your pet’s coat wet, reducing their ability to insulate themselves against the cold.

Safe winter walking after dark with your pup

Having fewer hours for daytime walks means some outings in the darkness are inevitable. Reduced visibility and snow-covered roads give drivers much less time to respond. That’s why it’s essential to practice some defensive walking with your pooch.

  • Wear reflective gear, such as a vest for yourself or your pet, so you and your pet “pop” on a dark roadway.
  • Travel safe routes. Stick to sidewalks and avoid busy roadways as much as possible. Before crossing a road with car traffic, establish eye contact with the driver, even if you have the right of way. This is especially critical if they’re going to turn into your path.
  • Wear a headlamp to illuminate dark paths while keeping your hands free to simultaneously manage the leash and pick up after your dog.
  • Keep the dog leashed and by your side at all times. Staying in control of these challenging conditions is critical to keeping your pet safe.

At NutriSource, the health and safety of your pet comes top-of-mind. That’s why we only work with suppliers that can guarantee that our raw ingredients will pass our high standards, and we make our own kibble in a state-of-the-art AIB certified facility. Learn more about the goodness we pack in every bag and can of NutriSource, and purchase it from your local, independent pet supply shop.