Winter Pet Care: Second Winter Edition
March 5, 2019
Raise your hand if you thought we would be talking about winter pet care in March? Me, either. But now that we are having another polar blast, let’s talk about cold weather.
How long should my dog go/stay outside? or How long should our walk be?
Unfortunately, we can’t put an exact number on exactly how many minutes your dog should spend outside or how long a walk should be. Many factors including come into play, including:
Age: In general, be more careful with seniors and young puppies.
Fur/Coat Type: Some dogs come prepared with a thick winter coat built in, but for many their natural coat doesn’t provide much protection. Also keep in mind that a long or feathery coat doesn’t necessarily mean a warm coat, because dogs may be what is called single-coated or double-coated. Doubled coated dogs have an insulating layer of softer, downy or wooly fur under an outer layer of coarser guard hairs (such as huskies). This is the insulating layer that protects the most against cold. Single coated dogs have only the outer hairs. Many short haired dogs are single coated (such as boxers), but dogs can have a long and single coat (such as poodles).
Size: Proportionally, smaller dogs tend to have more surface area in relation to their body mass than large dogs. This means that they lose body heat faster, so be especially careful with the littles!
Individual cold tolerance: This somewhat unpredictable, and you just need to know your dog(s). I currently have three dogs who run the gamut: One is extremely cold tolerant, one moderately, and one not at all.
Acclimation to cold: All else being equal, dogs who spend more time indoors are going to be less tolerant of cold than dogs who spends more time outside. This doesn’t only apply to housing; a dog who goes for an hour long walk every day, rain or shine, is going to be more acclimated to the cold once January rolls around than a dog who goes for short walks or only out to the yard to potty.
If in doubt, stay home and do indoor activities instead. This previous post gives some ideas for keeping busy indoors on cold days.
What should I do in cold weather?
There are a variety of products available to help mitigate the cold in our pet dogs, including:
Coats: There are many, many styles and brands of coats available both in pet stores and online retailers. I prefer coats that cover the front and bottom of the chest as well as the back for two reasons. One, many dogs have a naturally thinner haircoat in these areas and two, snow can get kicked up onto the chest while dogs walk and run. Beyond that, there is not a particular coat I recommend. For extremely cold sensitive dogs, you can also get snoods (a neck wrap that also covers the ears).
Booties: Most booties are not warm/insulating per se but they do protect the paws from getting snow and ice stuck in fur and between the toes, which can be very chilling and uncomfortable. They also protect against cuts and irritation from salt, sand, and any hard chunks of ice or snow. My favorite inexpensive booties that actually stay on can be found online here. Be sure to acclimate your dog to wearing booties before actually going on a walk, or you may not get very far!
Paw Wax: For dogs who won’t tolerate booties, paw wax can serve the same purpose. The most well known brand is Musher’s Secret, but more become available each year. It will wear off over the coarse of a long walk, however, so may need to be reapplied periodically. These water-based or -soluble products won’t stain carpet or furniture when you get home (unlike petroleum based products like Vaseline). If your dog absolutely will not tolerate booties or paw wax, give their paws a quick rinse and wipe when you get home to remove any salt or sand.
Food:You may need to adjust your dog’s food in the winter. If your dog is less active because you are going on fewer walks OR if you are doing a lot of indoor training and your dog is getting more treats, you may need to reduce the food. If you are walking or doing other outdoor activities as normal, your dog may need more calories to maintain body heat in the cold and you may need to increase the food. Pay attention to their body weight and adjust accordingly.
Surfaces: We see a fair number of slip and fall injuries and muscle pulls when sidewalks and dog parks are slippery. Seniors, especially, may not have the strength they once did to catch themselves if they slip, so use caution on slippery surfaces!
What about cats?
Your indoor cat has nothing to worry about, and most indoor/outdoor cats have pretty good judgment and will choose to stay inside if it is too cold for them. However, it is not a bad idea to set up a winter shelter in case your indoor cat slips outside or your indoor/outdoor cat gets stuck outside. Be aware that these shelters can and will attract and be used by stray cats or other outdoor cats, which you may or may not want.
Instructions for building winter shelters for cats can be found here, here, and here.
It’s hard to believe now, but winter will almost be over. Let’s all hang in there together until then, and as always if you have questions you can call the clinic and ask.
Karen Christopherson DVM