Unless you love it outdoors in cold weather, chances are good that you don't walk your dog as much during the winter as you do during the summer. If you hesitate when facing a driveway and sidewalk that need the snow shoveled or blown off after a storm, it is pretty likely that you're not the sort of person to rush outside with Brutus or Bella on-leash. So add in reduced levels of physical activity, increased levels of vegging out inside the house, and nothing much to do besides snack and watch TV, and you're going to gain weight in the winter. So the same must be true for your dog, right? Well, not necessarily. Canine biology and metabolism are quite different from human biology and metabolism, and it behooves responsible dog owners to understand how cold weather can affect their furry family members.
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The Root of the Behavior
First off, let's talk diet. Humans and canines are optimized for completely different diets. While humans are generally omnivorous (can eat vegetable matter and meat) and dogs are too, canine bodies and metabolism are more geared to a high-protein diet, just like their wolf ancestors. Many breeds of dogs are physically built to chase and capture prey, and their skulls, jaws, and teeth indicate that they're preferential carnivores. Humans, however, are perfectly able to tolerate a mixed diet, a mostly-meat diet or a mostly-vegetable diet. While an exclusive meat or vegetarian diet might bring with it some health issues for a human, dogs can manage just fine with nothing but meat. Generally speaking, research indicates that dogs can tolerate carbohydrates, but that they don't really need any in their diet.
Activity levels are important, too. Obviously, dogs that are more active in the winter require a greater caloric intake than more sedentary dogs, assuming relatively equal body masses. In fact, if your dog is active in the summer but sedentary in the winter, he might be able to make do without any dietary changes. His need for more calories when it is cold can be balanced out by his reduced need for calories due to not being active. However, dogs who like the outdoors in the winter might need significantly increased calorie intake. The Utah Humane Society recommends that working dogs in winter conditions should receive as much as 15% additional calories for every 20-degree decrease in working temperature. In addition, they recommend including a small amount of animal fat or vegetable oil to your dog's diet during the winter months. Fat? What's that? Isn't a fatty diet unhealthy?
Well, that all depends. For humans, especially those humans with lower levels of physical activity (the sedentary, the elderly, the sick/handicapped), a high-fat diet can be hazardous. However, for dogs in the winter, especially working dogs in cold-weather environments, it is common to feed them a diet of over 7,000 calories a day. One paper published by the National Institutes of Health found that Alaskan racing sled dogs needed at least 9,000 calories a day just to maintain their weight during the training and racing season. Some professional sled racers simply add lard to their dogs' diets to meet that need for added fat calories.
Encouraging the Behavior
It is pretty unlikely that you'll need to add lard to your dog's winter diet, but you can help him out with a spoonful of olive or other healthy vegetable oil added daily or every other day. You can also help your dog by encouraging him to drink more in the winter. Dry winter air only becomes dryer once it is heated inside the home, and dogs and humans alike will lose water more rapidly in the winter simply by breathing; the dry air absorbs water from us as we breathe. One trick used by the aforementioned professional dogsled racers is to 'bait' water to make it more appealing to dogs. 'Baited' water is simply unseasoned, unsalted broth and it can be easily made in your kitchen with a stock pot, water, and meat bones. Simply bring water and bones to a boil in the pot, lower the heat to simmer for several hours and then remove all bones and let the stock cool. Taste the broth and dilute it until it isn't salty, and serve a portion to your dog while it is still warm. The stock will keep for three to five days in the refrigerator and can be frozen. If you like to serve your dog rice (some vets suggest adding rice to dog diets to aid digestion), consider using the stock to prepare the rice. The meaty smell should be enticing to him. Unless your vet recommends a specific variety of commercially-prepared both, avoid using them as some are very high in sodium. That said, many dogsledders swear by 'bait water' and some feed it as a meal to their dogs, providing each dog as much as one to one and one-half gallons a day.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Being in close quarters with humans all winter long can greatly increase a dog's chances of getting up close and personal with normally forbidden food. If Dad falls asleep on the couch with a bowl of popcorn while watching the big game, Ranger might just take it upon himself to stick his muzzle in that bowl and clean up, just as a courtesy. The kids might decide that watching Buster catch goldfish crackers on the fly is more fun than watching Finding Nemo one more time. And oh, hey, who dropped the turkey leg?
It is okay, in moderation, for your dog to enjoy some human food during the winter. A small amount of boiled, unbuttered vegetables mixed in with the evening kibble are perfectly all right and can aid digestion. Add a handful of chopped chicken or turkey and some boiled veggies to the dinnertime kibble bowl, and you might just have a canine hit. But always be on the lookout for signs of gastric distress from your dog.
Everyone in your family is likely to eat more and get less exercise in the winter, including your dog. And while dogs might love the idea of sharing what's on your plate and eating like the humans do, the fact is that dogs have some specific dietary needs that just aren't met by healthy human diets. However, all it takes is a little common sense and a few wise choices (and perhaps a bit of work in the kitchen) to address the issue for your dog. BONE appetite!