In some parts of the nation, the arrival of winter brings with it ice, snow, and freezing temperatures. When the mercury drops, us humans are quick to head inside, turn up the thermostat, and snuggle up on the couch. Many of us invite our dogs to join us on the couch to cuddle away the winter chill, but not all canines are so lucky.
Thousands of pooches still spend most of their time in backyards, even in the depths of winter when we wouldn't even think about going outside without several layers of extra clothing.
So, can dogs live in cold weather and how much cold weather is too much for a dog to take? Let's take a closer look.
Signs Your Dog is Cold
It's essential for every dog owner to recognize the warning signs of a dog struggling with the cold, even if you don't live in a part of the country known for its freezing conditions. There are several important warning signs to keep an eye out for, so make sure you monitor your dog closely whenever things get a little chilly.
The most obvious sign your dog is feeling the cold is if they're shivering, trembling, or shaking. This is the body's way of trying to generate heat, and a shivering dog is one that needs to be moved somewhere warm and dry as quickly as possible.
Lethargy, general weakness, or a dog that's sleeping more than usual are also warning signs that shouldn't be ignored. The latter could be an indication of hypothermia, which requires urgent veterinary attention, while the pain of arthritis can also be more pronounced in cold weather and dogs may be slow or reluctant to get moving.
Other signs your dog is cold include whining or whimpering, curling up into a ball, and hiding or trying to seek out shelter wherever possible.
One simple way to check your dog's temperature is to feel their ears. If they're cold, especially around the edges, this shows that your dog's body is trying to keep warm. When this is the case, get them inside as soon as possible so they can get back to a normal temperature.
History of Dogs and Cold Weather
The fact that dogs are descended from wolves has influenced much of our thinking about the health and welfare of our furry friends over the years. The earliest dogs, domesticated around 15,000 years ago, would no doubt have been accustomed to dealing with harsh conditions and finding shelter from the cold, and moving closer to human campsites would not only have provided access to a source of food but also the warmth from our campfires on freezing nights.
For much of our history together, dogs have also been largely viewed as working animals such as hunters or guardians. As a result, they were kept with other animals in barns and sheds, or simply outside — but rarely did they spend the night in the family home.
It was only really in the second half of the 20th century that pet dogs started to make the move out of urban and suburban backyards and into our homes. As our knowledge of canine health and wellbeing has developed, it's become obvious that asking our dogs to sleep out in the cold can sometimes be cruel and also dangerous.
Dogs also play more important roles in our lives than ever before — rather than occasional playthings to be left in the backyard and forgotten about, they're our constant companions and an integral part of the family. With this in mind, it's no surprise that dogs are increasingly being welcomed inside and out of the cold.
The Science of Dogs Feeling the Cold
There are no hard and fast rules around how much cold weather is too much for your dog. This is simply due to the fact that there are myriad factors that can affect how well your dog can cope with the frosty winter weather.
The most obvious of those variables is your dog's coat. Canines with thick, double layered coats are obviously going to be much better prepared for a romp in the snow than a short-haired dog with a thin covering of fur.
Next on the list is size, as big dogs generally have less surface area relative to their volume than small dogs, while body fat can also help keep the winter chill at bay.
Your dog's overall age and health status can also play a part, as puppies, older dogs, and sick dogs simply aren't as efficient at regulating their own body temperatures. Other health issues can have an influence as well, for example, older dogs struggling more with aching arthritic joints in winter.
Finally, there's the all-important variable of acclimation to consider. If your dog is used to winter walks in Minnesota, for example, they'll be much more acclimated to the cold than a pooch that as only ever experienced California winters.
Thanks to researchers at Tokyo's Yamazaki Gakuen University, we also know that dogs have specialized circulation systems in their paws that essentially warm up their blood. This allows them to walk on snow and ice for long periods without appearing to show any discomfort.
Caring For Your Dog in Winter
How much cold weather a dog can handle varies from one pet to the next, but there's one factor that's a constant across all dogs: the safest place for your dog to spend those cold winter nights is inside with you. This doesn't necessarily mean they have to share your bed, of course, but even finding your pet a warm, sheltered spot in the laundry can be crucial to help them survive those long, cold nights.
Young pups and older dogs are also more susceptible to the cold, and so may need extra-special care and attention when the mercury drops. And if the temperature ever reaches zero, no dog should ever be left outside.
The final piece of advice is to remember a few, simple winter-care tips. Know the warning signs that can indicate whether your pooch is struggling with the cold, keep your pet away from antifreeze, and make sure your dog is in a healthy weight range all year long.
By a Labrador Retriever lover Tim Falk
Published: 02/28/2018, edited: 04/06/2020