Winter is no wonderland for dogs

Owners must take precautions to ensure pets' health during cold months

Posted: Sunday, November 02, 2003

Winter in Alaska can present some important health hazards to dogs, and special considerations often must be taken to protect companion animals from cold weather injuries and ailments.

Some breeds are better suited to tolerate the cold than others. Siberian huskies, malamutes and German shepherds are relatively common and these breeds acclimate to the cold weather by developing thicker, heavier coats as the mercury drops.

However, some dogs are not as well-equipped to handle the cold weather. This does not mean that these breeds can't thrive and enjoy the winter weather, but some dogs just require special care during this time of year.

Hypothermia and frostbite can occur in some dogs within minutes in below freezing temperatures. The best prevention is to never allow pets to remain outdoors for extended periods during temperatures that are near or below freezing.

Signs of hypothermia include mental dullness, severe mental depression or unresponsiveness and loss of consciousness in extreme cases.

Frostbite in dogs occurs most frequently on the tips of the ears, tail, feet and genitals in males and nipples in lactating famales.

Some breeds with low body fat or thin coats, such as whippets and greyhounds, are very susceptible to cold weather hazards. Basset hounds, weimaraners and other floppy-eared dogs can be quite prone to frostbite of their ears.

Many small breeds such, as Boston terriers, dachshunds and Chihuahuas, are also not as well equipped to handle drastic changes in temperature.

Signs of frostbite may include swollen or pinkish skin, which often will turn white to gray. Skin may seem to improve at first but blister or slough days afterwards.

If frostbite is suspected, keep the area dry and warm and bring the animal to the veterinarian right away. Once areas sustain frostbite they become even more susceptible to the cold.

Pets, like people, also can develop upper respiratory infections and other illnesses more easily in winter. Dogs under four months of age can't regulate their own body temperature and should always be brought indoors during cold weather. Remember that wind chill can make temperatures even lower than predicted.

If a dog must remain outdoors in cold weather, some basic husbandry criteria must be met.

Provide heated housing (preferably) or insulated housing that is small enough for your pet's body heat to keep it warm. Putting your pet in an unheated garage or basement is not adequate shelter.

Outside doghouses should face away from the direction of the wind. Ample bedding should be present to keep your pet off the cold ground.

Bedding can be made of cloth or straw, but should be changed often to keep it dry and clean, and to be certain that it keeps its loft which is how it maintains the ability to insulate.

Fresh, not frozen, water must be available at all times to prevent dehydration, which can accelerate hypothermia and frostbite.

Snow is not an adequate water source since it requires more body heat to digest and can cause further dehydration.

Pets generate body heat by burning calories from food. Fat is a key ingredient in producing heat. It is important to feed a high calorie diet, such as those provided by premium brands of pet food.

Feeding low priced, generic dog foods often can lead to inadequate body heat production in your dog as a result of the low calories these diets offer.

Bringing your pet indoors is the best way to prevent any problems, but even keeping your pet indoors requires some special care.

Tiled and uncarpeted areas can become extremely cold. Blankets, pads and insulated beds should be used to reduce loss of body heat. Keep pets away from drafty areas of the house.

Some small, short-haired breeds may require a sweater for extra warmth and medium to longhaired dogs will need regular grooming to ensure their coat provides good insulation.

Take special precautions when using heat sources such as electric blankets, portable heaters and even fireplaces that could potentially burn your dog.

Pets should not be left alone in vehicles. It can get too cold too quickly and leaving the engine running can be dangerous.

Pets, like people, also need to have adequate supplies in the vehicle in case of an emergency breakdown. Leave a few fleece blankets in the trunk and bring plastic containers with food.

It is an eventuality that dogs will need to go outside to relieve themselves and for play. Some dogs should be allowed to wear warm sweaters and even coats outside. More than one layer may be required, and the system is very similar to what a person would wear.

The layer closest to the body should be a thin fleece or wool material to provide insulation and wick moisture away from the body.

Outer layers can be thicker and should provide more of a shell, preventing water and moisture from getting in, but breathable enough to allow water molecules and heat leaving the body to escape.

Take off wet layers immediately upon returning indoors and towel or blow-dry your dog if they are still wet from the rain or snow.

Booties are great for keeping your dog's feet dry and warm. Several styles are available that can be made of Polypropylene, Cordura, fleece, leather and Gortex. Selecting the right one depends on your specific needs. Comfort, durability, ability to repel water and type of fastener (how the bootie is held on the dog's foot) are other important considerations when shopping for booties.

Some dogs will be problematic when wearing their booties for the first few times. Be patient and give them lots of positive reinforcement. Dogs that refuse booties run the risk of frostbite to their footpads.

Rock salt, which is commonly used in winter, can cause irritation or tiny cuts and cracks to their pads as well. Some small dogs can even become frozen or stuck to icy areas and injure themselves while trying to break free.

Clean and dry your pet's pads as soon as you're back indoors. A little petroleum jelly applied to the pads can further reduce cracking.

Walking your dog on a leash is a good idea at any time of year, but this is especially true during winter.

Snow can obscure where the yard or sidewalk ends and the street begins. A dog may unknowingly run into the road or oncoming traffic because they can't clearly define their usual boundaries.

Walking a dog on a leash also can cut down on injuries related to slips and falls on ice. Although playing in the snow is a blast, playing on ice can lead to injuries resulting in torn ligaments, broken bones and hurt backs.

Be wary of icy river embankments and slopes leading to water, and if dogs do venture onto frozen ponds, pay special attention to thin ice hazards.

Winter becomes a difficult time for many predators as well, which can increase their interactions with companion animals. Eagles and owls swoop down and fly away with small dogs every year in Alaska. Keeping pets on leashes and staying observant while walking them can help prevent this unfortunate scenario.

Coyotes may attempt to prey on small pets more frequently during the harsh winter months. Homes close to forests and undeveloped land are more prone to visits from coyotes, foxes and, in some cases, even bear early in the winter season.

Cold weather months are a time to pay special attention to avoiding antifreeze. During the winter, antifreeze can be found in excess in driveways and on roads. It smells and tastes good to your pet but is lethal if swallowed, even in small amounts.

Winter can be a wonderful and beautiful time of year for pets and their care givers, and responsible pet owners should take the necessary steps to provide proper care to their dogs during this challenging time of year.

Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. He has worked with wildlife and domestic animals for more than 10 years as a veterinary technician, a zoo keeper, and most recently as a zoologist for the Wildlife Conservation Soc-iety. He welcomes any pet-related questions or story ideas, but please none of a veterinary nature. Ideas and questions can be sent to his attention by e-mail at

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