Pets: Ask Dr. Kev

Is it safe to send my pet out in the cold?

Photo by Sveta Golovina on Unsplash

I worry about my dog being outside in the winter. Should I be concerned about hypothermia?
“In a word, yes. Most people are familiar with the dangers of summer weather—leaving dogs in hot cars, for example. Owners aren’t usually as knowledgeable about how to protect their dogs from the cold. Several factors determine a dog’s tolerance for winter weather. Thick-coated breeds like Siberian huskies, malamutes, Bernese mountain dogs, and Great Pyrenees tend to do better, while dogs with short, thin coats like boxers, greyhounds, pit bull terriers, and short-haired dachshunds are more at risk. Small dogs and toy breeds are more susceptible to hypothermia, as smaller animals have a larger surface area-to-mass ratio and lose body heat faster than large dogs. Small dogs are also in more contact with the snow—it can reach their chests and abdomens, leaving them colder and wetter. Thinner dogs don’t retain heat as well as heavy ones. Neither do puppies, older dogs, and sick dogs. Cold weather can also aggravate underlying medical conditions. Like people, dogs with arthritis struggle much more in the winter. Some upper respiratory conditions are also intensified by exposure to cold air. Flat-faced dogs like pugs and English bulldogs can particularly struggle with inhaling cold air. Whether your dog is at risk really depends on whether he or she falls into one of these groups.”

What can I do to protect my pets when it’s cold?
“The best advice, overall, is to pay attention to the weather. Is freezing rain coming down? Is there a wind chill? Is it snowing? You should start thinking about cold weather safety when the outside temperature hits about 40° F. If it’s below 32° F, you should drastically shorten walks and outdoor playtime. When the air is below freezing, ears, tails, and feet can become frostbitten even in the larger, more cold-tolerant breeds. If the temperature is below 20° F, outside time should be very limited. A few things owners rarely think about: The warm engine block of a recently driven car is especially attractive to cats. Sometimes they climb up inside cars to raise their body temperature. Never turn on your car without tapping on the hood first and making sure no one’s in there. Also, check pets’ feet when they come back inside, as ice balls can accumulate between the paw pads and toes. And be wary of using deicers and antifreeze outside where your pets might ingest these deadly chemicals. Finally, no dog should be left chained outside in the cold for any length of time. If you see this happening, politely tell the owner that you’re concerned. If this doesn’t work, report it. Our state has statutes protecting dogs from wintertime neglect.”

Kevin T. Fitzgerald, PhD, DVM
Staff veterinarian at the VCA Alameda
East Veterinary Hospital