Winter safety tips

The outdoors are often some of the best enrichment spaces for our dogs, providing endless sources for new smells, textures, sights and sounds. While some dogs love being outdoors regardless of the weather, winter (and the cold, snow and ice it brings) pose potential hazards to dogs.  

Even though some dogs tolerate the chilly temperatures better than others, every dog (and human) is susceptible to the cold. For this reason, you must be aware of your dog’s behaviors while out in cold weather and adjust their exposure time accordingly.   

Who is most at risk in cold weather? 

A dog’s cold tolerance will vary depending on age, size, nutritional status, health and coat thickness, but here are some general guidelines: 

  • Small-sized dogs have a harder time staying warm compared to larger breeds.  

  • Puppies cannot properly regulate their body temperature and have very little body fat, making them more susceptible to the cold.   

  • Short and thinly-coated breeds will not tolerate the cold as well as thick, double-coats, such as Siberian Huskies and Malamutes. 

  • Older animals, underweight animals or those with other medical conditions may have difficulty staying warm or regulating their body temperature in the cold.  

Regardless of the variables mentioned above, dogs not already conditioned for cold temperatures (i.e., coming from a warmer climate or exposed to a sudden cold snap) will be less prepared to handle the arrival of cold weather. 

What are signs that a dog is not tolerating the cold? 

If it is too cold for you, it is likely too cold for your dog. Move your dog into a warm and dry area if you notice any of the following signs: 

  • Shivering 

  • Whining or barking  

  • Tail tucking or hunched posture 

  • Lifting paws off the ground 

  • Reluctance to walk 

  • Suddenly anxious behavior 

What are the risks of prolonged cold exposure? 

Prolonged exposure to the cold can lead to frostbite or life-threatening hypothermia. Frostbite is harder to detect initially, and it may take a few days to determine the extent of the damage. Ears, paws and tail tips are most commonly affected.  

If you are concerned your dog is experiencing frostbite or hypothermia, they should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.  

Consider the following strategies to keep your dog safe during cold weather:  

Keep dogs indoors 

When the temperatures are too cold, dogs should not be left outside for long periods of time. Prolonged time in the cold can put dogs at risk for frostbite or even hypothermia, which may be life-threatening.  

While it is generally not recommended, if a dog lives primarily outdoors, they must have prior acclimation to the cold, be a double-coated breed, have access to fresh and non-frozen water, and have an insulated enclosure — protected from the wind, with dry bedding elevated off the ground.   

Bundle up 

Especially for smaller breeds, older dogs or those with a thin coat, a jacket or sweater will help keep them warm in the winter. Some jackets that cover most of the body will help deter snowball accumulation on the belly and chest, especially for smaller breed dogs whose bodies are closer to the ground.  

Avoid shaving or clipping your dog’s hair or fur too short in the winter. But a little strategic clipping, such as around their hind end, may help prevent snowball accumulation. 

Check paws frequently 

Paws can get cracks or cuts from ice and salt on the roads. Applying certain balms or petroleum jelly to paw pads may help prevent and alleviate cracking paw pads. Dogs also may accumulate snowballs between their toes, which may be uncomfortable. Wipe or wash paws to remove salt, de-icers or snowballs after returning inside.  

Alternatively, you can train your dog to wear well-fitting booties to protect their paws.  

Monitor your dog’s mobility 

Dogs with arthritis often have trouble in cold weather due to increased instability when walking on slippery ice or snowy surfaces. Well-fitting booties and strategically shoveling out areas in the yard may help with balance to avoid slips or falls.  

Consult your veterinarian and schedule a check-up if you are concerned with your dog’s arthritis and mobility.  

Prevent access to poisonous products 

Salt and other de-icers used on the roads can irritate paws, and if ingested, cause ulcerations or irritation to the mouth and digestive tract.  

Antifreeze products containing ethylene glycol can be deadly to pets. Immediately clean up any known spills around a vehicle to prevent accidental ingestion. If accidental ingestion occurs, seek veterinary care immediately.  

Whenever possible, use pet-friendly de-icers or antifreeze products. Wipe down your dog's paws, legs and belly after walks in the winter to remove any potential chemicals they may have picked up from walking along the road.  

Never leave a dog unattended in a car 

Similar to when the weather is warm, dogs should not be left in a car alone when the weather is cold. The ambient temperature in the car can get much colder and become like a refrigerator. 

Avoid walking on frozen bodies of water 

Use extreme caution around frozen ponds or lakes. Do not walk dogs on frozen bodies of water to avoid the risk of falling in through weak ice that can’t support their weight.  

Monitor your dog’s weight 

Dogs that love the cold and snow and choose to spend lots of time outside will have higher energy requirements. However, many other dogs will get less exercise in the winter and may need their calories reduced to avoid weight gain.  

Wear reflective gear on walks in the dark 

With shorter days in the winter, morning and evening dog walks are often done in the dark. Wear something reflective and carry a flashlight to illuminate you and your dog to drivers.  

If your dog pulls on leashes, consider switching to a front-clipping harness and avoid using expandable leashes to prevent accidental slips on ice. Consult your veterinarian or an experienced positive-reinforcement trainer for more direct help with leash-pulling behavior.  

Microchip your dog 

If a dog accidentally gets out of the house or becomes lost, the snow can cover up recognizable scents that would normally help guide them back home. Having your dog microchipped with your up-to-date information and wearing a well-fitting identification tag and collar will help ensure their safe return home. 

Plan ahead in case of severe weather 

Prepare by stocking enough food and water for several days or more, especially if expecting a significant snowstorm. If your dog is on any medications that might run out, call your veterinary office for refills ahead of time.