Keep Your Dog Warm This Winter

By Susan McCullough

Keep Your Dog Warm This Winter

Upstate New York is not known for having mild winters. Most years, the period from November through March brings several feet of snow to the area, and temperatures can drop below zero. Such conditions don’t bother Vernon, N.Y. veterinarian Deb Eldredge and her canine companions though. “My dogs do fine running outside for short periods of time even when it’s below zero,” says Dr. Eldredge. “And they love to go cross-country skiing with me.”

But even winter-loving dogs need extra protection from the elements. Here’s what Dr. Eldredge and other experts suggest you should do -- and not do -- to keep your dog warm and healthy this winter.

Consider a coat Although almost all dogs come with fur coats, those coats may not be enough to protect some breeds from the effects of wind, precipitation and low temperatures. For these dogs, a store bought coat may be necessary. “Think of the very short-coated dogs, especially those with low body fat, such as Whippets and Greyhounds,” says Dr. Eldredge, co-author of Dog Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook (Wiley, 2007). “And many toy breeds have such a close body-surface-to-weight ratio that they can be chilled easily as well.” If you decide to get a coat for your dog, be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions to determine what size to purchase.

Think twice about footwear Dogs do get cold feet, but many won’t tolerate wearing booties to keep their paws warm. If you want your dog to accept footwear, Dr. Eldredge recommends using positive training techniques. “Put one bootie on, give a treat, then take it off,” she suggests. Repeat that for a couple of days, and then try putting booties on two paws, three paws and, finally, all four paws.

Ramp up grooming Keeping your dog’s coat well brushed and paw fur trimmed can make a big difference during winter. “Dogs whose coats get matted will have a harder time drying out after being out in snow and cold rain,” explains Dr. Eldredge. “And we trim our dogs’ feet, which may make them get cold a bit faster, but it reduces the amount of ice, snow and mud caught in the pad hair.”

Watch for frostbite Human beings aren’t the only individuals who can get frostbite; dogs can too. “The most common areas for frostbite are the ear tips, tail tips -- especially if the tail is relatively hairless -- and toes,” says Dr. Eldredge. “The affected area will feel cold, may look white when you check the skin, and eventually will feel hard and dry. If you suspect frostbite, you need to contact your veterinarian right away.”

Don’t change the diet Contrary to popular opinion, “the average dog does not need a diet change for winter,” says Dr. Eldredge. “They really aren’t outside that much.”  Exceptions would be working sled dogs, which need to eat more food during the winter. Other dogs should stay on their regular regimens so that they don’t gain weight.

Move the action indoors When the outside temperature is bone chilling, it’s prudent to play indoor games with your dog to give it the mental and physical workout it needs. Experts suggest basic games like fetch and tug-of-war for physical exercise, and activities like hide-and-seek and find-the-toy to offer mental challenges.

Don't skimp too much on heat Good energy conservation demands that we turn down our thermostats when we're not at home during the winter. But don't turn it down so low that your home-alone dog starts to shiver. Keeping the thermostat at around 65 degrees Fahrenheit will keep your four-legged friend comfortable while still holding down your heating bills. For arthritic and older dogs, consider purchasing a heated dog bed. Such beds can bring warmth and comfort while also helping to ease stiff joints. 

Use common sense Unless your dog pulls a sled during the winter, it doesn’t need to spend a whole lot of time outdoors. A good rule to follow is if you’re bundled up against the elements and starting to feel uncomfortably cold, your dog probably feels that way too.

Susan McCullough is an award-winning pet writer and the author of Housetraining for Dummies, Senior Dogs for Dummies and Beagles for Dummies. She was also honored by The Cat Writers Association as a finalist for the Muse Medallion, which recognizes excellence in writing about cats.

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