How cold is too cold?

Every Winter, particularly during a cold spell, I am asked by owners “At what temperature is it too cold for my pet to ____?” The subject is usually going on a long walk, letting the cat into the yard, etc. We all love our pets and we want to keep them safe and healthy, and this question can cause some anxiety for pet owners.

There’s no one temperature that can be stated as an across-the-board rule, but here’s the factors to consider:

Breed
I have several patients who are Siberian Huskies. When it’s cold, they don’t want to come in – at all!! They were born for this weather, and thrive in the cold. I have one client whose dog wails (like huskies do!) when they cruelly “force” her to come inside for the night. (Granted, in the summer, these are the same dogs who refuse to spend more than 1 second outside than it takes to potty and be done.)

Other larger breed fluffy dogs enjoy the cold as well. My lab/chow mix would lay in the snow for an hour, refusing to come in no matter what treat I bribed him with. If your dog is thrilled, let her have her moment! Usually after about 30 minutes of lounging, I’ll say it’s time to come in.

The dogs not built for cold are the small breeds: malteses, chihuahuas, yorkies. Yes, they can still go on their walks, but I’d suggest a sweater or jacket (even INSIDE!)  if it gets below 40 or so. Here’s my article on why small dogs don’t stay warm very well.

Wet or dry?
Dampness trumps temperature every time! A 35 degree rain is worse than a 15 degree sunny day. Being wet, or even damp, just sucks the heat right out of a living being. This applies to what’s on the ground too. Dogs’ paws can do a walk in sunny 20 degrees, but a walk in 20 degrees and slush or snow on the ground is so much harder on the feet. Some dogs may limp when their feet get extremely cold. If that happens, note the temperature and what was on the ground, so you know not to go very far next time. On a similar note, if your cat loves to hang out in the yard, limit the time outside more when there is snow on the ground (most cats will say no thanks regardless!).

Wind chill
This is one that most people think about first. Wind chill is how it feels, which factors in temperature, wind, and moisture. I’ll look at that before “regular” temperature any day!

dog laying in snowType of haircoat
This isn’t about long or short hair. Huskies don’t have long hair, but it is super dense. Malteses have very long hair, but it is thin, lacks an undercoat, and offers no warmth whatsoever. The pit bulls and boxers just have nothing really to even work with!

The consistency of the coat, and what sticks to it, is key. If you have a pit mix, snow will only stick to the feet, and you have an easy clean up. Goldens or poodles, for instance, with their super furry feet, can collect amazing amounts of snow and ice between their paw pads. Small fluffy dogs can build up snow on their entire undercarriage. The snow sticking to them while they’re out won’t necessarily make them cold, like you would think. It’s when they come in, and the snow melts. We now have a wet dog or cat (some of these long haired cats are like snow collection systems!) that is cold, inside the house! Remember, wetness beats temperature every time. So make sure, regardless of outside temperature, you get the snow off and dry your pet very well when they come in. I’m a fan of sweaters for this reason as well – take off the snow-covered sweater, and you’ve got instant dry dog underneath.

Extreme weather is relative!
Of course, when the temps are polar-vortex low, then yes, keep your pet inside. But for normal winter days, there is a lot of variability among pets, and what they are used to. I’ll never forget when we were in Florida in January. The temperature was going to dip down to 40 that night (near record breaking for them), and the meteorologist on TV said to bring your pets inside. From our perspective, that’s hilarious. My sister in Minneapolis goes for long walks with her dogs when it warms up to 40, sometimes with her  kids in shorts! The point? Pets (and people ) acclimate to their surroundings. Here in the Midwest, we get vast temperature swings that don’t allow for much acclimation. Yet, your dog will tolerate the cold much better in February than she did in November, simply because her body has acclimated (somewhat) to winter….just in time for summer!

Body condition and general health

dachshund in sweater

The Pepperman models a manly sweater

Is your pet older? Thin? Fighting a chronic illness? She will become cold much sooner than the younger, healthy, chubby version of herself. We all know body fat is insulating, so overweight pets will feel warmer longer in cold weather. And no, this is not a license to let your get be overweight under the pretense of “staying warm.” Nice try. I’m focusing on the other end of the spectrum – skinny, short-haired dogs of any size or breed may benefit from a sweater or jacket in sub-freezing weather.

Know your pet – and the activity
If your dog loves to lay in the snow, let him have his moment! If she wants to go for her walk, by all means! Just watch closely, and if you aren’t sure, don’t walk too far from the house, in case she gives you a signal like licking her feet, limping, or walking slower. Unfortunately, dogs want to please us, (and many looooove walks) so they might be freezing, but will never let on. You’re the parent. Also, if your dog is geriatric and has dementia, they might lie in the snow and not realize they are cold. Remember that exercise, like walking or playing ball, will cause your dog to feel very warm, while laying still on a surface like snow or concrete will suck the heat right out of them. Pets that have other illnesses or are underweight cannot handle cold temperatures at all, so take special care to not let them linger. Sunny, dry, but cold, is much more tolerable than cloudy, damp, and less cold. If you’re in doubt, shorten the walk from 30 minutes into two separate 10-15 minute walks.

So no, there is no across-the-board rule about when it’s too cold to let your pet play in the yard, go for a walk, etc. Follow these common sense guidelines and learn what works for your particular dog.

Posted in General health.

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