Ask the vet: Dogs in winter

Ask the vet

We bundle up in the cold months, protect our skin with moisturizer and tend to pack on a few extra pounds—but what about our canine companions? We posed several questions about keeping dogs safe and healthy in winter to Reid Groman, staff veterinarian at Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine. Here’s what he had to say:

Do dogs really need to wear sweaters or coats in the cold weather?
No—most dogs have adequate natural coats. However, shorthaired breeds may be more comfortable in the cold weather with a sweater. Admittedly, breeders of certain breeds are insistent on this for pet owners, but rational procedures (i.e. short leash walks on cold days, return home if your pet appears to be shivering) are sufficient. Some dogs, if not allowed to acclimate to their fashion accessories, will become very stressed by having their entire body covered suddenly, so let your dog get used to a sweater, scarf or boots if you’re going to go that route. Generally it’s only “necessary” to cover them from mid-chest to the base of their tail. Also, some pets will be reluctant to posture to urinate/defecate when they have clothes on.

How important is hydration in the winter?
Adequate hydration is always a priority. If dogs are predominantly kept outside in the cold, they must have access to adequate water (not snow and ice) and it is easy enough to purchase a water bowl heater to prevent freezing. Be sure the bowl cannot be easily knocked over.

Can salt on icy sidewalks hurt dogs?
The salt can be irritating and potentially predispose dogs to drying out or cracking of their foot pads. Cracking of pads is not common but if it occurs, pet owners should check with their veterinarian, and in the interim can apply a thin film of petroleum (Vaseline) to affected areas. Generally, it’s a good idea to keep the hair between toes trimmed. This hair can accumulate “ice balls” that can lead to irritation and potentially frostbite. Promptly dry off feet when your pet comes home. Ideally, pet owners should use ice melting compounds that are pet/child/environmentally friendly. Pet centers sell dog booties that again, are not mandatory (and not at all necessary for Arctic breeds!) but may limit any irritation and make the owner feel better about taking their pets out.

Are dogs (like many people) less active in cold weather and more likely to gain weight?
Many people are less likely to walk their dogs in the winter, but most dogs are more than willing to exercise in cold weather. Dogs housed outdoors that participate in strenuous activity will need additional food in cold weather. Indoor dogs that exercise less frequently because it’s cold probably need less food. It varies from pet to pet, breed to breed.

Our skin often gets dry in the winter. Does this happen to dogs?
Anecdotally (i.e., no hard evidence) fatty acid supplementation to diets may help prevent dry skin, and myriad supplements are on the market. Again, this is not based on hard literature, but is a common and may be a legitimate recommendation.

Any other cold weather tips?
Puppies and older/debilitated dogs are most susceptible to cold-induced injuries. Though not common, dogs can and do get frostbite. Be sure to clean up any antifreeze spills. Even a tiny amount of some antifreeze products can kill a dog. Clean and dry feet and belly when dogs come inside. Pets should never be left outside when it’s below freezing. Short walks are, of course, okay. Don’t leave dogs in the car in the freezing weather. Many animals that get out of the house or run away cannot use scent to find their way back home when the ground is covered with ice.
As such, take your dog only on leash walks and make sure your pet has an ID tag and ideally a rabies tag, too! Many states mandate that dogs that are kept outside in the cold weather have an elevated dog house, soft dry bedding and a flap or “doggie door” to protect them from frostbite or similar catastrophes. I endorse this.

Originally published February 1, 2007.

Originally published on February 1, 2007