A dog sitting in a dog house outside.

Debarking Pet Myths: Do Dogs Need Coats in the Winter?

Welcome to “Debarking Pet Myths,” a monthly series dedicated to addressing common myths, misconceptions and old wives’ tales about dogs and cats.

When the cold winter winds howl, do you ever wish for a thick fur coat like some dogs have? It’s not uncommon for people to believe this month’s myth:

Dogs can tolerate cold weather because of their fur (False — Sometimes, dogs need coats)

Do dogs need coats? Yes, at least sometimes. The reality is, even with conditioning, it can get too cold for dogs to spend long periods of time outside without proper shelter and nutrition.

Cold tolerance varies, which is why sometimes a dog winter coat is necessary

Just like with people, dogs’ cold tolerance can vary from pet to pet based on their coat density, age, nutritional status, amount of body fat, activity level and health. Northern and mountain breeds with a thick undercoat tend to do best: Siberian huskies, Samoyeds, Alaskan malamutes, Great Pyrenees, Icelandic sheepdogs, Newfoundlands and others. But even members of these breeds need to acclimate to cold weather and are at risk during subzero temperatures.

In a blog post for petMD.com, Jennifer Coates, DVM, noted that temperatures shouldn’t be a problem for most dogs until they fall below 45 degrees Fahrenheit, when some cold-averse dogs might start feeling uncomfortable. Owners of small-breed dogs, thin-coated dogs and very young, old or sick dogs should watch their pets carefully for cold-associated health issues when temperatures dip below freezing (32 degrees Fahrenheit). Once temperatures fall below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, all owners should be aware that their dogs could develop weather-related problems such as frostbite and hypothermia.

But what about dogs who live in those areas of the country where winters can be brutally cold?

Sometimes you need to pack your dog’s winter coat

As beautiful as a dog’s coat may be, fur isn’t a perfect insulator, especially when it’s very cold. Regardless of breed, even thick- and double-coated dogs are vulnerable to cold-weather health threats such as frostbite and hypothermia.

Most frostbite danger occurs when the temperature or wind chill are near or below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Prolonged exposure to the cold results in severe tissue damage in a dog’s extremities such as the ear tips, paws or tail.

Hypothermia occurs when a dog’s body temperature falls below normal. (Normal temperature for dogs is 100.5 to 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit.) The most common cause is prolonged exposure to extreme cold temperatures.

In very cold weather, a majority of dogs — even huskies and malamutes — need your help to avoid these health threats.

In addition to a dog winter coat, shelter is important

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, dogs should be kept inside during cold weather and especially during extreme cold. But if you can’t keep your dog inside, he or she needs an insulated, dry shelter that’s positioned away from prevailing winds. An appropriate dog house should be just large enough so your dog can stand up, turn around and lie down comfortably. The shelter’s floor should be off of the ground to minimize heat loss and bedding should be thick, dry and changed often. Clean, dry straw works better than towels, blankets or rugs which can absorb moisture and freeze in subzero temperatures.

Some state laws specify the type of shelter dog owners must provide if they keep their dogs outside during dangerously cold (or hot) weather. Other states, such as Pennsylvania, have legislated how long you can have your dog outside during extreme weather. You’ll want to be aware of and comply with any state or local regulations.

Talk with your veterinarian about feeding your outdoor dog

Finally, dogs who spend substantial time outdoors during cold weather will need more calories so they can produce enough body heat to keep warm. Calories may need to be increased by as much as 30 percent, depending on your dog, their activity level, housing and outdoor temperatures. And don’t forget to provide fresh, unfrozen water at all times. If you have any questions or concerns about your dog’s nutritional needs during winter months, be sure to talk with your veterinarian.

An interior graphic with text that reads, 'Debarking Pet Myths: Dogs can tolerate cold weather because of their fur — Sometimes True'.

RELATED POST: Does Winter Weather Change My Pet’s Nutrition?

The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.


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