Dogs have built-in coats, so it might be easy to assume that they’re already equipped for cold weather. But if you look at a dog’s natural coat in the same way you look at a human’s choice of coat, it’s easy to see that some are good for colder temperatures and some, well, they’re pretty to look at.
When it comes down to it, even the thickest, most luxurious fur won’t protect a dog from certain temperatures. It might seem counterintuitive to knit your husky a sweater, but domesticated dogs simply aren’t built to survive unaided in the harshest environments.
So does your dog need a winter coat? Maybe. There’s a lot to it.
Environment is important
“Cold” is relative. Winter in Florida is vastly different than winter (or fall, or spring) in Minnesota. If you’re used to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, you might bundle up the second the thermometer drops below 45 degrees. Dogs are no different, and they might even be more susceptible to temperature changes because they’re in direct contact with the ground. Ever shudder at the thought of a cold tile floor on your bare feet in the morning? Now imagine twice as many feet, and outside where the elements are less controllable.
It’s generally agreed that once temperatures fall below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, no dog should be out in the elements for very long without protection. Dogs with thicker, heartier coats (huskies, St. Bernards, etc.) will likely be okay for longer periods, but dogs with thin coats, like greyhounds and Weimaraners, might need to be bundled up even for quick trips. Every dog, however, is at risk of frostbite or even hypothermia if left in those temperatures for very long.
Weather is more than temperature
Keep in mind that there’s more to weather than just the thermometer reading. Wind can slice through even the thickest fur coat, exponentially effecting a static temperature. For dogs with thin fur, “wind chill” takes on a whole new meaning.
Moisture, either due to rain and snow or just wet ground, can be the most dangerous thing of all when the temperature drops below freezing, or 32 degrees Fahrenheit. With prolonged exposure to freezing temperatures, direct contact with moisture on the skin can quickly lead to frostbite, so watch those paws.
When deciding just how cold is too cold for your dog, every element should be taken into account. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), when air temperature is 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the wind speed is 35 mph, and humidity levels are above 50 percent, the effect on exposed skin is as if the air temperature were in the 20s. Which is to say that you can’t judge “safety” by temperature alone.
Consider more than the fur coat
There are other things to consider before exposing your pet to the elements. In addition to the robustness of their coat, you should consider size of the dog, age, and overall health. Smaller dogs are more likely to get cold earlier that larger dogs. Old dogs and puppies — much like senior citizens and babies — likely need more protection than those in the “prime” of their lives. Health and physical fitness play roles as well. Dogs with weaker immune system, for instance, don’t need more stress on their bodies, so make sure they’re protected.
What kind of protection?
There are dozens of coats for pets out there. Some are essentially blankets that are made for dogs, while some are more functional, with pockets, reflective surfaces, etc. You’ll have to decide what’s right for your dog, but here are some important things to consider:
- Fit — Make sure it’s snug on your dog but doesn’t restrict movement. Measure your dog’s length, width and chest size to assure a proper fit.
- Material — Some materials are better suited for some environments, so make sure yours is compatible. For instance, if your dog is out in wet conditions a lot, waterproofing is a must. Some dog coats have a temperature rating, so if you’re looking at walks in extremely cold conditions, ensure the coat is suitable for the job.
- Ease of use — You don’t want the coat to be a hassle, so make sure you find one that is easy to get on and off. This becomes vital if you have a dog who doesn’t move well or if you have a fidgety dog that moves too well.
Also consider boots. If you’re in a place where you don’t control the use of snowmelt (always use pet-safe deicers!), your dog might need foot protection. Some deicers can cause chemical burns to foot pads and can be poisonous if your dog decides to lick them off, so booties can kill two birds with one, er, boot. If your dog has furry feet, snow and ice can accumulate between the toes or in the “rooster tails” on the ankles, so even dogs with thicker coats can benefit from boots.
You know your dog
In the end, you know your dog, so you’re the best judge of their comfort. If your dog seems to be having trouble with the cold, it may simply be best to head inside. If you are seeing physical signs of struggle, it could be the onset of hypothermia. Here’s how to tell, according to Dr. Jerry Klein, chief veterinary officer of the American Kennel Club.
- Cold ears and feet
- Rapid breathing
- Increase in urination
- Hair standing on ends
If you see any of these signs, get inside quickly, wrap your dog in a warm towel and call your vet immediately.
Some dogs are simply more equipped to handle the cold than others. If there’s any doubt, opt for a coat, and be sure to pay special attention while he or she is out there. If it’s cold enough for a coat, it might be time for shelter instead.
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