I think we’re well into winter now, whether we like it or not. The last couple of weeks, snow has pretty much been the order of the day. Not a whole lot of accumulation where I live but still enough that I have to put my boots on when I venture outside, and enough that it doesn’t melt off before the noon sun hits.
I find the older I get, the more the cold weather bothers me. I used to be the last person into the winter jacket and the first one out of it, and I’d be the one in the summer who was miserable, basting in my own sweat and wanting to hurt the next person who chirped “What a beautiful day!” Now, I tolerate the heat a lot more easily than I do the cold.
Of course, this is also the time of year when people are sharing the Facebook memes showing dogs covered in snow and imploring people to keep their pets inside. I’m not complaining about that; people don’t realize a lot of the time that dogs can be in terribly discomfort over the winter. “But he loves being outside,” they say. No, he probably doesn’t. He probably just doesn’t let you know that he’s halfway toward freezing to death, because it’s in a dog’s nature to keep his discomfort to himself. In the wild, canines who are hurt, sick or weakened are usually culled out of the pack.
The domestic dog is not meant to be out in the elements constantly. They have fur coats, sure, but that doesn’t mean that they can handle the cold all that well. I pointed this out in Can Dogs Live Outdoors Full Time? and I’m pretty sure that winter is just about the worst time to have a dog living outdoors. So please, bring your dogs inside during the cold weather, and follow these 15 ways to keep your dog safe and comfortable in winter.
1. Watch for Frostbite
Frostbite is pretty easy to identify in humans. The extremities get very cold, turn white, and start to feel numb. When they begin to thaw out, it can be very painful. The thing is your dog can’t tell you when he’s beginning to suffer from frostbite, and you won’t notice the signs because he has a fur coat. But when his body gets cold, the reaction is the same as it is with humans: the body tries to take blood away from the extremities and pull it toward the body’s core in order to keep the vital organs warm. Then, the paws, tail and ears can end up getting so cold that the body tissue actually begins to freeze. This won’t be obvious initially, but later on, the mucous membranes might appear pale or grey, and the dog’s skin might even begin to turn hard.
As is the case with humans, frostbitten areas can be very painful when they begin to thaw. In severe cases, the skin will die and turn black. Then it will slough off, leaving severe tissue damage.
2. Be Alert to Hypothermia
This is another issue that can affect dogs in much the same way as it does humans. If the dog is exposed to cold for too long, he will begin to shiver. Then, he could end up lethargic and weak. As the condition gets worse, the muscles will stiffen up, and the breathing and heart rate will be suppressed. If the dog continues to be cold, he could die.
3. Give Your Dog a Sweater
Thick-coated dogs might not suffer too much in the cold, but if your dog is short-haired, a good sweater that covers his body and belly from the tail up to the neck can be helpful. Of course, this will not help with cold on the extremities.
4. Exercise When the Sun Is Out
The best times for walking a dog in the winter are late morning and early afternoon. It’s a bit warmer then.
5. Keep Your Dog Indoors
This is the most important thing you can do to keep your dog comfortable during the winter. It’s a good idea to go out with your dog for potty breaks or exercise during the cold months, because your own body is a perfect indicator of when you should take your dog inside. If it’s too cold out there for you, then it’s too cold for your dog. And of course your dog is going to be happiest when he’s with you in any case, so inside by the fire isn’t a bad idea.
6. Provide Warm Bedding
I don’t know where you let your dog sleep, but Janice and Leroy sleep with me. On really cold nights, I don’t even mind if they get under the covers, because my philosophy on dogs and bedding is simply this: I have a washer, and I have a dryer, and I can launder sheets and blankets. Ergo, Janice and Leroy sleep wherever they please.
If you’re not of a similar mindset, though, please don’t make your dog sleep on the floor during the winter. Give him at least a blanket, because floors can get very cold even in the warmest house. A dog bed would be even better, and be sure to place it somewhere warm and draft-free. Ideally, too, it should be somewhere that he likes to be during the day, so that he doesn’t feel as though he’s being isolated at night.
7. Keep an Eye on the Heaters
Often, dogs will look for warmth during the cold months by getting far too close to heating sources. If you’ve ever relaxed by a wood stove, put your hand down on your dog, and said to yourself “How in hell can he stand it?” then you know what I’m talking about. The reality is that maybe he can’t really stand it, but he doesn’t know any better. He wouldn’t be the first dog to get too close to a stove, a baseboard heater or a fireplace and then end up with skin damage because of it. As I said, he doesn’t know any better – but you do, so keep him away from excessive heat.
You know how your skin gets so dry when it’s cold, and you apply moisturizer, and you can just feel your skin slurping it up? Well, it’s pretty much the same for your dog. His skin can get dry, cracked and flaky in the winter months. A bit of coconut oil added to his diet can help to ensure a healthy coat and moist skin. If you notice that his ears, tail or paws are dry or flaky, you can also use coconut oil directly on the skin.
9. Don’t Overfeed
Most of us put on a bit of weight over the winter. It’s nature’s way of adding a bit of fat to keep us warm. However, most dogs, unless they live outdoors (which I’ve already pointed out is a bad idea) really don’t need any extra fat, and if you overfeed your dog, he could end up being lazy and sluggish. Just keep on with the ordinary diet that he’s accustomed to.
We often think of dogs as dehydrating during the hot summer months, but the reality is that they can also become dehydrated in winter. I actually know someone who thinks that he doesn’t need to give water to his dog in the winter because “he goes outside and eats snow.” Well, how would you feel if you couldn’t have a glass of water all winter long and you were expected to get the hydration you needed from whatever you could slurp up in the yard? Even if your dog spends a lot of time outside, he still needs water, and you need to make sure that the water bowl doesn’t ice over.
This is something else that we usually think about in the summer, when we’re concerned about removing excess hair that might be making our dog feel overly warm. The fact is, though, that proper grooming always works to keep your dog well-insulated. Obviously, though, if your grooming routine includes bathing, you should make sure that your dog is completely dry before allowing him to go outdoors.
12. Look After the Paws
My skin tends to dry and crack horribly in the winter, and dogs can suffer the same way. Ice can build up between his toes, especially if his feet are furry. Also, many cities use salt on roads and sidewalks, and that can lead to irritated pads, so when you get back from a walk, make sure to wash or rinse your dog’s paws. Don’t let him lick it off. You might also consider a nice pair of booties to protect his feet.
13. Keep an Eye on the Snow
I remember one year that we had a really, really bad snowstorm and Janice and Leroy were simply walking over the top of the fence that encloses our yard. I finally ended up having to dig a trench around the inside perimeter so they couldn’t go over.
Another thing to keep in mind is that if snow builds up on your roof, it could slide off and hurt your dog. So if you can’t clear the snow, keep your dog away from the overhang.
Also, if you live in an area (as I do) where there are marshes, ponds and lakes, keep a close eye out if a thaw seems to be in the offing. It’s very easy for a dog to venture out onto thin, snow-covered ice and then fall through.
14. Be Chemically Aware
When winter hits, you’re going to want to use antifreeze in your vehicle. Unfortunately, dogs just love the taste of this highly toxic substance, and it doesn’t take much to cause serious illness or death. If you think you’re leaking antifreeze into your driveway, keep your dog inside and get your vehicle to a mechanic immediately.
15. Do Not Leave Your Dog Unattended
Most of us know about the importance of not leaving our dog in a hot vehicle in the summer, but we usually don’t think of the winter months as being equally dangerous. The fact is, though, that your dog can just as easily become hypothermic in winter. And don’t think that running your car is going to help. If you leave your dog in a parking garage with the engine running, he could die of carbon monoxide poisoning. If you love your dog, leave him at home when you go out on errands in the winter, the same way you would in the summer.
16. Bonus – Give Special Consideration to Senior Dogs
Okay, one more. Remember that, arthritic dogs can often suffer much more in the winter months than they do in the summer. You’ll still want to exercise him regularly, but watch out for slippery surfaces that could cause him to slip and hurt himself. You might want to also consider giving him a joint supplement. Remember, too, that an aging dog is not much more different than an aging human: all are more vulnerable to illnesses during the cold months.
The Final Word
The winter weather can be hard on dogs, as it is on people. The cold, damp and wind can play havoc with our comfort and that of our canine friends, so take extra measures to ensure your dog’s comfort. And remember that sometimes, the best possible medicine is a nice warm cuddle under a blanket with the person your dog loves most in the world – you.
Stay warm and comfortable, my human and dog friends. I know it seems impossible right now, but trust me, spring will be here soon!