A young Asian girl nuzzles noses with a tabby kittenA young Asian girl nuzzles noses with a tabby kittenA young Asian girl nuzzles noses with a tabby kitten
Barks & Mewsings

The Trupanion blog

How to Keep Your Dog Warm this Winter

By: Brianna Gunter

A brown lab puppy sits in the snow with snowflakes on his face.

We’re fully immersed in the winter 2021-2022 season now, and so far it’s what The 2022 Old Farmer’s Almanac calls “a season of shivers.” Thanks to the reemergence of the La Niña weather phenomenon and a weaker polar vortex causing artic air to slide south, temperatures are plunging across North America.

For dog owners, this means having to take a few extra steps to ensure Fido is safe in the cold. But before you start shopping for dog sweaters, it’s worth taking the time to understand exactly how winter chill can affect dogs and what practical steps you can take to make sure your pup’s body temperature is regulated.

Is the weather too cold for dogs this year?

Many pet owners are accustomed to letting their dogs go outdoors no matter how cold it gets. That said, weather predictions for the next few months from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) show a winter that is chillier and wetter than usual in the northern plains, Rocky Mountains, and much of the West Coast.

Without any fur to keep warm, humans can feel the cold a lot faster than their dogs. But that’s no reason to think your dog isn’t at risk. Once temperatures fall to 45 degrees Fahrenheit (7.22 degrees Celsius) and below, your buddy is bound to start feeling uncomfortable. As temperatures drop even further, dogs can be at risk for serious health conditions like hypothermia and frostbite.

According to Trupanion veterinarian Dr. Caroline Wilde, however, there isn’t really a defined amount of time that a dog can be outside safely in the cold. In fact, how much time your four-legged pal can spend in the cold largely has to do with the type of dog they are.

"’Too cold’ is very breed-dependent,” Wilde says. “For example, Bernese Mountain Dogs and Great Pyrenees, with their thick, heavy coats, were bred to endure and even thrive in cold weather, whereas a small dog with a short thin coat, like a Chihuahua, is very cold intolerant.”

Dog breeds that are vulnerable to cold

Like all mammals, dogs are at risk when subjected to extremely cold conditions. However, some dog breeds will tolerate cold less well than others due to their build and fur patterns. And contrary to popular belief, small dogs aren’t the only breeds at risk in the chill. Larger dogs that have thin coats and lean builds with little body fat would also much rather be curled up indoors than out in the snow and ice.

If your dog falls into any of the following breeds, you’ll need to be extra vigilant about keeping him warm this winter:

  • Chihuahua
  • Boston terrier
  • Pug
  • French bulldog
  • Boxer
  • Chinese crested
  • Great Dane
  • Basenji
  • Yorkshire terrier
  • Whippet
  • Greyhound
  • Pit bull terrier (This may be surprising because pits have muscle and bulk, but their short fur and proneness to skin conditions leaves them at higher risk in winter cold).
  • Most miniature breeds, or any mixed breed dog with a thin coat and low amount of body fat

It’s also worth noting that puppies, older dogs, and any dog with health concerns area also at higher risk in the cold. At the same time, pet owners shouldn’t take a dog’s thick hair and higher levels of body fat for granted.

“Even thick-coated dogs are at risk in their more thinly haired areas, like the ear tips and belly,” Wilde says. “Extreme cold conditions can also be painful to the airways and the skin.”

How to tell when your dog is too cold

A Bloodhound stands in the snow with snowflakes on his face.

It can be surprisingly tough to tell when your dog is too cold, especially if he enjoys frolicking in the snow. Some pups will gladly try to ignore the chill if it means extra time bounding around outdoors, but that doesn’t mean they are immune to the health conditions extreme cold can cause.

According to Wilde, signs that a dog is too cold include shivering, lethargy, whining or other indicators that they want to go back inside.

“Lifting paws when walking can indicate that the cold surface or ground is hurting the paws,” Wilde says. “Remember, they also might not show any signs.”

Knowing when to bring your dog indoors is one thing, but be aware that any of the following signs could indicate serious medical conditions that require immediate veterinary attention:

  • Pale or gray-tinted gums
  • Stumbling, walking sideways, or other movement issues
  • Dilated pupils
  • Low heartrate
  • Slow breathing
  • Prolonged lethargy
  • Shivering that won’t stop
  • Collapse / laying down and not getting up when prompted

Winter conditions all dog owners should be wary of

In addition to keeping an eye on the temperature, all dog owners (and pet owners in general) should be mindful of swiftly changing weather conditions and winter storms. North America has already seen a fair share of blizzards and other storms (including a tornado outbreak in December) this winter season, and more are anticipated. If you have a dog, be extra hesitant about letting your pooch spend time outside when it’s actively snowing, especially if it’s extra wet or dense. If the temperature is below freezing, time outdoors should also be kept to a minimum. Likewise, dogs should stay inside during winter storms with high winds or ice.

Of course, keeping your dog indoors all winter isn’t really an option. The vast majority of dogs will still need to go outside in winter to go to the bathroom and get a little exercise. So, it’s vital to keep a close eye on the daily forecast as well as the current weather conditions in your own backyard. After all, things can change quickly.

“Dogs will be less tolerant of cold if there has been a sudden drop in temperature, or if they have spent less time outdoors in the cold, because they haven’t had a chance to acclimatize,” says Wilde.

How to keep your dog warm this winter

Dog safety should be a top priority this winter season. Even if you prefer your home to be on the cool side, setting the thermostat below 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15.55 degrees Celsius) is not recommended during the chilly months. Always make sure your dog has a warm dog bed or cushy blanket to curl up on, and consider adding an extra layer if it’s on an uncarpeted surface. Hydration is key for dogs to regulate their body temperature, so be sure your pup always has a steady supply of clean water.

If your dog normally lives outside, it’s time to reassess their situation for the current winter season. Be aware that even the best heated dog bowls and dog houses may not be enough in frigid temperatures. So it’s a good idea to board your pet or find a friend they can stay with indoors if you’re not able to have them inside your house for whatever reason.

Do dog sweaters help?

Dog sweaters and jackets are adorable, and they can indeed be effective in helping to keep your dog warm. Keep in mind, however, that adding a layer of clothing doesn’t mean you can let your pal stay outside longer than usual. Instead, it’ll just help keep him warm and comfy while he’s doing his business or getting in some exercise. Always remove any protective clothing right after your dog comes inside, or he could risk overheating.

It’s also worth noting that not all dog outdoor clothes are created equal. If your dog is going out into the snow for example, a water-resistant jacket with a warm lining will be much more effective than a knit sweater that soaks up and holds moisture all too easily.

Wilde also has additional recommendations.

“Booties can help keep the paws warm, as well as protect from snow, ice, rain, and salt,” she says. “Musher’s secret paw wax can also help protect the paw pads against the elements.”

While these items also won’t ensure your dog can stay outdoors for long periods of time this winter, they will help prevent your bud’s paws from suffering damage. If your dog will be outside for a prolonged period, Wilde recommends giving them access to heated enclosures and blankets.

Remember, if your dog is showing signs of any signs of a serious cold-weather health condition like hypothermia or frostbite, move them to a warm location immediately and contact your veterinarian. In the meantime, current weather predictions show that this season’s chill should let up around mid-March.

A dog and cat snuggle

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Welcome to the Trupanion blog. A place to celebrate pets, pet health and medical insurance for cats and dogs.

This blog is designed to be a community where pet owners can learn and share. The views expressed in each post are the opinion of the author and not necessarily endorsed by Trupanion. Always consult your veterinarian for professional advice.

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