Pets

Winter safety tips for dogs: Expert advice to keep them healthy and warm

Veterinarians share how to help your pup thrive even on the coldest days of the year.

Veterinarians share how to help your pup thrive even on the coldest days of the year

A Yorkshire terrier in the snow wearing a coat and boots.
(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

As we navigate another Canadian winter, it's important that we keep the safety of our dogs in mind. After all, the frigid season poses a range of risks for pets, from jagged pieces of ice on the sidewalk to antifreeze from cars dripping onto the ground.

So we reached out to veterinarians Dr. Serge Chalhoub, an associate professor at the faculty of veterinary medicine at the University of Calgary, and Dr. Shane Bateman, an associate professor in the department of clinical studies at the Ontario Veterinary College in Guelph, for their advice. Here's how to best protect your furry friend as the temperature drops.

Remember that if it's cold for you, it's likely colder for your dog

A common misconception is that because dogs are descendants of wolves, they've adapted to harsh winters. "They actually do not tolerate winters like their predecessors did, and they don't have the survival instincts either for those cold days," Chalhoub explained. "Especially when it starts getting below –5, –10." 

When the temperature drops to –20 C, just five minutes outside can lead to frostbite on a dog's paws, he added. A general guideline to remember is that if it's cold outside for you, it's likely colder for your dog.

Chalhoub shared that your dog's size and breed will impact how your dog will adjust to the colder temperatures. "Larger, hairier breeds are likely going to last and do better and adapt faster in the winter weather," he said. "Overall, there's no doubt it's more dangerous for smaller breeds, because they will lose heat much faster." 

But regardless of their body type, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, said Bateman. He stressed the need to take the cold seriously. 

"On days where there are wind warnings and general safety precautions are being advised of humans … you should absolutely be modifying your pet's activity to restrict the amount of time and the exposure that they have outdoors."

Look out for signs of discomfort

"Every pet is going to communicate in slightly different ways," said Bateman, but there are some telltale signs of discomfort that owners should watch for in winter. They include a dog being reluctant to walk where they typically would, refusing to do their business, staying by the door, shivering, vocalizing and lifting a paw (indicating that the ground is too cold). 

"Any of these kinds of behaviours that are communicating to us that they're uncomfortable, [that] they're not interested in doing things that would maybe normally be of interest to them, those should be absolute warning signs," he said.

Failure to protect your pup from the elements can result in hypothermia or painful frostbite. When it comes to the latter, Bateman says that the skin will initially start to look a bit grey or blue, but that's often the only sign you'll see until your dog returns to a warmer environment.

If they start licking their paws once you're both indoors, check to see if the skin is red, raw and swollen. "That's definitely a concern," said Chalhoub, who recommends seeking veterinary advice as soon as possible, since the healing process for frostbite "can be quite gnarly."

Consider the needs of older dogs

Your dog's age is a critical factor to consider during the wintertime. Older animals struggling with joint or muscle aches can see their issues worsen when they're less active or even if they're sleeping in cooler, draftier spots in the house, said Bateman. He recommends moving senior dogs' beds to warm locations and providing extra padding for their bedding or blankets if necessary.

A modified exercise routine can also help senior dogs keep comfortable during the winter months. For instance, Bateman suggests, "shorter or more frequent walks [to] help to keep those joints limber and the inflammation under control."  

Use the right winter gear

To keep your pet safe and comfortable, it's also essential to have the proper gear. Bateman says that while winter jackets benefit thin-skinned, short-haired dogs, large ones with heavy coats might not require them.

Booties, however, are helpful for many types of dogs. Bateman said that if your pet has sensitive paws, booties can help prevent further irritation. And in addition to protecting skin from the cold ground, they minimize contact with things like antifreeze and road salt, which can be harmful to your pup

For dogs that refuse to keep their booties on, Chalhoub suggests limiting their time outdoors on colder days. Then, once you've returned from a walk, use a towel (not a blow dryer; their heat is often too intense) to remove any wetness or salt from their paws and undercarriage.

Winter walks also present the added challenge of reduced visibility, so dog owners may want to use a light source, such as a flashlight or an LED collar. With fewer daylight hours, it's easy to underestimate how difficult it will be to see or track down your pet, Chalhoub said. 

It's important that they're always wearing proper identification, too, since snow and ice can make it difficult for lost dogs to use scents and familiar markers to return home. Bateman recommends microchipping a pet. "Collars, of course, and tags can become detached from the animal if they get lost and into trouble. But the microchip is a more permanent way of identifying them," he said. 

Prep for accidents and emergencies

Alongside risks that pets could encounter while walking on slippery roads, owners must remember the risks of driving on them. "Ensure that larger dogs have a properly fitted seatbelt or harness that will hold them securely in place," said Bateman. "For smaller dogs, we recommend having them ride in a crate and that the crate is securely belted in place."

Bateman also suggests dog owners keep emergency kits on hand. Store food, water and warm blankets in the car, and take emergency items on winter walks. Bateman recommends people with large dogs also pack a sling, long towel or small blanket to help transport their pet if they get injured. 

At home, always have a sufficient supply of your pet's food, medications and clean bandaging material in case of severe winter storms or prolonged loss of power. And be careful about using space heaters or lighting fires in enclosed spaces, Bateman cautioned. A good rule of thumb is that if it isn't safe for a child to be around, it isn't safe for a dog.

Stay safe on winter hikes

If you love to take your dog for winter hikes, the risks may be minimal on a groomed trail where your pet's paws aren't deep in snow throughout the journey. But Chalhoub said that people should exercise their judgment and reminded us that risks are dependent on the temperature, and will differ from dog to dog.  

He shared that dogs who hike often will have thicker, less sensitive paw pads, but it's still a vulnerable area, so owners will want to consider booties if it's going to reach –10 C. Ensuring your dog is constantly moving on the trail will also help to keep them warm, he said. 

And don't forget to take some treats and enough water for your dog. Chalhoub noted that water is as essential in the winter as it is in the summer for your active pet, and treats provide the calories they need for a hike.

Watch for weight gain and boredom

During the winter, there will be days when it's simply too treacherous to take your dog outside to play. And for dogs that get less physical exercise, weight gain can become a problem. "Make sure that you are keeping track of your dog's weight and food intake, providing some variety potentially," suggests Bateman. 

Bateman and Chalhoub also encourage planning ways to keep your pet happy and healthy indoors. Even hiding some treats around the house for your dog to sniff out can keep them physically active and mentally stimulated on the coldest days of the year.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jacqueline Martinz is a Toronto-based writer. Her writing is often focused on issues impacting education, politics, philanthropy and animal welfare. When she isn’t writing, Jacqueline loves exploring the city and staying active with her dog, Oliver. Connect with Jacqueline through her website, jacquelinemartinz.com.

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