When this post was originally published, Michigan and much of the northeast was recovering from a record cold snap. On January 7, 2014 the temperature outdoors was 16 below zero in parts of Washtenaw County, and there was a foot or more of snow on the ground. When outdoor temps drop to the low teens or single digits, especially at night, people naturally start to worry about their dogs going outside.
So how cold is too cold?
Clients frequently ask, “When is it too cold to walk my dog?” It varies with the pet’s condition, hair coat, activity level, and how long the dog needs to be outside. It makes sense to not just send the unconditioned dog outside to spend hours in the backyard, but instead to go for a walk on a safely plowed walkway. Many dogs will eliminate outdoors more quickly if they have a shoveled clear walk area. This is particularly important for dogs with back or neck issues, or lameness issues, or any small dog.
Most dogs outside with you will show signs that they are cold. By shivering or holding up a leg, they indicate they would rather be somewhere else than outside. The dog who is running in circles and sniffing out deer poop or chasing a ball is happy outdoors.
Does a dog need to wear boots to protect against the cold?
Usually not. While dogs can be trained to wear boots, most boot novices will not enjoy the boots and will be distracted holding up the booted feet and not relaxed enough to eliminate outdoors. A boot to protect a bandage is different. This single boot or plastic bag may cause the dog to favor the wrapped foot, but is important for a dog wearing a paw bandage to keep a bandage clean and dry.
Does a dog need to wear a coat?
Fine hair coat, fine skin dogs like Greyhounds and Whippets wear clothing well, and may prefer a coat including neck warmer for temperatures below 32 degrees when walking, and even below 45 degrees if standing still outdoors. Short bursts of high speed racing in a fenced yard can be coat-less. Small dogs 30 lbs or less, may prefer a coat. Some dogs really enjoy the attention of getting dressed up, and seem to like clothing. If a normally long coated dog has a recent haircut, a coat may be useful in cold weather.
Some dogs were designed to hunt and work outdoors. A Labrador Retriever has a moderate coat with a significant fat layer under the skin to protect for swimming. A Siberian Husky or Alaskan Malamute has a double-thick coat and may overheat if extra clothing is added. Competition sledding dogs may wear coats when resting outdoors, but no coat when running. Unlike horses and people, dogs do not get wet from sweating, and so are less likely to chill after stopping exercise.
Is it sometimes too cold for the dog to go out at all?
Teacup tiny dogs are too small to walk outside without a warm coat. Some start to have accidents in the house even if you drag the dog outdoors because the dog is too shivery to concentrate on eliminating outdoors.
For the truly tiny dogs (10 lb or less), having a go-to pee pad spot indoors makes sense. If you are trying to pee pad train a dog that has never used an indoor potty spot, try confining the dog on a urine proof floor like a kitchen or bathroom, and place bed in one part and pee pad near the door. Some small dogs were never 100% housetrained, and have previously picked an indoor potty area. For these dogs, I would put the pee pad at that spot.
Get familiar with your dog’s ability to handle the cold. I know it is very cold when my dog, a Belgian Tervuren with a thick hair coat, curls up in a dog doughnut with feet tucked in instead of trotting around the back yard. I know it is cold when she stops on a walk and lifts up a front paw. This behavior for some Jack Russell Terriers looks like alternate leg skipping — first one foot then another is held up.
What are some general guidelines for dogs that are used to normal Michigan weather?
- Over 75°F in sun – Dogs with thick coat may be too hot in sun; too hot to leave any dog in a car
- Between 32 to 70 degrees – Best dog exercise weather
- From 20 to 32 degrees – Some small or fine coat dogs are too cold, may be too cold for some dogs to be outdoors resting, not exercising
- Between 0 to 20 degrees – Most small and tiny dogs will feel cold
- Below 0°F is too cold for tea cup dogs to go out