Some dogs are born for the cold, happy to fall asleep under a blanket of snow.
Others start to shake and shiver if it's under 80 in the house and would turn into little pupsicles if you tried to take them on a walk when it's too cold out!
Of course, our fur babies still need to answer the call of nature and get their exercise to boot. That usually means walks, even on the coldest days in winter. We bundle up in our warmest winter gear as we grab the leash to head outside.
The question is, though, how do you know when it's too cold to take your fur baby on a walk?
In this comprehensive blog post I cover from the most common considerations to answer this question to how to prepare your dog for walks in the cold to how to identify if your dog is too cold.
Pet parents wondering if their dogs actually need snow boots should watch the educational video 📽️ at the bottom. Dr. Amy Obrien 👩⚕️ from The University of Minnesota Veterinary Center provides her expert advice.
If you are looking for more dog care guides 📚 I have sprinkled some great ones throughout the post. I'm sure you'll learn a thing or two that will make an impact in your fur baby's life.
Alternatively you can also visit my blog. Spoiler alert, it is packed 📚 with research-based resources 🤓.
There are quite a few factors that can determine whether or not it's safe to take your pup for a walk when it’s cold out. Sadly it’s not as simple as giving you a temperature threshold and saying that's the breaking point.
Some breeds might as well be snowmen for how well they can not only tolerate, but also enjoy the winter weather.
On the other hand, Chihuahuas (hailing as they do from sunny Mexico), Whippets (with their thin fur and lack of fat), and Pugs (with a snub nose, they can have trouble breathing in the cold) are all warm-weather pups.
Most dogs are at their best during their adolescent and young adult years (aren’t we all?), and that holds true when it comes to handling the cold, too.
Young puppies are a lot more susceptible to the cold, partly because they don't know how to handle it and partly because their young bodies are just more prone to issues before they mature.
On the flip side, older dogs can have trouble regulating their body temperatures and may have health issues that are exacerbated by the cold, like joint aches.
Health, of course, impacts all sorts of things about your fur baby. Healthy pups are at their best, but pups with health issues may have a harder time handling the cold.
They may also not have the energy or the willpower to go out into an unpleasant environment if they're feeling under the weather.
I mentioned joint pain a moment ago. Even cool weather can impact dogs with joint pain. Certain larger breed dogs are prone to problems like hip dysplasia and cold weather can exacerbate the pain.
“Pets with diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, or hormonal imbalances (such as Cushing's disease) may have a harder time regulating their body temperature and may be more susceptible to problems from temperature extremes. The same goes for very young and very old pets. If you need help determining your pet's temperature limits, consult your veterinarian.” American Veterinary Medical Association.
Turning things around, there are some factors relevant to the weather rather than the dog that can be impactful as well. The first is wind. As you likely well know, the windier it is, the colder it feels.
A blustery wind can easily make it feel 10 degrees cooler out, and that's not just your perception.
Wind strips the heat from your body (and your fur baby's, too) much more quickly and makes it harder to build it back up. It's especially dangerous for dogs with short fur, which have less protection against that wind stealing their warmth.
Snow can pose a few issues for dogs, and it depends on the dog which ones are most important.
If your dog is small, deep snow can make it difficult (or even impossible) for your pup to move around. Deep, heavy snow can even become a suffocation risk if a pile collapses on your fur baby, and they can't struggle free.
Snow can also be a problem for shorter breeds, like Dachshunds, with their low bellies. Being that close to the snow can chill them a lot more quickly than a longer-legged breed.
On top of this, snow melts, and water conducts heat. When your fur baby gets wet and it's cold out, they'll chill much more quickly, and you may need to cut your walk short or at least shovel your sidewalk before you head out.
In general, you should avoid walking your senior dog extreme cold weather.
“Extreme cold, snowstorms, or just cold weather with severe wind chill, can all cause a senior dog’s body temperature to drop dramatically. Hypothermia and frostbite are both more common in older dogs during the winter and should be avoided at all costs.” The Rescue Dog.org
Broad Advice for Walking Your Dog in Cold Weather
Before I get into some more specific recommendations, remember I'm just a pet parent and animal lover; I'm not your vet.
Use your best judgment, talk to your vet if necessary, and keep an eye on your fur baby at all times when it's cold and they're outside in case a problem starts to occur.
That said, here's a rough recommendation:
40 Degrees or Above: Your fur baby is probably fine! Only the smaller and most cold-susceptible breeds may experience issues, but on a 30-minute walk, they'll likely be fine.
30-40 Degrees: Keep an eye out! Your fur baby may get chilled, and the most cold-sensitive dogs can start to have some issues. You may want to put a sweater on your pup or keep your walks a little shorter.
20-30 Degrees: It's getting cold out there! Your cold-loving breeds will still be fine, but most dogs will start to get chilled and should have their walks kept to 15 minutes so they can come back inside to warm up.
"Under 30 degrees, factoring in the wind chill, it's not going to be safe for any dog to be outside for an extended period of time...You can buy yourself a little bit of time with warm weather clothing, such as dog sweaters and booties to cover their paws.” NPR.org.
Under 20 Degrees: Brr! This temperature range gets into potentially life-threatening territory. You can still take your fur baby for a walk, but keep it very short, and you may want to bundle them up with a sweater and some booties.
You can also find charts with a bit more nuance online or simply keep a closer eye on your fur baby to see if they display any unusual behaviors.
Signs Your Dog is Too Cold for a Walk
One of the hardest things about caring for a canine companion is their typical inability to recognize when they're pushing their limits. We all know dogs that will happily run and play for hours and hours until they drop from exhaustion.
When the pup is pooped, they drop where they stand, and the last thing you want to do is struggle to bring home a dog that has gotten too cold to walk themselves – especially if you have a large dog!
What are some signs that your fur baby is getting too cold?
Shaking and shivering.
Whining or even barking out of sheer discomfort.
Hunching down and tucking their tail.
Lifting their paws off the ground (because it's cold!)
Seeking shelter and warmth nearby, especially if it's windy.
Reluctance or refusal to keep walking or attempts to turn around.
Anxious and uncomfortable behavior.
Your pup doesn't have a lot of different ways to convey their discomfort, and they'll often be happy to go on a walk until they've made it a little too far from home, and their little doggy brains tick over from "this is fine" to "wow I'm way too cold" in a matter of moments.
Normally, your fur baby will be fine once you get them home and warmed up. However, if they've been too cold for too long, they might develop hypothermia.
Keep an eye out for the following:
Prolonged shivering that keeps going even when they've warmed up.
Weakness and trouble standing or moving around.
Muscle stiffness and difficulty walking.
Slow, shallow breathing.
Pale gums, indicating poor blood flow.
A cold dog can be warmed up just by bringing them home, but a dog with hypothermia likely needs medical attention from your vet. Warming them up too quickly can cause problems, and they may need additional support to help them warm up safely.
Just like how dogs can get their paws burnt on hot pavement and they can also get burned from snow. If your fur baby has spent too long out in the cold, they may start to develop frostbite.
Frostbite is when an extremity gets too cold that the cold starts to damage the cells. In dogs, it most commonly occurs on the toes and feet, tail, and ears.
The worst part of frostbite is it can take several days to show up. Look for skin that turns and stays red, swollen, or blistered. Or, alternatively, it could turn pale.
Once the body recognizes that those cells have died, it will turn black. Unfortunately, frostbite can be very dangerous and painful, so it’s best to take precautions during the winter so you can avoid it altogether.
How to Prepare Your Dog for Cold Walks
Dogs need activity and enrichment to stay healthy, but when it's cold out, it's a lot harder to play with them and take them for longer walks outside. You can get a bit more time and activity outdoors if you prepare, so what can you do?
1. Try to time the weather. It's never just one temperature outside, and there will be warmer times during the day.
Even picking a time when it's less windy or when there's a brighter sun out can extend your time by 5-10 minutes and get more activity in.
2. Dress them up. Some people like to dress up their fur babies for their own entertainment, but many clothing options serve a specific purpose.
A doggy coat or sweater can help a lot, especially for dogs with shorter fur. If you live in a snowy climate, stick with a water-resistant coat.
This will keep your pup dry and warm when the snow is falling. A wet sweater is only going to trap the cold against their fur cooling them even faster.
Boots are also a great idea; it helps protect their feet from the cold, give them traction on the ice, and can protect their toes from salt and other ice-melting chemicals that can burn their skin.
Does Your Dog Need Winter Boots? | 2 min video
Heads up on the boots option – most pups aren’t going to respond well the first time you pup them on, so getting the booties in the fall and practicing for short periods of time to get your pup acclimated will make a world of difference when they are actually needed.
3. Keep walks shorter, as appropriate. The colder it is, the less time you should spend outside with your pup. My guidelines above give you a good idea of the temperature range, but you may be limited to under 10 minutes for a walk when it's particularly cold, windy, or otherwise inhospitable outside.
4. Try a paw wax. Paw wax is a lotion-like waxy substance you can rub into your fur baby's toe beans to help protect them when it's colder, icier, or otherwise more likely to damage their feet. This is also an ideal option for dogs that don't tolerate shoes.
Using a paw balm is also a good idea after a walk. The low humidity in the winter can cause their toe beans to dry out and crack, so hydrating with an organic paw balm will soothe them and keep them nice and soft.
5. Stick closer to home. Since the symptoms of a chilled dog can come on very quickly, it's usually a good idea to keep your walks closer to home so that if they get too cold, you're never too far away from warmth and comfort.
Instead of walking over to the next neighborhood, stay on your street and make a couple of loops instead.
6. Have a source of warm water on hand. A thermos of warm water can be a great way to help give your fur baby a bit more time in the cold, just like how you might enjoy a cup of hot cocoa when you come in from the cold yourself.
Note that I'm saying warm here, as in room temperature or a bit above, not hot water. Hot water can burn their tongue and throat, and they might not even want to drink it in the first place.
7. Another option is to give them higher-energy food. Dogs tend to burn more energy and be more active in the cold, and they need more calories to keep themselves warm and active in the cold.
Switching to a higher-energy food might help them stay warm and active. Of course, consult with your vet if your fur baby has any dietary restrictions!
8. You'll also want to keep your own area clear and safe for your fur baby. That means, if you'll be using any kind of de-icer for your sidewalk or driveway, make sure it's safe for your pets.
Many commercial de-icers contain antifreeze and other agents that are poisonous to dogs. The last thing you need is to have your fur baby in for poison control because of some nasty road chemicals!
Remember not all your neighbors will use the same products, so it’s always a best practice to wipe your pup’s paws off after each walk.
What do you think? Have I covered the bases? Do you have any tips for keeping your fur baby warm and safe in the cold, especially when you take them on a walk? Let me know what you think in the comments below! I'd love to hear all your thoughts on the topic!
Additionally, if you are feeling like getting a little special something for your fur baby that is unique, made right here in the USA, 100% pup and cat safe, USDA certified organic and brought to you by a US company, check out Toe Beans online pet supplies store!
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K Marie Alto
K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 50K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-). Read more