There are still lots of great opportunities to get outdoors and exercise with your dog during the winter months. Below are some tips to keep you and your dog safe while you’re out in the elements.
Pay attention to the weather forecast and heed advisories and alerts. We’re tough here in Minnesota and sometimes we don’t take cold, ice, and snow as seriously as we should.
If it’s too cold for you, it’s too cold for your dog. While many dogs are able to withstand cold temperatures better than humans, err on the side of caution. Dogs are at risk for frostbite and hypothermia just like us. In Minnesota, a wind chill advisory is issued when temperatures + winds reach -25, meaning exposed skin freezes within 10 to 30 minutes. Your dog will still have to go outside to relieve himself in cold weather but monitor him the entire time to make sure he gets the job done, then let him back inside immediately. If you have multiple dogs, it’s advisable to let them out one at a time so they don’t get sidetracked. Do not trust your dog to tell you when he’s too cold, like kids, sometimes dogs get distracted and don’t realize frostbite is setting in.
Take extra precautions when exercising in cold temperatures. Just like people, dogs’ hearts have to work harder in cold weather to keep blood moving to regulate body temperature and keep extremities warm. This means that a moderately hard jog in 50 degree temps is more strenuous when it’s 10 degrees. For this reason, you must adjust your expectations of yourself and your dog when exercising in colder temperatures and closely monitor your dog’s effort. Watch for labored breathing, hanging back, listlessness and signs of tenderness or discomfort in his feet and legs. Cut your usual exercise loop in half and when you get back home assess if you should continue. If everything is going well, duck in for a brief warm up and some water and do another lap. If there are signs of discomfort or distress, stop. Forgo the outdoor exercise altogether if your dog is elderly, sick or injured, obese, or a puppy (defined as under one year for these purposes). These dogs have an even more difficult time regulating their body temperature in cold conditions. Below are some additional ideas for making your dog’s outdoor winter walking and running adventures safer for both of you:
- Keep his coat full and healthy. Your dog’s coat is his first line of protection against wind and snow. Unfortunately, the dry air affects his skin and coat just like it does your skin and hair, making it dry and brittle. Groom him regularly with a soft bristle brush to distribute the natural oils. Scale back grooming that removes his undercoat (Furminators and shedding blades). Include a fish oil (omega 3) supplement in his food and reduce or eliminate baths to help his skin and coat retain more moisture. Of course, never shave your dog down to the skin in the winter and if he’s a long-haired breed, allow the fur or hair to grow out. If your pet is exceptionally stinky but the temperatures are just too cold, use pet wipes instead of immersing him in water.
- Increase calorie intake in winter months. Comfort food tastes good to dogs in the winter too! If your dog is notoverweight and has no underlying medical condition, feed a diet higher in protein and slightly increase overall volume if he spends much time outdoors. It takes more energy to stay warm so the calories will be put to good use.
- Consider some cold weather gear. An appropriate cold weather dog coat should include a shell that can slick moisture and a fleece or insulating fabric lining to retain more body heat. Look for something that will stay in place, doesn’t rub him behind his legs, is not too difficult to put on and take off, and that has as much undercarriage coverage as possible since for many dogs the fur is more sparse in this area. Dog boots may also protect his feet from the cold, ice, and chemicals. Again, boots should stay securely in place and be designed for maximum warmth, comfort, and protection, not style! Make sure your dog’s toenails are short enough to allow proper fit. Check out our review of three popular dog boots.
- Consider some safety gear. Because we have such little daylight in the winter, a walk or run in the dark may be unavoidable. The best option for seeing the ice ahead of you and announcing your presence to drivers on the road is a headlamp. Runner’s World magazine reports that drivers can spot an oncoming headlamp at around a half mile, giving them plenty of time to react. In the absence of a lamp, a driver will see a reflective vest or blinking red LED lights at about a quarter mile. Anything under a quarter mile doesn’t give the driver much time to react. Outfit your dog in reflective gear and/or red LED lights in the event he is separated from you. In addition to being visible to oncoming cars, improve your footing on packed snow and ice (especially if your dog tends to–ahem–pull with the enthusiasm of a Siberian Husky) with a pair of Yak Trax or similar traction device that you slip over your boots or sneakers. (And maybe get that pulling thing taken care of with some basic obedience!)
- Keep the feet neat. In the absence of dog boots, it’s extremely important to check your dog’s feet after an outing, wipe them down with a warm wet wash cloth to remove any sidewalk chemicals or ice balls that may have accumulated between his toes, and check for any cuts. If your dog has a lot of hair between his foot pads, trim it back so snow doesn’t accumulate in it.
- Always always ALWAYS walk your dog on leash. Not only is it law, but if you go near frozen rivers or lakes, a high likelihood here in Minnesota, it’s extremely important that you have control of your dog. Each year there is at least one tragic story of a dog venturing out on the ice, chasing an animal or just following his nose, and falling through. Do not allow your dog out on ice and do not allow him off leash. Dogs become lost and confused more easily in the winter because they can’t track as well over snow and ice, so if your dog strays away, he will have a more difficult time finding his way back to you.
- Make sure your dog has access to plenty of water after exercise. It’s easy to become dehydrated in the winter because we may not feel as thirsty as when we’re exercising in the heat. Eating snow is NOT an adequate substitute for fresh, room temperature water (for either or you!).