Cold Weather Tips for Dog Owners

Medically Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM on April 15, 2018
3 min read

Even if your dog has a thick, heavy coat, they might still feel chilly in the winter. Pets are just as likely to get frostbite (frozen skin and tissue) and hypothermia (low body temperature) as their owners.

But it’s easy to protect your pooch from the cold. Many of the same safety measures you take for yourself will keep your best friend safe and warm.

Limit time outdoors. No dog -- not even the toughest Arctic sled dog -- is meant to spend huge amounts of time outside in the winter. A thick coat doesn't protect all body parts.

"Their ears are exposed, their paws are in direct contact with cold cement, their nose is sticking out there in the wind," says K.C. Theisen, director of pet care issues at the Humane Society of the United States. "Never leave dogs outside unattended for any length of time. Only take them outside if they're going to be active and exercise." Even then, you may need to shorten a walk if it’s really cold.

Dress them warmly. Small dogs and those with short hair need extra help when there’s a chill in the air. Puppies and older canines also may find it hard to control their body heat.

"A sweater or coat can be a really nice addition that makes the pet more comfortable," Theisen says. But leave their head bare. "If it's so cold that you think you should cover their head, you probably shouldn't go outdoors."

To keep your pal's coat healthy during the winter, bump up the protein and fat in their diet.

Wipe down their paws. Ice, snow, salt, and toxic chemicals like antifreeze and de-icers can build up on your dog’s feet. If they lick them, they could swallow the poisons. Antifreeze, in particular, tastes sweet but can be deadly.

Make sure you wipe their paws down with a towel every time they come inside, Theisen says. Also, check their pads regularly for injuries. Ice and snow can cause painful cracks and bleeding. Trim the hair between their toes to prevent ice buildup.

Don't leave them alone in the car. You know not to leave your dog in a vehicle when it's hot. The same goes for cold weather. "It really is a bad idea," Theisen says. "People [often] don't think about how fast cars can cool down in winter. Even if it's not a direct health risk for pets, they're likely to be uncomfortable."

Pet-proof your house. Keep an eye out for winter dangers inside your home, like space heaters. Dogs can burn themselves or even tip them over and start a fire. Heated pet mats could burn your pal’s skin. A dog bed or blankets should keep them plenty warm.

If you top off your car’s antifreeze inside the garage, clean up any spills quickly, and store the container in a safe place. Products that contain propylene glycol rather than ethylene glycol are safer.

Know the warning signs. Be on the lookout for symptoms of frostbite and hypothermia, and know when to call your vet.

Get your pet inside right away if they:

  • Whines or acts anxious
  • Can’t stop shivering or seems weak
  • Has ice on their body
  • Stops moving or slows down
  • Looks for warm places to burrow

These can be signs of hypothermia. Once they are out of the cold, wrap them in blankets and call the vet for more instructions.

Frostbite symptoms can take longer to show up. Check your dog every day for any unusual changes like painful or pale areas, says Barry Kellogg, VMD, of the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association.

Protect against the elements. If you have no choice but to leave your dog outside for a time, make sure they have a dry, roomy shelter out of the wind. The floor should be raised several inches off the ground and sprinkled with cedar shavings or straw. Keep the doorway covered with waterproof plastic or canvas. Give them plenty of food, and check as often as you can to make sure their water doesn’t freeze over.