This story was originally published in December 2013.
Temperatures were in the single digits when my dog Oreo trotted outside to take care of business. Usually, he stays outside for at least 10 minutes, chasing squirrels and playing with his ball, but after just a few minutes of roaming the snow-encrusted yard, he started to act a bit odd.
Standing, he lifted one of his front feet and tucked it against his body. Then, he started to hobble around on three legs.
Was he injured? No. I’d seen this behavior before. Oreo’s feet were starting to freeze, and he was doing his best to warm them up, one at a time.
Time to let Oreo inside — which leads me to my most recent dog-related question: How cold is too cold for dogs?
Well, it depends on the dog. Clearly, not all dogs are created equal. I know a Great Pyrenees mix that has fur so thick, sometimes I’ll burrow my hands into its fluffy white coat and wonder if there’s any dog underneath. This dog loves Maine’s cold winters. Oreo, on the other hand, is a pit bull mix with short, wiry fur and just a bit of peach fuzz covering his stomach. He’s simply not built for the cold. (Sorry, we’re staying in Maine, Oreo.)
In addition to thickness of fur, the age of the dog can be a factor; puppies and old dogs tend to develop hypothermia more quickly, according to PetMD, a veterinarian-authored and approved online source for pet owners. Also, dogs can more easily develop hypothermia if they’re sick, have low body fat, have hypothyroidism or have recently had anesthesia.
The problem is: dogs can’t talk. They can’t tell you when their feet go numb or their ears are burning. So you have to be observant.
While Oreo can’t speak English, he can whine. Sometimes, he’s just being a big baby (like when he whines because I won’t let him chase the cats). But when he’s outside in the cold, I listen to that whine. It means he’s uncomfortable.
But let’s move past the discomfort stage to the real dangers of cold weather: hypothermia and frostbite.
Hypothermia. According to several articles on PetMD, the first sign is vigorous shivering and paleness (which may be difficult to see, depending on how furry your pup is). This is followed by listlessness or lethargy. Basically, if your dog is acting kinda loopy or different, take heed.
Hypothermia is a serious thing. If left untreated, it could escalate to coma or heart failure.
So what do you do if you suspect your dog might be hypothermic? According to PetMD, there are certain steps you should take:
First, take the temperature of the dog, if you’re able; if it’s below 98 degrees Fahrenheit, call the nearest veterinarian. In the meantime, wrap the dog in warm blankets. (You can use a clothes dryer to heat the blankets up quickly.) In addition, place heating pads (or a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel) against the dog’s abdomen. And it’s also helpful to give your dog warm fluids to drink, if possible. Once the temperature is above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, stop warming the dog but keep it in a warm room.
It’s always a smart idea to consult a veterinarian. You may need to rush your dog to a clinic for treatment, which may include warm intravenous fluids and even breathing aids.
Now let’s talk about frostbite.
Often, if a dog falls victim to hypothermia, it will also develop frostbite on extremities, such as the tail, tips of the ears and foot pads, according to PetMD. To catch frostbite in its early stages, check your dog’s extremities while spending time in the cold outdoors. Look for skin that has turned white or even bluish, as well as ice, which sometimes forms around frostbitten skin.
If your dog does develop frostbite, there’s a certain way to care for it, according to PetMD: First, warm a towel (on a radiator, clothes dryer or with a hair dryer). Then place the towel on the frozen area without squeezing or rubbing. Then use tepid water to warm up the affected areas to a temperature of 90 degrees Fahrenheit but no higher. As the skin warms, it will redden and swell, but if it instead becomes dark, seek immediate veterinary attention. And a heads up — the red skin may peel.
All of that sounds quite unpleasant, scary even. So, to avoid these problems in the first place, limit the time your dog spends in the cold. Also, consider investing in some dog clothing and booties. Extra layers help dogs retain body heat, especially thin-furred breeds. Providing a warm, dry shelter for your dog will also help stave off the cold.
But my favorite method of keeping Oreo warm: playing with him! He can stay outside in the cold a lot longer if he stays active; and I don’t mind throwing my jacket on and kicking his favorite punctured basketball around so he can get some energy out. He behaves a lot better indoors if he’s had ample playtime outside.