How Cold Is Too Cold for Outdoor Pet Activities?

How Cold Is Too Cold?

This coming Wednesday Pittsburgh’s temperature will be minus 5 degrees with windchills of minus fifteen.

Every winter, the TV News shows expose pets chained up outside in Pittsburgh backyards during incredibly cold weather. Frozen water bowls, food frozen to the bottom of the bowl during the single digit night temps, and wind chills often drifting below zero.

These tragic crimes are the exception, but every day dogs are out on walks or runs with their bundled owners. I see dogs hopping on three legs, or alternating holding up legs with cramps or ice balls in between their pads. This week I would like to provide some opinions from experts, and from my observations, on just How Cold Is Too Cold for pets to be outside for more than a quick run around the yard to relieve themselves.

The TV meteorologists are warning us that at temps under 10 degrees, exposed skin is at risk for frostbite in under 30 minutes. Granted, many of our pets have a double hair coat, but hair is often thin on ears, faces, extremities, paws, and tails. These regions of their bodies are at greater risk for rapid onset of frostbite.

The following chart will show when there is danger from cold exposure. The chart does take into consideration the dog’s size, and makes allowances for different coat types. Northern breeds and breeds with very heavy coats, as well as dogs who have been acclimated to progressively colder weather are less susceptible to hypothermia. When precipitation occurs, then all breeds are at much higher risk.

Cold Weather Precautions and Equipment to Make Cold Weather Outdoor Exercise Safer

When the temperature is in the teens and below, a doggie vest or coat does help conserve body heat, especially on “single coated” and short haired breeds. Booties of various designs are available and do prevent ice from forming in the hair between paw pads. I use a type that looks like a thick-walled balloon which is simple to slip on the four feet and to remove. Even though it doesn’t have a tread of any kind, it prevents snow and ice from packing in, doesn’t change my lab’s gait, and she doesn’t get leg cramps. Being rubber, this type prevents road salt exposure that can be very irritating. Other types are more elaborate with straps, shoe-like treads, etc. Some winter dog walkers use ointments on the feet like “Mushers Secret” and feel that this protects their paws well.

EVEN WITH PROTECTIVE CLOTHING ON YOUR DOG, I WOULD CAUTION YOU NOT TO DO AN EXTENDED WALK OR RUN WHEN TEMPS ARE IN THE RED ZONE ON THE ABOVE CHART, OR WHEN IN THE ORANGE ZONE, AND THERE IS WIND OR PRECIPITATION. Remember that dogs on longer walks do need a water break, even in the winter, so carry water and a collapsible bowl with you.

It is important to have your dog on a leash during winter walks because loose running on ice can pose an orthopedic risk, and because more dogs are lost in winter than at any other time of year. The snow covering familiar landmarks and dulling scents can make it hard for dogs to find their way back home. ID tags and implanted Microchips are essential in this situation. There is often ice underlying packed snow. I have examined many dogs over the years that have torn knee ligaments from running and slipping out on icy patches.

I haven’t mentioned cats who go out in the winter. Cats in winter will always seek heat, and your warm car engine in your driveway after a trip is often a winter refuge for stray or neighbor cats. Bang on your hood as you get into your car to alert snoozing cats before starting your engine.

A new fallen snow makes a beautiful backdrop for a winter walk. With preparation and using some common sense, your dog and you can have a wonderful adventure outdoors.


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During the months of November through February we are offering 10% off scaling, polishing, radiographs, and dental surgery for your dogs and cats!

Please call our office to speak with a member of our veterinary team to schedule an appointment today – 412-798-8770


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