Telltale Signs Your Dog Is Too Cold and Needs a Winter Wardrobe

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dog in cold weather

Story at-a-glance -

  • Winter is here, and cold weather can be challenging, especially for you and your dog
  • How well your dog handles the winter cold depends on things like her size, weight, age, general health, and her coat type and color
  • Other factors to consider: sunshine versus snow or rain, wind chill and how active your dog will be while outdoors
  • It’s important to stay alert for signs your dog is too cold and needs to go indoors
  • It’s also important to provide some dogs with sweaters and other cold weather wear

Baby, it’s cold outside across most of the U.S. and elsewhere. Winter weather presents lots of challenges, not the least of which for pet parents is figuring out how cold is too cold to have their dog outside. Here’s a good general guideline to keep in mind:

  • Below 45 degrees F, dogs who don’t love the cold start to feel uncomfortable
  • Below 32 degrees F, small breeds, thin-coated dogs, and old, young and sick dogs should be very carefully monitored for signs of discomfort
  • Below 20 degrees F, hypothermia and frostbite are a risk for all dogs

Additional things to think about:

  • Is the sun shining brightly or is there a cloud cover? Overcast days feel colder than sunny days, and in addition, there’s no opportunity for dark-coated dogs to absorb sunshine to help retain body heat.
  • Is it raining or snowing? Any sort of dampness that saturates your dog’s coat can quickly drop his body temperature even when it’s not terribly cold out.
  • How about wind chill? Windy days can make the temperature feel much colder than the number on the thermostat. In addition, breezy conditions inhibit the ability of your dog’s coat to insulate and protect him from the cold.
  • What will you and your dog be doing outdoors? Your dog’s activity level makes a big difference in how quickly he gets cold. If he’s running or playing vigorously, he’s generating a good deal of body heat that will protect him from getting cold quickly.

6 Factors That Influence Your Dog’s Ability to Handle the Cold

Certain types of dogs do better with freezing weather than others. Things to consider regarding your own dog:

  1. Size Small dogs have a greater surface area to volume ratio, meaning they have more skin (as compared to their “innards”) through which heat escapes. All that to say, the average little dog gets colder faster than the average large dog.
  2. Weight — Lean dogs get colder much faster than dogs with more insulating body fat. The same is true for humans.
  3. Age — Puppies and senior and geriatric dogs can’t regulate their body temperature as efficiently as healthy adult dogs, so they get much colder, much faster.
  4. Health status — Dogs with mobility issues or a chronic health condition will be at much greater risk for hypothermia in cold weather than healthy dogs.
  5. Coat type — Double-coated dogs, especially northern breeds like Siberian Huskies and Samoyeds, tend to do much better in frigid temps than other breeds. For dogs with thin coats like the Greyhound, the opposite is true.
  6. Coat color — Dogs with darker coats absorb heat from the sunlight, so on a clear, sunny winter day, they’ll be significantly warmer than their light-coated counterparts.

These are general guidelines it’s good to keep in mind. However, dogs are individuals, and while yours might meet most or all the norms to qualify as a “cold-weather dog,” it’s important to stay alert for signs it’s time to head indoors. These include:

Shivering

Holding up a paw

Anxiety

Searching for warmth

Whining

Weakness

Slowing down

Lack of mental alertness

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Some Dogs Need a Winter Wardrobe. Does Yours?

One sign that your dog is feeling uncomfortably chilly is a hesitance to go outside to relieve himself. And if he’s tracking you like a heat-seeking missile, lying on you or in contact with you, it's another sign he's having trouble maintaining body heat. And of course shivering is a clear red flag.

If your dog is visibly chilled, is a small or toy breed, has a short or thin coat, is older, doesn't get around well or has a chronic health condition, a sweater or jacket may the best thing for him, even when he’s indoors.

Dogs less likely to need sweaters are large breeds with dense coats. In fact, most dogs bred for cold climates can actually overheat in a sweater or jacket. Overweight dogs often don't need extra insulation, but breeds like the Chihuahua, many of the terrier and pinscher breeds, and the Greyhound, are examples of dogs that often need a little help staying warm.

Picking the Right Sweater for Your Dog

When picking a sweater for your dog, I recommend a fabric that can be easily washed and dried, and one that won't itch or irritate your pet's skin. Measure the circumference of your dog's neck and chest and the length of his body from neck to waist, plus take his weight, so that you can select clothing that fits.

A dog sweater should be snug, but not tight. The length should end at about the waist, leaving the dog's back end free. The neck and leg holes should be big enough that your dog can move freely, but not so big that he can pull his head or a leg out.

I recommend plain sweaters without zippers, hooks, buttons or other embellishments that can be both annoying to your dog and a choking hazard. The sweater should be easy to put on and take off without a struggle. If you’re like me, you’ll also want to look for sweaters made of natural material, like this organic, recycled 100 percent cotton sweater I found for Lenny.

Lenny wearing cotton sweater

You may have a few misses before you hit on the right size and fit, so either take your dog with you so you can try things on him, or shop at retailers with liberal return policies. If you put a sweater on your dog, especially indoors, check regularly to make sure she’s still comfortable. I recommend taking sweaters on and off every few hours to prevent overheating or an itchy rash.

Keep in mind that not every dog who needs a coat will wear one. It’s just too unnatural for some pups. So don't force your dog to wear any item of clothing if it means she can't act or move naturally. One last thing: dogs rarely, if ever, need pants. And boots are also unnecessary in most instances, especially since dogs feel the ground with their paws, and anything that interferes with their ability to sense their environment isn't a great idea.

However, if you live in a heavily contaminated environment or walk on ice, training your dog to wear boots may be a necessity, but don’t expect her to be happy about it!

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