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Even Big Dogs Get Cold — Who Needs a Winter Coat?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • It’s a misconception that all dogs are meant to withstand cold temperatures or do not get cold in the winter months
  • Small and toy breed dogs may get cold faster than large or giant breeds, in part because they’re closer to the cold ground and have a greater surface area to volume ratio
  • Larger breeds with dense coats, like the Saint Bernard, malamute, Samoyed and Siberian husky, rarely need a coat outdoors, but dogs with a short or thin coat may become chilled quite easily, regardless of their size
  • Dogs who are puppies or seniors may have trouble regulating their body temperatures, allowing them to get colder, faster than dogs in their young adult and adult years
  • Great Danes, greyhounds and some pit bulls have short coats without much insulation and may benefit from a dog coat, despite their large size
  • Chihuahuas, along with many terrier and pinscher breeds are additional examples of those that often appreciate a warm coat in the winter, as are toy poodles, Chinese crested and Havanese

When temperatures drop and you bundle up in a winter coat before heading outdoors, you may wonder if your dog needs to wear a coat too. There’s no one-size-fits-all recommendation when it comes to dogs wearing coats, as your pet’s tolerance to the cold will vary based on her size, age, health status, fur type and more.

It’s a misconception, however, that all dogs are meant to withstand cold temperatures or do not get cold in the winter months. Likewise, even large dogs can get cold outside and may benefit from a winter coat or sweater. When determining if your dog should wear a coat, here are some important factors to consider.

Evaluate Your Dog’s Size and Fur

Generally speaking, small and toy breed dogs may get cold faster than large or giant breeds, in part because they’re closer to the cold ground. If your dog has short legs, such as a mini dachshund, his belly will be in close contact with any snow and ice, making even short potty trips outdoors a chilly endeavor.

Small dogs also have a greater surface area to volume ratio, giving them more skin through which heat escapes, compared to larger dogs.1 Size is not the only determining factor, however. Equally, if not more, important is what type of fur they have. Dogs with a short or thin coat may become chilled quite easily, regardless of their size.

For instance, Great Danes, greyhounds and some pit bulls have short coats without much insulation and may benefit from a dog coat, despite their large size.2 Chihuahuas, along with many terrier and pinscher breeds are additional examples of breeds that often appreciate a warm coat in the winter, as are toy poodles, Chinese crested and Havanese.3

Larger breeds with dense coats, like the Saint Bernard, malamute, Samoyed and Siberian husky, rarely need a coat outdoors. These breeds and most dogs bred for cold climates can actually overheat in a sweater or jacket, unless they are wet. Small breeds with longer hair, such as Shih Tzus, may be comfortable with a light sweater instead of a heavier coat.

Consider Age and Health Status

Your dog’s age will also affect her tolerance to cold, with very young and very old dogs requiring more protection from the elements. Dogs who are puppies or seniors may have trouble regulating their body temperatures and less muscle mass, allowing them to get colder, faster than dogs in their young adult and adult years.

Health status is also important, as dogs with chronic health issues or mobility issues are at greater risk of hypothermia. Overweight dogs often don't need extra insulation, either, while lean or underweight dogs will get cold faster and may need an extra layer of warmth in the form of a sweater or coat.

Even fur color makes a difference, with dark coats able to absorb more heat from the sun, providing more warmth on sunny days than white or light coats. Using these factors, you can make a reasonable guess as to whether or not your dog will appreciate a warm coat on a cold winter day, but you should also watch her body language closely.

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Signs Your Dog Is Cold

If you’ve assumed your dog does just fine without a coat, yet you observe any of the following, you may have assumed wrong. The following signs signify that your dog is cold, and if you observe them it’s not only time to head inside but also to consider outfitting your dog in a coat the next time you go outdoors, especially if it’s for a longer period.

Shivering

Holding up a paw

Anxiety

Searching for warmth

Whining

Weakness or limping

Slowing down

Lack of mental alertness

If temperatures outdoors are very cold, you may find a coat is necessary to keep your dog warm even for a quick bathroom break. How cold is too cold? A good rule of thumb to follow is this: When the temperature drops below 45 degrees F, dogs who generally 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. Depending on temperature, however, your dog may only need a coat initially but may warm up and prefer to not have a coat on for the entire time she’s outside, especially if she’s very active.

Other factors that influence your dog’s cold tolerance include the sun, wind chill and precipitation. Rain and snow can cause your dog to become cold quite quickly if they become wet or damp.

Meanwhile, some dogs, especially small dogs with very thin coats, may appreciate a light sweater or t-shirt on cold days even when they’re inside — but don’t leave her unattended with one on. You should check on your dog’s comfort every few hours and remove it if your dog seems warm or uncomfortable.

Keep in mind, too, that some dogs despise the feeling of clothing and will refuse it, regardless of the weather. If this is the case and your dog seems unhappy if you put a coat on her, don’t force her to wear one.

What Type of Coat or Sweater Is Best?

I always recommend looking for organic, natural materials when it comes to clothing for pets, including coats and sweaters. Look for soft material free from zippers, buttons, ties, hoods or other adornments that could be chewed off and swallowed by your pet or otherwise may prove to be an annoyance to her.

Fit is important, and you’ll need to measure your dog’s neck, chest and length to get a proper fit. Even then, you may need to try several different styles before you find one that’s comfortable for your pup.

The coat should be easy to get on and off and allow your dog to move freely. Avoid coats that restrict your dog’s movement in any way as well as those that are too big, which could cause your dog to become entangled or trip. Kelsey Dickerson, spokesperson with the Arizona Humane Society, told PetMD:4

“It is important to make sure your pet’s sweater or jacket is not too snug or too loose, as it can be dangerous for your furry friend. It is especially important to check the fit around your pet’s neck and armpit area to ensure there isn’t any rubbing or irritation.”

Generally, thinner coats will be best, as bulky coats for dogs may hinder natural movement. Think, too, about the coat’s intended purpose. If it’s meant only for quick trips out in your backyard, a lightweight coat should be fine, while a waterproof or water-resistant version may be preferable for longer walks or hikes.

Even with a warm coat, your dog can still get cold or frostbitten— especially their paws — so you’ll still need to keep a close watch for signs that it’s time to go inside. Many thick-coated dogs who don’t need coats still need protective footwear if outside for extended periods of time. Watch, too, for signs that your coat-clad dog is overheating, such as excessive panting or drooling.

By paying attention to your dog’s behavior, you’ll quickly catch on to when she’s comfortable versus cold, as well as whether or not she prefers wearing a coat outdoors. Often, dogs who enjoy wearing sweaters or coats will run to you when it’s time to put it on — a sure sign that they appreciate the extra layer of warmth.

+ Sources and References