Cold Weather Care For Dogs

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General Considerations

A dog is happiest if allowed to live and grow up in his owner's home receiving needed love and companionship. Forcing a pet to live a solitary, outside life leads to boredom. A bored dog is often a problem animal, prone to barking, chewing or other misdeeds.

A dog is social by nature and does best with an active life as a member of a family unit. Being alone is an unnatural condition for dogs. They have the need to socialize. Humans constitute their primary social companion, replacing the dog pack for this necessary attention.

Many dogs, except toy breeds, young puppies, dogs with very short haircoats, and sick or old dogs can adapt to outdoor living provided they receive necessary food, care, shelter and attention. All dogs should be maintained at comfortable temperatures with clean feed and water and in clean surroundings.

If a dog is kept outside, special considerations must be made before purchasing or building a shelter based on the animal's size.

The ceiling should be 2-3 inches taller than the tallest part of the sitting dog. The interior should provide 36 square inches of floor space for every inch of the dog's height, from the point of his shoulders to the ground (e.g., a dog 20" tall needs 720 square inches of floor space, 20" X 36" = 720 square inches).

The shelter should be protected from the wind with the door facing east or south. The entrance should be off-center so the dog can curl up in the corner, protected from precipitation and drafts.

A nesting box to hold bedding should be provided in the protected inside shelter corner. The roof should be able to be removed to allow warm weather ventilation and ease of cleaning. Extension of the roof line out over the entrance provides an area shaded from the sun and protects the entrance during inclement weather. During cold weather, the entrance should be covered with a baffle or canvas flap.

The roof should have some pitch to provide drainage. It should be situated on a high, well-drained location. It should have clean bedding at all times. A bag made of ticking stuffed with shredded newspapers, straw, cedar or pine shavings can be regularly emptied, washed and renewed with fresh stuffing material.

The shelter can be constructed from any of a wide variety of materials, such as exterior plywood, wooden barrels, hay or straw bales, crates, etc. When finished, the interior must allow the animal to sit, turn around and lay down. The animal must be able to keep dry and warm on the inside and escape the direct rays of the sun on the outside.

Remember, the shelter is for sleeping and escaping weather extremes, not to live in. The interior should provide a comfortable sleeping area protected from drafts. Don't build it too large or it won't allow the dog's body heat to keep the air surrounding him warm.

Color is important as a dark shelter absorbs heat -- a good thing in winter but deadly in summer. A light-colored shelter reflects summer heat but won't absorb heat in winter. Use a medium color, such as green, or consider a reversible roof -- black on one side for winter and white on the other for summer.

A shelter should be raised above the ground on a platform or runners to avoid dampness or heavy rain runoff. No dog should have to live and walk in flooded, muddy or mired areas. The shelter should be cleaned at least once each month, while the surrounding area or kennel should be cleaned daily or intestinal parasites and microorganisms may flourish and cause disease.

Dogs must have fresh, cool water which is changed frequently. Common problems include: using small, unanchored and easily tipped containers, metal containers left in the sun until the water is too hot to drink, and frozen water.

Burying a dog's water container halfway in the ground keeps the water cooler and makes it less likely to spill while the owner is away. Solutions to prevent spilling include: anchoring a 5-gallon plastic bucket to the fence, a stake or shelter; placing a bucket inside a milk bottle basket for stability; or supporting inside two sports car tires. Whenever possible, locate water in summer shade and in winter sun.

If the dog isn't kept in a fenced yard -- the preferred outdoor situation -- it should have a large run or kennel (at least 4-6' wide and 8-12' long) as well as daily exercise with its owner. If the animal is kept on a chain or similar device (never encouraged as it may make the dog aggressive) it should be at least 12' long, with swivel snaps on both ends to prevent tangling and knotting.

A dog should never wear a 'choke chain' except during training. A proper restraint device for normal use would be a suitably-sized leather or nylon collar or harness with its snap-ring and buckle in good repair. Dogs should have a license, rabies tag and microchip at all times.

Special precautions insure the animal can't tangle its chain or rope around trees, posts and yard swings. Make sure the animal can't dig under or climb over fences, fall from porches, stairways or elevated patios. HSU responds to several such reports of hung and hanging dogs each year.

Cold Weather Care

No dog is biologically able to endure the unsheltered cold of our winters except sheepdogs, St. Bernards, Chow Chows and Siberian husky, and these require shelter under Utah animal protection statutes.

Historically, dogs roamed at will on the farm and could find places to 'nest' at night or to rest where it was dry and warm -- in stables, barns or sheds -- where sufficient bedding was available or the dog could burrow in stored hay or straw. Modern dogs depend on their owners to provide necessary and proper shelter.

Acclimate your pet to the outdoors during mild weather so his coat and body adapt to seasonal temperature changes. His coat will become thick enough to withstand even very cold temperatures provided his shelter is dry and wind tight.

Dogs respond to cold by shivering and depressing their breathing. Hypothermia (excessive cooling of the body's core) prevention requires adequate shelter, protection against wetness or wind, good physical condition, and adequate food and water. A healthy animal's haircoat, skin, underlying tissue and fat protect against hypothermia.

Most heat loss occurs through radiation, convection, and conduction of heat from body surfaces. Conduction is the transfer of heat by direct contact. Convection is the transfer of heat to the environment via air or water movement over the body. Radiation is heat transfer which occurs if an animal goes into the cold without an adequate haicoat or body condition.

Newborn puppies and geriatric (old) dogs represent special cold weather concerns. A newborn puppy loses far more body heat per pound of body weight than adult dogs, has less insulating fat, and lacks a shivering response during the early nursing period.

Older dogs may lack the ability to elevate their body heat efficiently when moved from a warm to a cold environment. There is usually less muscle mass, making the shivering response somewhat less effective. These dogs require extra cold protection and above-average nutrition.

It is important for outdoor dogs to have a sufficient covering of flesh before and during winter since muscle mass and fat covering provide body insulation. If a dog shows signs of poor condition (such as lack of fleshiness over the hips, ribs and backbone) increase its food intake.

The shelter opening should be just large enough to allow the dog to enter and exit and should face away from prevailing winds. Shelters should be caulked and raised off wet and frozen ground and be well-insulated. Bedding should be a thick pad with washable cover, containing cedar chips or shredded newspaper. Check bedding daily to be sure it is dry and clean as a dog's coat and feet bring in moisture.

Check on the dog's food and water frequently during the day to be sure they are not frozen. Ice will slip out readily if you put a thin film of petroleum jelly inside the water bucket each time you fill it. A hollow plastic bowl for water won't crack if frozen.

During winter the dog should be fed several small meals rather than one large meal. It needs additional caloric intake (about 15% more food for each 20 degree F. drop in temperature) and a bit more animal fat or vegetable oil to help convert energy to body heat.

Lactating (nursing) bitches, growing pups and hard-working dogs have high energy requirements during cold weather. Adding warm water to your dog's feed (according to package directions) can help insure water intake is adequate and the dog doesn't become dehydrated.

Dogs should be brushed and combed more vigorously and more often in winter. A dry, clean and fluffy coat is more effective in keeping the dog warm than a wet and dirty one. This reduces the need for a bath.

Close off empty spaces between the bottom of the doghouse floor and the ground or concrete to prevent the wind from blowing under the shelter. In the worst weather, a protected light bulb can supply additional warmth to the doghouse interior.

Extremely cold weather can lower an animal's resistance to disease and bring on ailments like pneumonia and arthritis. Check the dog's feet frequently for buildups of snow, ice, salt and chemicals.

A good temporary shelter can consist of a shipping crate, wooden or metal drum or even a large cardboard box. The container should be placed on a solid piece of wood set on bricks. Insulate the box or drum with an old blanket or quilt, then encase the entire shelter in several thicknesses of sturdy garbage bags taped or stapled to the structure. The temporary shelter should be replaced as soon as possible with a suitable, permanent shelter.

The best place for a doghouse or shelter is inside another building, such as a garage or shed. The doghouse might be placed on the shady side of a home during summer and on the sunny side during winter.