by Stephanie Dwilson
As the temperature drops and winter sets in, you may be rethinking just how much time your dog should spend outside. During the summer, you hear a lot about how important it is to protect your dog from the heat. But cold weather safety is just as vital. Dogs get cold just like humans do, and since some dogs handle the cold weather better than others, it can be tough to know exactly what you should do.
Just how cold is too cold for your dog to go outside? In general, once the temperature drops below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, most dogs shouldn’t be outside for more than very short potty breaks. But there’s a lot of variability above and below this temperature based on breed, health and other factors. This guide will help you understand all the factors you need to consider to keep your furry best friend safe.
Understanding a dog’s cold tolerance
Many factors can affect how well one dog handles cold weather versus another, including breed, body composition, fur type and more.
Variability in cold tolerance among dog breeds
Some dog breeds are bred to adapt much better to cold weather than others. Huskies thrive in much lower temperatures than your average dog since their breeds were bred to pull sleds in the snow.
Examples of breeds that handle the cold better include:
Bernese Mountain Dogs
In contrast, small breeds and breeds with thinner coats like Basenji will struggle when temperatures drop.
Examples of breeds that struggle more in the cold include:
Factors influencing cold tolerance
Besides breed, other factors can influence how well your dog tolerates the cold, including:
Health issues: Dogs with arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, hormonal diseases or kidney disease may struggle in the cold.
Age: Very old dogs and very young dogs may have less tolerance for the cold because they can’t regulate their body temperature as well. In addition, very young animals often don’t have as much body fat as adults, and very old animals often have comorbidities that make thermoregulation challenging
Size and body composition: Very thin dogs with little fat have a lower cold tolerance. Smaller dogs also get colder faster. In contrast, dogs with a layer of fat have more insulation against the cold (but obesity brings its own health risks that might counteract this).
Fur type and thickness: Dogs without an undercoat or with a short, thin coat are more vulnerable to the cold. In contrast, dogs with double-layered coats, like Samoyeds, are more tolerant.
Fur color: Dogs with darker-colored coats absorb more heat from the sun, helping them stay warmer.
Small ears: Smaller ears lose less heat, helping dogs conserve their warmth.
Signs your dog is too cold
The warning signs that your dog’s getting too cold and in danger of frostbite or hypothermia can range from behavioral indicators to physical symptoms.
Watch for these signs:
Excess whining or vocalizing, especially while making eye contact with you
Shivering or trembling
Slowing down the pace
Tucking the tail between the legs
Looking for somewhere warm to hide, like a bush or under a car
Acting anxious or fearful, such as suddenly wanting to be held
Here are some physical symptoms to watch for:
Sudden lameness while walking outside (this could indicate ice accumulation between the toes)
Cracked or bleeding paw pads
Weakness or sluggishness
Tail, paws or ear tips turning pale or blue (frostbite signs
If your dog is having symptoms related to being cold, get inside where it’s warmer and dry off any dampness on the fur immediately. Wrap your dog in a warm blanket (try running a towel or blanket through the dryer to warm it!) and call your veterinarian right away.
Cold weather temperature guidelines for dogs
Dogs have temperature ranges they’re more comfortable in, and temperatures where their health can be at risk. But the range can vary from dog to dog.
Safe temperature range for outdoor activities
Dogs have a “thermoneutral zone” of 68 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit, where they can maintain their body temperature without needing to expend any extra energy. There’s also a range above and below this where they’re still just fine, but they need to expend a little extra energy and calories to maintain their temperature.
In general, most dogs will still be perfectly happy and safe in temperatures from 45 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. But once the temperatures get below 45 degrees Fahrenheit, you’ll need to be more cautious when your dog is outside.
General temperature thresholds for different dog breeds
When the weather is below freezing, it’s a good rule of thumb not to leave any dog outside for a long period of time. Even Huskies can get frostbite when it’s cold enough.
Some small-sized dogs and medium-sized breeds may start struggling once the temperature drops below 45 degrees Fahrenheit.
At 20 degrees Fahrenheit, the weather can be life-threatening. Small dog breeds or dogs with thin coats shouldn’t be outside longer than 15 minutes if it’s below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. In general, medium- and large-sized breeds shouldn’t be out longer than 30 minutes for a walk when it’s 20 to 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
Wind chill, rain and other factors
Pay attention to the weather. Wind and cold can make it tougher for your dog to tolerate the cold.
Wind chill: A harsh wind exacerbates the cold because it cuts through your dog’s fur and decreases insulation.
Damp weather: Rain or snow lowers cold tolerance. Water soaks through your dog’s fur, making them get colder faster.
Cloudy weather: Direct sunlight gives extra warmth. Your dog may need to go inside sooner when it’s cloudy in the winter versus when it’s sunny.
Tips for keeping your dog safe in cold weather
Of course, dogs still need to go outside to go potty. And many dogs love playing in the cold. Here’s how to help keep your pup safe when outside in the cold.
Provide appropriate clothing and gear
The right cold-weather gear can help your dog a lot. Try a dog coat or sweater for pups with shorter coats. If it’s below freezing, use an insulated jacket when walking outside.
Little booties also help protect your dog’s paws from icy or snowy ground. But only use them sparingly. Because they change how your dog’s toes hit the ground, they can cause pressure sores and a rash or moist dermatitis if worn too frequently.
Adjust outdoor activities
Many dogs love to play in the snow, but you’ll want to keep those playtimes short if your pet is vulnerable to the cold. When going outside, make sure the snow is fluffy, without a crust on top. Crustier snow might cut the pads on your dog’s feet. In addition, wet snow is more likely to make your pup cold than fluffy, dry snow.
Once you get home, wipe down your dog’s feet, legs and belly if it’s icy outside. Sometimes their fur might pick up deicing products like antifreeze, which can be toxic.
When it’s really icy, consider indoor exercise alternatives, like games of fetch and interactive toys.
Ensure access to shelter and warmth
If for some reason you can’t take a dog inside when it’s cold, make sure you have a designated outdoor shelter set up. The floor should be raised off the ground so the shelter doesn’t lose heat from the cold ground. It should be in a location protected from cold drafts, rain and snow.
Because water can ice over fast, you’ll want to use a heated, pet-safe water bowl. A heated food bowl can also be a big help.
The shelter should have lots of insulating bedding inside that you change regularly. Consider setting up outdoor-safe heated pet beds too.
Maintain a balanced diet and hydration
Dogs who are outside in the winter require more calories to generate body heat and stay warm. So you may need to increase those meals a little! Your veterinarian can help advise you on how to change your dog’s food intake. Don’t forget to also guard against dehydration, which can make health issues worse.
Certain dogs need a little extra TLC when it’s cold. Here are some factors to consider.
Certain health conditions can make your dog less tolerant of the cold. Arthritis, for example, can leave your pup struggling to walk in frigid temperatures and more likely to slip and fall outside. In addition, illnesses like heart disease, kidney disease, Cushing’s disease or diabetes can make it tougher for dogs to regulate their body temperature, leaving them more vulnerable to the cold. Talk to your veterinarian about how to keep pups with health conditions safe from the cold.
Some dogs can build at least somewhat of a tolerance to the colder weather over time. If your dog has spent a lot of time in a colder climate, they may handle temperature drops better than a dog who just moved to Minnesota from southern Florida.
How Pets Best can help in cold weather
The cold weather can be a health hazard for small or thin dogs, but even dogs with thicker coats may struggle once it’s below freezing. That’s why it’s so important to stay informed about the weather and take some extra precautions when the temperatures drop to help keep your pup safe and warm.
1. “Cold Weather Animal Safety,” (12/2020), American Veterinary Medical Association, https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/pet-owners/petcare/cold-weather-animal-safety, accessed October 17, 2023.
2. “How Cold Is Too Cold for Dogs?” Danielle Esposito (11/2022), The Dodo, https://www.thedodo.com/dodowell/how-cold-is-too-cold-for-dogs, accessed October 17, 2023.
3. “How Cold Is Too Cold Outside for Pets?” Shana Sutton (5/2022), Elko Veterinary Clinic, https://www.elkovet.com/services/dogs/blog/how-cold-too-cold-outside-pets, accessed October 17, 2023.
4. “How Cold Is Too Cold for Your Dog?” Jennifer Coates (10/2022), PetMD, https://www.petmd.com/dog/care/how-cold-too-cold-dog, accessed October 17, 2023.
5. “How Hot Is Too Hot for Dogs to Be Outside? Here’s What the Experts Say,” Tracey L. Kelley (7/2021), Yahoo Life, https://www.yahoo.com/lifestyle/hot-too-hot-dogs-outside-204900791.html, accessed October 17, 2023.
by Stephanie Dwilson