How to Keep Your Dog Safe and Warm in Winter

Dog getting hugged by a boy during snowfall

Barbara Peacock / Getty Images

When the temperature drops overnight, dogs don’t have the benefit of pulling something out of the closet to wear. While some parts of the country tend to enjoy mild winters, abrupt changes in the weather often leave pets shivering.

Different dog breeds react to cold weather in different ways. Some German shepherds like rain and snow and turn everything into a doggy playground. Short-furred pups such as Chihuahuas, however, tend to be heat-seeking missiles eager to burrow into piles of fluffy blankets. A draft sends them scurrying for shelter. Cold weather may also prompt fussy puppies to ​potty in the house because they don't want to get their nether regions chilly. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to help your dog adapt to the cold and stay safe from potential winter hazards.​

Before You Begin

Bitterly cold winter weather can present unique dangers to your pup. Watch out for the following in cold weather months:

  • Ice: Thin ice is a real danger to dogs and puppies who might not realize where they're stepping. Prevent drowning and hypothermia by keeping your dog away from these areas. Even if the ice is thick enough to bear weight, your dog could slip and tear a muscle or sprain a tendon or ligament.
  • Antifreeze: Even a little antifreeze could be fatal to your dog. It's important to keep these containers locked away and clean up any spills immediately. It's also helpful to learn to recognize the symptoms of antifreeze poisoning in pets, such as vomiting, lethargy, and having trouble walking.
  • Arthritis: If your dog is already experiencing symptoms of arthritis, signs of this condition can become more apparent in cold weather. You will want to keep your dog as warm, try heated bedding and be sure to give your dog any vet-provided medication as instructed.
  • Carbon monoxide: Be extremely careful about leaving your dog in a running car while you shovel snow in the winter. Check your tailpipe to make sure it's not blocked, otherwise your dog could inhale carbon monoxide.

Beyond those dangers, there are a number of other things you'll want to be aware of when it comes to your dog in cold weather. Dry skin can be an issue, for instance. Additionally, it's critical that outdoor pets be provided with adequate shelter from winter's blowing winds and precipitation.

Acclimation

You can gradually acclimate pups to outdoor chills. Exclusively indoor pets won’t be as well equipped to spend time outside, so be aware and bring them back inside after only short trips to the bathroom and back.

Puppies are less cold-tolerant because they have less muscle and fat mass than adults. Muscle and fat increases their metabolism and keeps them warm. Puppy coats also won’t be as thick or long to offer protection. Little pups have less body mass to generate natural heat, too.

Dog wearing a red snow sweater outside in the snow with its owner behind.
Nicole Kucera​/Getty Images

Protect the Paws

Depending on where you live, your dog's feet might be exposed to ice and salt in the winter, which could damage the paws or pads. Your dog could even experience frostbite if exposed too long to extremely cold temperatures.

Look out for little snow or ice balls that may get caught in-between the toes or in the foot hair. Iced sidewalks and salt can cause chapped paws as well. If you dog's feet are irritated by the chemicals, you can try dog booties or use a warm washcloth to wash your pet's paws after a walk.

White dog wearing blue snow booties in the snow.
Julia Christe/Getty Images

Reduce Fly-Away Fur

Pets often develop dry skin, dull coats, and static-filled fur during the winter as a result of artificial heat from furnaces. Ask your veterinarian or pet store employees about fatty acid supplements that help to counteract the drying effects of winter weather. A humidifier in the home can help your entire family's skin as well.

Combing your pup can create even more static. Before grooming, you can rub your dog's coat down with a damp cloth to discharge static.

Provide Outside Shelter

Getting wet, or sitting in the cold wind, allows body heat to be stripped away and predisposes pets to cold risks. When fur stays clean, untangled, and dry, it traps a warm layer of air next to the pet’s skin that helps protect them from the cold.

Provide your outdoor pets with a doghouse or other shelter, even during moderate temperatures. That way they have time to get used to sleeping inside and learn to take shelter out of the wind and rain.

Avoid accommodations that are too large. Outdoor shelters should be only slightly larger than the curled-up pet. This allows the dog’s own body heat to fill up the space and keep it warm. It’s best to offer a puppy-size shelter rather than a jumbo dog house if your little one hasn’t reached adult size.

If you already have an adult-size dog house, simply place a smaller shelter such as a puppy size dog crate inside for your dog to use as a bed. Put a dry blanket or straw bedding inside for the pet to burrow and snuggle.

Staying in the garage helps keep the wind off their backs, but dogs still need a small cubbyhole to hide inside. Something as simple as a cardboard box can help as long as it stays dry. Providing a light bulb overhead can offer some warmth. You can also find terrific pet warming beds or safe pet heating elements to place under the dog’s bed.

Dog in a doghouse in the winter with snow on the ground.
Amos Chapple/Getty Images 

Preventing Problems With Your Dog in the Winter

It's important to be prepared before cold weather strikes. Consider your dog's individual needs and make the appropriate arrangements beforehand so you're not scrambling for a solution during the first winter storm.

When an outdoor shelter or garage isn’t available, pets should be inside whenever temperatures drop below 40 degrees F or the weather turns nasty.

If your dog begins to favor its paws—picking one up from the ground because it's too cold—it's time to head inside. Keeping a dog blanket in your car can be helpful for a quick warm-up when you're out with your dog as well. If you notice signs of frostbite, consult your vet for treatment.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.