2019 ushered in frigid weather and extreme cold across the United States. In late January and early February, the Midwestern states experienced subzero temperatures lasting days. Experts say staying in offers the most safety for humans and dogs alike, but for many Service Dog teams, particularly those that rely on public transportation, that’s just not feasible. Keep reading to learn more about extreme cold weather safety for Service Dogs.
Dangers of Extreme Cold Weather
Whether or not there’s snow on the ground, dangers of extreme cold abound. First, there’s the cold itself. Exposure to cold for long enough results in a dangerous condition called “hypothermia.” Hypothermia occurs when the body cannot keep itself warm. It most frequently occurs in those exposed to the elements or in those who are inappropriately dressed for the weather. When the cold is extreme enough, even a few minutes is enough to cause damage. Wind compounds the problem by making it feel colder than the actual temperature. Humidity and water cause the body to lose heat even quicker.
Fun Fact: “According to physics experts, the freezing point of saliva is typically between -30 to -40 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Staying warm in extreme weather requires lots of energy. The body needs quality fuel in order to maintain its core body temperature. A core body temperature of 101 – 102.5F requires a dog’s metabolism to work harder than a human’s to stay warm. As such, a lack of calories can be a danger of extremely cold weather. On a similar note, biting winds and below freezing temps create a lack of available drinking water. Contrary to popular belief, it’s very difficult to eat enough snow to meet a body’s daily water needs. Additionally, melting that snow and heating it to body temp wastes valuable calories and energy.
Finally, extreme weather brings lots of chemical use, especially in cities. Salt helps control ice. Antifreeze is everywhere. Businesses cover sidewalks in silt or sand to increase traction. Antifreeze is deadly to most animals, including dogs, and salt can cause digestive upsets and chemical burns.
Factors That Affect Cold Tolerance
Many people believe that dogs are adapted to survive outdoors. While that may have once been true, for many of today’s domesticated canines, things have changed. In contrast with their wolfy ancestors, many dog breeds now have a short, thin coat and are more adapted to chilling on the living room floor than to running in the forest hunting down food. Even breeds with a naturally thick coat, like huskies, Chows, or many of the shepherd types, can struggle in extreme cold if they aren’t regularly exposed to it.
Many factors affect cold tolerance, including coat type, anatomical structure, metabolism, body fat, age, activity level, general health, and general acclimation. A plushly coated sled dog who lives outdoors and eats pounds of fatty meats a day will be far more comfortable than a Greyhound who has a canopy bed in the corner of its owner’s bedroom and only goes outside for a few minutes every day. If your Service Dog is thin or naturally has low body fat, you might need to feed a bit more food to provide enough fuel for them to stay warm.
Generally speaking, dogs with thicker coats stay warmer than dogs with less fur. However, if a double coated dog lives indoors with limited exposure to the cold, they can still respond poorly to being outdoors in extreme weather! Dogs with more body fat more easily support the metabolic requirements required to stay warm. Very young dogs and very old dogs won’t fare as well. Dogs who are more active stay warmer. Sick dogs can quickly succumb to low temperatures.
Carefully consider your Service Dog’s health, breed, and tolerance to cold when deciding how to handle extreme cold and inclement weather. Try to limit time spent outdoors. If you must travel or be outside for long periods, utilize protective gear for both yourself and your Service Dog.
Protective Gear For Extreme Weather
Companies nowadays offer tons of apparel, gear, and equipment for both pets and working dogs. Many coats, sweaters, and jackets are purely decorative, so when purchasing extreme weather gear for your Service Dog, carefully examine the materials used. Dogs who don’t have a naturally warm coat will need to wear a jacket when outdoors. Ruffwear and Hurtta have great cold weather gear. Plus, Ruffwear has a discount for Service Dog teams!
Dogs who spend lots of times out on the street or sidewalks need paw protection. Salt burns can be severe. Rock salt chunks between paw pads can cause sores. Consider boots or paw wax for city-dwelling Service Dogs. Additionally, dogs lose a lot of heat through their paw pads. Furthermore, paws are particularly susceptible to frostbite. Always clean your dog’s feet when returning indoors. Check them carefully for hotspots or discomfort.