How to Protect Your Dog in the Snow and Ice

What self-respecting dog can resist playing outside in a fresh blanket of snow? Most dogs romp in it with unbridled joy. But winter brings seasonal hazards for your dog, including salt and other de-icing agents, dangerously cold temperatures, deep snow, slippery ice, and more. If heavy snowfall is the norm where you live, you and your dog will have no choice but to spend at least some time in it, even if he’d rather be curled up at your feet in front of the fireplace. 

Read on for winter safety tips on how to protect your beloved pooch from the inevitable challenges of snow, ice, and the bitter cold of winter.

Prepare Before Your Dog Plays in the Snow

Set up the entryway or mudroom: Keep a stack of clean towels by the door so they’re handy to wipe down your dog when you return from a snowy romp or walk.

Clear the porch and the steps: If your dog takes a spill on the ice, he can rupture a cruciate ligament, or hyperextend or sprain a limb; senior dogs are at highest risk. Shovel your stoop and walkways, and then apply sand for traction or non-toxic ice melt specially formulated to be safe for dogs and kids. Avoid salt, which can burn your dog’s pads.

Winter Grooming Tips for Dogs

Grooming your dog is just as important in cold weather as it is in spring or summer. Prep his paws and fur for snowy weather to keep him comfortable.

  • Pay attention to his feet, which are the most vulnerable to ice, snow, and ice-melting salt and chemicals: trim the hair between his pads so it’s even with his paws—a beard groomer with the shortest plastic guard attachment works well. This helps keep ice balls from forming between and around his pads, which can cause trauma and frostbite. Then trim the hair around the paws so it doesn’t come in contact with the ground.
  • Trim his nails. Long toenails force the pads to splay open, making snow and ice more likely to accumulate between them. Plus, he’ll enjoy better traction on snow and ice with shorter nails.
  • Keep his coat clean and brushed. It’ll actually help insulate him against the cold. And when you bathe your dog, dry him thoroughly before you take him outside.
Annie looks ready to come in. Pay attention to you dog’s cues.
Photo by  Lorna Kottke (Brainerd, MN)

Treat or Prevent Your Dog’s Dry Skin With Moisturizer

  • Moisturize his pads. They can dry and crack just like your own heels, especially if they’re tough. Massaging a thin layer of balm into them just before you take him outside can help protect them against snow and ice, and will soothe cuts, scratches, and minor irritations—left untreated these can develop into more serious problems. Some products are specially formulated for dogs, but Bag Balm® and Vaseline® work, too. Use caution on smooth surfaces to avoid slipping, and protect your furniture from grease stains if your dog is allowed up. 
  • Moisturize his skin. Add a skin and coat supplement to his food, like coconut or fish oil. And if you observe dry or cracked spots on his ears, nose, or paw pads, apply coconut oil directly to them.
  • Keep him hydrated. Dogs need it as badly in winter as they do in summer; give him access to fresh, clean water, always. Your dog may eat snow if he’s thirsty, or because it’s a fascinating thing to nibble—but the snow is not a source of hydration and can harbor dangerous bacteria or chemicals.
  • Run a humidifier in your home: it will help your dog’s chapped pads, and itchy, flaky winter skin.

Tips for Playing Safely Outside With Your Dog in Winter

Do Dogs Need Snow Boots?

If your dog will wear them, and if they stay on, shoes and boots offer your dog’s feet the best protection against snow, ice, and chemicals. If he objects to wearing them, first try them indoors for short spells; praise him and treat him, and gradually increase the length of time he wears them. Note that over-tightening boots around your dog’s ankles can cut off his circulation. While it’s never desirable to do this, it’s especially important to avoid in the winter when blood flow to your dog’s feet is so important.

Try a paw wax on your dog’s pads: This is not the same as a moisturizing balm; it adds a layer of protection between his pads and the pavement, creating a shield against abrasives and chemical de-icing agents on sidewalks and roads. Musher’s Secret Paw Wax is an example, originally developed for sled dogs; you can apply it any time it’s needed, and it will wear off gradually.

Protecting Dogs Paws From Ice Melt, Salt and Snow

Salt and de-icing agents on wintry streets, sidewalks, and parking lots can be caustic to your dog’s pads, and toxic if he ingests them. Don’t let your dog drink from slush or puddles near chemically treated areas, and don’t let him eat snow: It can contain waste and bacteria in addition to chemicals. If your dog lifts his paws or appears to limp while outdoors, cold may be the cause—but it could also signal sensitivity to rock salt on the sidewalk. Opt for walking in snow instead of on salted surfaces to keep paws comfortable.

Does Ice Melt Hurt Dogs’ Paws?

Some ice melt products like sodium chloride and calcium chloride will hurt your dogs’ paws. Look for urea-based (also called Diamide or Carbamide Resin) ice melts as a way to protect your dog’s (and your neighborhood dogs’) paws and skin.

Alaskan Malamutes like Kol have a very high tolerance for cold.
Photo by Brittany Allen (Porter Corners, NY)

Are Dog Jackets Necessary in Winter?

A short-haired breed can chill easily, whether he’s a Chihuahua or a Doberman. If it’s cold outside and he has a thin coat or short hair, he needs a dog jacket or coat; look for full coverage and a turtleneck or collar. But remember, a dog coat or jacket will not protect his extremities: Don’t overstay the cold—take care of business and get inside where it’s warm.

How Long Can Dogs Stay Outside in Cold Weather?

Enjoy outdoor winter fun in short bursts. Stay outside with your dog in the snowy cold, and when your own body says it’s time to come inside, your dog is probably ready, too. While their circulatory systems help paws handle snow, prolonged exposure to the bitter cold is dangerous for dogs, who are susceptible to frostbite and hypothermia just like we are.

Watch Your Dog for Signs of Frostbite or Hypothermia

Frostbite is not immediately obvious, but frostbitten areas can become painful as warmth returns to them. Look for pale or grey, or hard or cold skin. Frostbite occurs when the body pulls warmth to its core and the extremities become so cold that ice crystals form in the tissue and damage it. Frostbitten skin eventually turns black and will begin to slough off; your dog’s ears, paws, and tail are vulnerable.

Early signs of hypothermia include cold extremities and shivering. As hypothermia progresses, a dog may become lethargic, depressed, and weak. Eventually, he will stiffen, his heart rate and breathing will slow, and he will no longer respond to stimuli. Your dog can become hypothermic when he spends too long outside in the cold, gets wet in cold weather, or is exposed to cold when he has poor circulation or otherwise poor health; severe hypothermia is life-threatening.

Although running and playing in deep snow is big fun, it’s also hard work, and can lead to exhaustion or heart failure in small breeds and overweight dogs. Know your dog’s limits and don’t let him overdo it.

Keep Your Dog Safe From Winter Dangers

One cold-weather toxin may exist right in your own driveway: Antifreeze is lethal to animals. Look for puddles your dog can find, and consider using an antifreeze that contains propylene glycol instead of ethylene glycol. While propylene glycol is less toxic to dogs, it can still make them sick; keep it out of reach and away from water sources.

Tidy up the yard: Pick up tools and toys before it snows to prevent injury from items hidden underneath the snow. Allowing snow to pile up against fences also creates an easy escape route for an opportunist. And be advised that ice and snow buildup on your roof is dangerous when it melts enough to slide off; keep your dog away from the overhang if you can’t clean your roof.

Watch your step: Keep your dog close to you when he’s out enjoying a snowy off-leash stroll. Snow can conceal bodies of water that may or may not be safe to walk on. Also watch out for waste, which attracts rodents, and spreads bacteria and disease; be a good citizen and pick up after your pup, even in the snow.

Stay visible: Dim light or falling snow can obscure vision, making it harder for drivers to see you. A reflective leash and collar, light-colored clothing, and a bright flashlight help increase visibility in wintry conditions. Keep your companion on a leash during foul weather.

Have your dog wear a backpack on your winter walks: It will help keep him focused and well-behaved on slippery walkways.

Build-up of snow in your dog’s fur is something that needs to be addressed once you’re back inside.
Photo by Phil Monahan

After Your Dog Comes Inside

After he comes indoors, check for signs of injury and ensure he’s warm and comfortable.

Check His Paws

Wash your dog’s feet with a warm washcloth and inspect them (you can do both at once). Look for abrasions, injuries, or other abnormalities; press down gently on the pads with your thumb and listen to your dog for signs of discomfort. Also, inspect between the pads. Don’t let him groom away ice balls, which may contain salt and chemicals—using wax before going out can prevent buildup, but any gathered snow should be washed away. Consult the vet if he’s limping.

Use a warm, moist towel to melt away ice clusters from your dog’s coat, and thoroughly dry him with a hairdryer set on low if he’ll allow it. To prevent matting, brush his coat after accumulated ice has been removed. Don’t try to pull ice balls out of his coat: It will hurt, and he may nip in defense.

Reapply balm to his pads to keep them smooth and conditioned.

What Do I Do If My Dog Cuts His Paw on the Ice?

If your dog’s paws are sore, raw, or bleeding from ice or snow, use basic first aid. For severe injuries, contact your veterinarian.

  • Clean the wound by flushing with cool water or saline solution. Remove any dirt or debris stuck in the wound.
  • Apply pressure to stop the bleeding.
  • Examine the wound and consult your veterinarian if the bleeding lasts more than a few minutes with constant pressure; if the cuts are deep; if you cannot remove the debris; or if cleaning the wound causes distress.
  • Wrap his paw in a bandage, if necessary. Your veterinarian may recommend an antibiotic ointment or medication to prevent infection. An Elizabethan collar (or ‘cone’) may be necessary to prevent him from chewing or worrying at the bandaging; ingesting gauze or dressing materials creates a risk of intestinal blockage. Change the dressing as necessary.
  • Limit activity to allow the abrasion to heal. Healing time varies from about a week for a mild injury to longer for a deeper cut.
  • Observe the injured paw and contact your veterinarian if you note signs of swelling, redness, or a bad odor.

Snowy winter play with your dog can be invigorating and rewarding: Look for the day’s brightest sunlight (you’ll both benefit from a dose of vitamin D) or most moderate temperature and choose that moment for snowy outdoor walks or games with him. If he enjoys playing fetch, pack along a frisbee or ball for some vigorous cardio activity. So long as you stay vigilant, keeping your dog protected in the snow and ice should be no sweat.

2 thoughts on “How to Protect Your Dog in the Snow and Ice”

  1. Wax on… man parts… this is our main problem but I never read about it anywhere! The little hairs here can hold ice and it is the only area we’ve had signs of early frostbite. A little wax here (like the kind for the paws) helps as long as it is non-toxic. Staying out of deep snow helps, but this is really difficult to do in some places.

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