Written by: Deb German
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, 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 to learn how to protect your beloved pooch from the inevitable challenges of snow, ice, and the bitter cold of winter.
I. BEFORE YOUR DOG PLAYS IN THE SNOW
Prepare the entryway or mudroom: Keep a stack of clean towels by the door so they’re handy to wipe down your pooch when you return from a snowy romp or walk.
Prepare 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 a non-toxic ice melt specially formulated to be safe for dogs and kids. Avoid salt, which can burn your dog’s pads.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Use moisturizer on your dog:
- 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.
- Moisturize his skin. Add a skin and coat supplement to his food, like coconut or fish oil. And if you observe a spot on his ears that’s dry or cracking, apply coconut oil to it directly.
- Keep him hydrated. Dogs need it as badly in winter as they do in summer; give him access to fresh, clean water, always.
- Run a humidifier in your home: it will help your dog’s chapped pads, and itchy, flaky winter skin.
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.
Use dog shoes, if necessary: If your dog will wear them, and if they stay on, shoes offer your dog’s feet the best protection against 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.
Dress up your dog: 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.
II. WHILE YOUR DOG IS OUTSIDE IN THE SNOW
Protect him from toxins: 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.
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.
Keep an eye on the clock: Prolonged exposure to the bitter cold is dangerous for dogs, who are susceptible to frostbite and hypothermia just like we are. Know the signs:
- Frostbite is not immediately obvious, but frostbitten areas can become very 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..
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.
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.
Tidy up the yard: When you allow snow to pile up against fences, it also creates an easy escape route for an opportunist. And be advised that 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 which 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.
Have your dog wear a backpack on your winter walks: It will help keep him focused and well-behaved on slippery walkways.
III. WHEN YOUR DOG COMES INSIDE FROM THE SNOW
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. 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 hair dryer set on low if he’ll allow it. Don’t try to pull ice balls out of his coat: it will hurt, and he may nip in defense.
- Then reapply balm to his pads to keep them smooth and conditioned.
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.
Have any wintry dog tips to share? We’d love to hear them in the comments section below.