By John Andersen, DVM
Winter is here! What does it mean for your pets? For most of us, not much. I think I can safely say most dogs around these parts are sleeping inside—many of them will be fighting your for bed and pillow space tonight! These dogs have it made. Well done, moms and dads.
But this article isn’t about them. This is about those poor outdoor dogs. I know, this is one of those topics where not everybody sees eye to eye. Kind of like old school vs. new school. I am not some unrealistic, save-them-all PETA veterinarian. I like to hunt and fish and my dog sleeps in her own bed. But I do disagree with forcing dogs to stay outside on cold winter days and nights (below 40-ish). I think this is a practice that is done because “that’s the way it’s been done,” or “that’s the way my dad raised dogs,” or “because they’re fine.” But they’re not fine. Being cold is one of the most miserable sufferings we can have.
In order to bring some more light on the subject on the dogs’ behalf, here’s something I ask you to think about if you have an outside dog.
First, consider that dogs are not wolves! The domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris) in all of its current breeds and mixes originated from the gray wolf (Canis lupus) around 15,000 years ago. Our most familiar picture of the gray wolf would be the ones we see in Yellowstone National Park and other areas out west. Here is a dog who was meant for cold weather, having many natural attributes that allow them to tolerate extreme cold. Their coats are incredibly thick, making a Labrador’s coat seem like a T-shirt. They have special circulation in their feet to keep their toes and footpads from freezing. They sleep with their long bushy tails wrapped over their noses and feet, retaining warm exhaled air which also helps to keep their feet warm. Their larger body size is efficient at generating and conserving heat.
I’m talking about wolves because only a small percentage of the dogs around Crozet are breeds that remain close to their wolf ancestry and are cold weather adapted. These “arctic breeds” include Huskies, Malamutes, and Chow Chows to name a few. If you have one of these purebreds, your dog probably welcomes the cold weather.
But most people don’t. Hounds, Beagles, and Pit Bulls are great dogs and very common around here, but none of these are able to tolerate cold weather. Even the Retrievers, with their winter duck hunting roots, do not have coats thick enough to keep them adequately warm when temperatures drop. A hound’s coat would be like us wearing a light weight fleece. A retriever’s coat is more like a winter jacket, but still not comfortable for an all-nighter.
So, will a night in 20 degree weather kill them? Not likely. Will they still be happy to see you in the morning? You bet. Their loyalty is beyond measure. But was that a terrible night for them? Absolutely! Being cold for extended periods of time is misery.
Now most people with outdoor dogs do have dog houses or some other form of “shelter” for them, but unless they are heated, these are a far cry from adequate shelter when it’s freezing out. I was in my shed during the recent snowstorm checking on my generator and it was miserably cold in there despite my heavy coat, hat, and gloves. Bedding, doors, and straw are better than nothing, but still there is no heat.
So let those outdoor dogs inside at night and during the day during cold spells. If they can’t spend the night in the back hallway or mudroom, how about the garage? If no garage, how about a dog house that’s directly adjacent to your house to get a little bit of that heat transferred. I think if people stop and think about it, there are some pretty simple things that can be done to make these animals incredibly more comfortable.
I still remember a commercial from when I was a child. It was a shot of the outside of a house with all the lights on during a cold winter’s night. You could hear the voices of the people inside laughing and enjoying themselves. Then the picture zoomed out to include the poor outdoor dog, shivering inside its dog house as the wind was whipping by.
The sad thing about that image is that it’s happening all over Crozet and Albemarle County tonight. So if you’ve got an outside dog, think about these things. We’ll all sleep better if they’re warm at night.