By John Andersen, DVM
A few weeks ago during the cold snap at the end of January I went on a morning run. It was all of 14 degrees outside and despite being bundled in long pants, wool socks, hat, gloves, three layers, and a neck gaiter, I was freezing! About a mile into my run, I heard a dog barking outside and was saddened when I saw a skinny hound dog in an outdoor chain-link pen. Here I was, freezing despite my many layers and exercise. And there he was with short hair (which is about as insulating as a long sleeve T-shirt) and minimal body fat to keep him warm. He had no enclosed dog house inside his pen and the wind was surely whipping right through his chain link pen door. No wonder the incessant “Bark! Bark! Bark!”
Now I will bet that dog will not die of hypothermia this winter. He will probably keep himself just warm enough by constantly barking and jumping up on the chain-link door that keeps him locked up. But unfortunately he will suffer tremendously.
I’ve lived in Virginia most of my life and here in Crozet for 10 years, and although more dogs nowadays are living inside, there are still a large number of dogs who are kept outside all day and/or night. If these dogs were Siberian Huskies or German Shepherds, I wouldn’t be upset. These dogs have the ancestral coat—a long, full outer coat with a warm, thick undercoat—to keep them warm despite the freezing cold. But, unfortunately, the majority of outdoor dogs around here are hounds and pit bulls. Both of these dogs have very short hair and no undercoat and really have no business being out in the cold for extended periods of time.
I’m sure I’ve provoked one of two responses already. Some of you are saying, “poor dogs!” and sympathize with the plight of the outdoor hound. Others are saying, “C’mon Andersen, give me a break! I’ve lived with dogs all my life and they do just fine outside. Quit being such a sissy!” And, unfortunately, many people who keep their dogs outside in the freezing cold are not going to be reading this paper.
Here’s my argument for those folks who keep your dogs outside at night or during the day in the cold weather. First, I don’t want to make out every person who keeps their dogs outside out to be some ignorant person who is cruel to dogs. For many folks, this is just the way it’s been done in their family for generations and I see in my office that many an outdoor dog is precious to their owners.
But consider this: your dog will never complain about the misery that accompanies being cold. It’s just not in his nature. He will be thrilled to see you when you go to his pen or out in the yard to feed him because he’s just dying for some interaction. He will wag his tail, eat his food, and even give you some love. That is the beauty of the dog. Unconditional love. I keep you out in miserable cold and you still love me.
But when it’s below freezing outside, a dog is really miserable. He is getting chilled to the bone. When was the last time you have been really cold? Like hypothermia cold? We go inside or we grab a jacket and hat. Or, worst case, we’re stuck outside underdressed and we have to suck it up for an hour or two. If we were outside in 14-degree weather without a jacket we would be panicking cold.
The cold won’t likely kill your dog unless he’s really young, really old, or really sick. He is tough. Tougher than we are for sure. I’ve seen dogs who have been running on broken legs, chewing on bones with broken teeth, eating despite a ruptured intestine. Dogs are incredibly tough and don’t talk, so we need to make sure we’re giving their comfort some forethought.
Here is my plea. If you own a dog, you are responsible for its well-being. That does not mean you have to let Fido sleep on your pillow (I do not recommend that!) or even keep him inside regularly. But, please, use your common sense. If it’s below freezing outside, you should have a plan for your dog if he is an outdoor dog. Hopefully that means bringing him inside (he’ll thank you forever), or making sure he’s got a warm dog house where he can escape from the wind and cold. Ninety-nine percent of dog houses do not fit the warm category, though. I built an awesome shed in my backyard, but it is freezing in there!
Fortunately, most of the dogs in this area are ridiculously spoiled and they get better healthcare than much of the world. But how we treat animals is a reflection of who we are.