Gazette Vet: Freezing Is No Fun for Outdoor Dogs

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By John Andersen, DVM

Winter is in full force for one more month. What does it mean for your pets? For most of us, not much. I think I can safely say most dogs and cats around these parts are sleeping inside at night. Many are even fighting you for bed and pillow space! These pets have it made. Well done, moms and dads!

But this article is about those poor outdoor dogs. I know this is one of those topics where not everybody sees eye to eye. I suppose it’s old school vs. new school. Let me state that I am not some unrealistic, save-them-all PETA veterinarian. I like to hunt and fish, my dogs sleep in their own beds. 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.

So, in order to bring some more light on the subject on the dogs’ behalf, here’s my argument, plea, discussion. I ask you to think about if you have an outside dog.

First, 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 are dogs who were meant for cold weather, having many natural attributes that allow them to tolerate the 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 here 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, pit bulls–great dogs, very common around here—but none of these have coats for cold weather. Even the retrievers, with their winter duck hunting roots, do not have coats thick enough to adequately keep them warm when temperatures drop. I would argue that a hound’s coat would be like us wearing a lightweight fleece. A retriever’s coat is more like a winter jacket, but still not comfortable for an all-nighter.

So, will a night in the 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.

Most people with outdoor dogs do have doghouses 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 went out to my shed one recent night 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.

My plea?  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 in the garage? If no garage, how about a doghouse 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 can 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 doghouse 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 and I think we’ll all sleep a little better.

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