Dogs need exercise in the winter just as much as in the summer, but snow and cold weather means owners should take extra care when venturing with their pet outdoors.
How well dogs cope with the cold weather will depend on the breed, size, and age of the animal. Just like an athlete, a gentle warm-up relaxes the muscles and prevents injury.
“If it’s a chilly day, start off the first few minutes slower to warm up instead of going right into a fast gait,” said Dr. Elizabeth Knabe, Wildwood Animal Hospital.
The same advice applies for dog park outings – before letting them run wild, do a few figure-eights. Observe how well your dog tolerates the cold and be alert for signs of hypothermia, which include strong shivering and lethargy.
Sweaters can help prolong the outing where needed. “Arctic breeds are meant for [the cold] – they don’t need it. But if your dogs are underweight, older, or thin, they would definitely benefit,” said Knabe.
Stores offer a great variety of sweaters for many body types. The best way to check the fit is to bring your dog along to the store. Choose a sweater and a harness that will allow as much freedom of movement in the shoulder joints as possible to prevent problems down the road.
Due to salt on the road, wash your dog’s feet and underside with a wet cloth after a walk to prevent him from licking toxic chemicals and adding too much salt to his diet. Paws will toughen up to the cold conditions, but some pets would benefit from the help of boots. Snow won’t wear down your pet’s nails, so keep them trimmed for better gripping.
If dogs are reluctant to venture outside on a very cold day, keep them active indoors by tossing toys down the hallway, having them follow you around, and creating food puzzles.
Another thing to keep an eye on during the winter is the dog’s weight, which tends to creep up during the cold months. Some dogs will need more calories to keep themselves warm, while others could use less to compensate for less activity. There is no rule of thumb, so the best way to determine if a dog is at its ideal size is to ask a veterinarian where to feel for extra weight, and adjust accordingly. Online charts can help owners conduct a monthly check-up to assess if their dog’s body is at an ideal size.
Mental stimulation and quality time spent with the owner are all part of a healthy lifestyle for a pet. “A walk is important for dogs mentally. It’s one one-on-time with the owner. It’s that repetitive movement that’s very comforting,” said Knabe. “I think dogs get excited. They’re going to smell things, and it’s just mentally stimulating.”