Jocelynn Jacobs DVM, CVC
Some of the common questions I get this time of year from many of my clients are, “How cold is too cold to leave my dog/cat outside?” and “How long can my pet stay outside in cold weather?”
Unfortunately those questions don’t have black and white answers. Many variables need to be considered when answering them. Things like the size of the pet, age of the pet, breed of pet, and coat type of pet are important to think about when determining if your pet is one that can stay outside comfortably in colder weather.
Smaller or Older Pets in Cold Weather
Obvious a young Chihuahua that is small without a short, thin coat of fur can’t stay outside long in the winter compared to a middle aged Siberian husky that has both a water-proof outer and dense undercoat that helps keep it warm.
In general, smaller pets like cats and small dogs can’t stay outside long in the cold (less than 32 degrees). Their smaller body size has a large surface area which causes excessive heat loss. Also their peripheral blood vessels which help heat extremities, like toes and ears, are small which puts them at risk for frostbite more quickly.
Older pets have poor blood profusion to extremities too setting them up for frostbite. But also with age comes arthritis, and these pets’ joints can get “locked-up” more quickly not allowing muscles to help keep the bones warm.
Certain breeds like the arctic breeds of huskies, malamutes and Samoyeds originally came from cold environments prior to their domestication so they can “usually” handle colder temperatures with easy. Temperatures slightly below zero might not have any effect on them at all, and sometimes they seem to have more energy the colder it is! These breeds have an outer, water-proof coat that doesn’t allow snow and ice to stick to it as well and thus they stay dry and warm.
Poodles, on the other hand, can get chilled at temperatures in 20’s and 30’s easily because they don’t have the denser outer coat. The coat they do have can get wet and caked with ice-balls when even going outside to go to the bathroom for 10 minutes!
How Long Should Your Pet Stay Outside?
How long pets can stay outside also depends on the absolute temperature, wind and wind-chill, and if it is a wet or dry snow. In general, wind will decrease body temperature much quicker. Also if your pet gets wet with wet snow, they will chill easier and not be able to keep up their core body temperature.
If your pet lives outside in the winter, be sure they have a dry place to sleep. If possible try to have it heated in some way…a garage, barn or even a farm-type heat lamp in a corner of a room can be provided for additional warmth. If they have a kennel outside, be sure they have a dog house. If they are good about not eating bedding material like a foam bed, that would be nice for them to lie on, or even providing some straw or cedar chips as bedding helps.
Don’t leave your small dogs outside long when they are relieving themselves. Make sure they have a jacket or sweater on to keep off the wet snow. Always check for snowballs between their toes when they come in.
Frostbite usually occurs in dogs and cats on the toes and ears first. ALWAYS check your pet’s ear flaps and toes for frostbite in the winter. If you see anything unusual, call your vet immediately.
Keep in mind the size, age, breed and coat type of your pet when considering the lower temperatures, wind-chill and wetness of the snow. These will help you determine whether it is too cold for them to be outside for long. When in doubt, keep them in the house by the fireplace cuddled by your side!