by Valerie Broadway

Last winter North Carolina had brutally low temperatures for days on end. We experienced record cold, even colder than the state of Alaska. The Chatham Animal Services Director told me there were several weeks last winter when they were overwhelmed with reports of pets with no shelter. So many, Animal Services Officers were only responding to those calls. I have no idea what this coming winter has in store, but I’d like to take this opportunity to provide information that may help prevent unnecessary discomfort and potential death for our four-legged companions.

There are people who have the misconception that dogs and cats have some kind of mystical ability to keep cool in the summer and warm in the winter. In reality there are some physiological things animal’s bodies can do to keep comfortable to a degree, but in extreme conditions they are vulnerable to the elements, like humans. Just because pets survive the winter, doesn’t mean they weren’t cold and miserable. Because dogs and cats are domesticated animals, many have been genetically modified in ways that prevent them from tolerating cold temperatures very well.

What temperature is too cold for a dog? That will depend on the breed and age. Double-coated arctic breeds may love the cold and are thrilled to see snow. Short-haired and warm climate breeds don’t handle cold as well. They get cold easily because they typically have very little insulating body fat and fur. Small dogs get cold quicker than larger ones. There are a lot of Hounds, Pit Bull dogs, and Chihuahuas living outdoors in Chatham County. Very young and very old animals have a harder time regulating their body temperature and are at greater risk in cold weather, even if they are northern breeds. 

When dogs are hot, they pant and lay stretched out in an effort to release body heat. When they are cold, they lay in a curled up position with their noses tucked in between their legs and stomach, trying to be compact and conserve body heat. If a dog, or any animal, is shivering someone needs to immediately intervene and provide them with warmth. Shivering is an indication they are cold beyond what their body can do to keep warm. If they don’t find a heat source they are at risk of hypothermia. Everyone who has outdoor only animals should have a plan for extreme weather conditions. If there is never a temperature low enough to justify a pet owner bringing a pet in from the elements, then for the pet’s own health and safety they would be better off with someone else.

Due to the dry air in the winter months, animals are at high risk of dehydration. Water can begin to freeze in minutes when the mercury falls below 32 degrees fahrenheit. Therefore, water bowls for outdoor pets should be checked and replenished several times a day. Animals also burn more calories trying to keep warm, so on colder days their meals need to be larger than usual.

Dog houses should be big enough to lie in comfortably, but not so large they can’t hold the dog’s body heat. Doors should face east or south, since the coldest winds blow from the north and west. Inside the doghouse, straw, hay, or wood shavings are the best options for comfort and warmth. Blankets are not a good choice since they get wet and freeze. Chatham County’s Animal Ordinance requires dog houses have a roof, floor, and at least three solid sides. If daylight can be seen through the sides of doghouses then cold air will be blowing into the doghouse. Don’t forget to provide shelter for outdoor cats, too. Many cats are injured or killed after climbing into warm car engines trying to escape the cold. 

Let’s all have a warm, safe, and happy winter this year!

Valerie Broadway, the Canine Coach, is a dog trainer and behavioral specialist. For more information, visit