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K-State Today

December 6, 2012

It's a dog's life: Winter brings new challenges for keeping man's best friend active, comfortable

Submitted by Communications & Marketing

With winter on the way, a Kansas State University veterinarian says dog owners have plenty of options to keep their fur-ever friends comfortable and happy — even when the weather turns nasty.

"A general rule of thumb is if it is too cold for you outside, it is too cold for your dog," said Susan Nelson, a clinical associate professor and veterinarian at the Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine's Pet Health Center.

But Nelson said there are several factors, such as size, that help some dogs tolerate the cold better than others.

"Small stature and short coats, such as with a Chihuahua, make dogs less tolerant of cold weather. Some of these dogs may not even tolerate cooler temperatures that are still above freezing for very long," she said. "Larger body mass and longer, plusher coats allow dogs to tolerate lower temperatures for a longer duration -- think Siberian Husky."

Another factor is the time allotted for acclimating a dog to colder temperatures. Nelson said dogs tolerate a gradual reduction in temperature better versus a shorter one as it allows for adequate coat development and adjustment to the cooler temperatures.

Many dogs, primarily medium- and larger-size canines, can live comfortably outdoors in colder temperatures if their owners provide them proper shelter. Nelson said this includes well-insulated, properly-sized doghouses that have adequate bedding and doors -- preferably with a flap, if the dogs will allow it -- that face away from north winds.

"These dogs may appreciate being brought inside during frigid weather; however, it is best to keep them in a cooler room, like a basement or garage, as they have thick coats and tend to get hot in the warm house," she said. "If temperatures keep an outside dog inside for more than a few days, you should gradually reintroduce the dog to the outdoors. You could start by letting the dog go back outside during the daytime first, then eventually through the night."

Coats, sweaters and boots for canines can give some added protection, Nelson said, but they also have some drawbacks.

"Watch for choking hazards, such as buttons, on coats and sweaters," she said. "Ensure they are made of breathable fabrics and that the fabric doesn't irritate the dog. They should only be worn when supervised as the dog could get caught up in them. Also, if the apparel gets wet, it can promote hypothermia that results from chilling caused from the body being in contact with the cold, wet fabric."

Boots can help protect paws from the snow and ice, but Nelson said make sure they fit correctly, can be put on easily and will stay on, and have good traction.

Along with cold temperatures, dogs face other dangers in winter. Nelson said some things to watch for, both inside and out, include:

* Ice melt. It can be very irritating to paws, so wipe your dog's feet when it comes inside.

* Antifreeze. It takes only a small amount to be lethal to a dog. Make sure the dog won't come in contact with the substance, especially if the dog sleeps in the garage. Also, don't let dogs drink from water puddles in the street gutters as these may also be contaminated with antifreeze.

* Uneven or sharp ice. It can cut a dog's pads.

* Snow. It can form painful iceballs on the undersides of a dog's paws.

* Slips and falls. Just like with humans, dogs can take a tumble on the ice and injure themselves.

* Rat poison. Its use increases in the winter months. While it may keep pests away, it can be lethal to dogs if ingested directly, or if they eat dead mice or rats that have ingested the poison.

* Frostbite and hypothermia. Dogs can suffer from both.

* Burns. Watch dogs around fireplaces, wood-burning stoves, candles, etc.

* Potpourri. It may have a pleasing smell, but it can be toxic to dogs if ingested.

*Arthritis. If your dog suffers from arthritis, cold weather can worsen the symptoms.

* Dehydration. Keep an eye on your dog's water bowl to ensure it doesn't freeze when temperatures drop. Heated water bowls are available that can help prevent the problem. Also, make sure the bowls are not made of metal — Nelson said to remember what happened to the boy in the movie "A Christmas Story" who stuck his tongue to a metal flagpole.

* Inadequate calorie consumption. Owners often forget to feed their outdoor dogs a bit more during the winter months when the animal needs higher caloric requirements to keep warm.

Daily exercise also is important for dogs, regardless of the season. If it's too cold or snowy for a walk, Nelson said your dog can still get a good workout inside if you've got the space and room in your accommodations.

Some of the following exercises can be done indoors: having the dog jump through hoops; putting the dog on a treadmill, under close supervision; playing indoor fetch or search games for hidden toys and treats; a game of tug-of-war; practicing basic training, such as fetching, sitting, etc.; letting your dog play with an interactive dog toy, such as food puzzles; playing hide-and-seek; having the dog do leg-weave exercises or dance exercises; and setting up tunnels for smaller dogs to run through or other agility-like obstacles.

As always, it is best to consult with your veterinarian about your own dog's ability to tolerate the cold and if it is healthy enough to do the above-mentioned exercises, Nelson said.