Since humans have bred dogs to be companions, shepherds, hunters, or ratters, we also bred some to survive in the cold. Sled dogs – breeds like Alaskan Malamutes, Siberian Huskies, and Samoyed – actually followed a different evolutionary path than other domesticated dogs, helping people move their bodies and belongings through freezing temperatures for at least nine millennia.
However, not all dogs are as hardy as these breeds. And as winter hits the northern hemisphere, millions of American dogs will run on snow, ice, and icy sidewalks. With dogs that were not bred to frolic in such conditions, it is natural for dog owners to wonder whether it is safe for dogs to brave such conditions; or if we may inadvertently injure them by walking them in the snow.
The answer, it seems, is to pause for a moment and think about your dog’s physical characteristics. Is there a lot of insulation on the body, such as bacon and fur? Was it bred to perform tasks such as sled dogs and is therefore likely to be well acclimated to even the most brutal of weather?
Compared to how humans would have to answer these questions, most dogs look pretty good. According to Dr. James A. Serpell, Professor of Ethics and Animal Welfare at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, said that most dog breeds are “extremely hardy and tolerate the cold far better than humans.” There are variations based on the fluffiness of a breed (e.g., hairless breeds may need to be bunched up), size (large dogs have an easier time than small), and health (older dogs can be vulnerable).
Serpell found that dogs in general “are more likely to be overheated than hypothermic”.
However, this does not mean that loving owners can afford to completely ignore their pet’s reaction to the cold.
“Some long-haired breeds can suffer from clumps of ice and snow around their feet, which can be painful, and owners should try to avoid walking them as much as possible over sidewalks that have been treated with salt and other de-icing crystals,” Serpell told Salon by email, adding that they can stab the dog food’s pads and even cause them to crack and bleed. “If a dog has a serious problem with deicers, the owner should consider purchasing ankle boots to put on the dog’s feet for protection.”
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The dog’s ancestry is also important, as generations of evolution have made certain dogs more suitable for certain climates. Chihuahuas, for example, are native to Mexico. The Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés wrote in a letter that they were sold as food to the Aztecs. These dogs did not have to thrive in colder temperatures, making them more vulnerable than those whose ancestors were adapted to snow and frosty winds.
“Double-coat breeds like Siberian Huskies, Samoyeds, and Tibetan Mastiffs are built for cold weather and generally don’t need extra layers to keep warm,” wrote Molly Sumridge, a lecturer in anthrozoology at Carroll College, at Salon.
On the other side of the spectrum, short-haired breeds like pit bulls and dobermans can benefit from more layers if left outside for long periods of time during the winter. There are also situations when any dog needs amenities like boots, such as if they live in an area where their feet are often exposed to snowmelting chemicals. Sumridge added that owners must also watch out for the tips of their ears on dogs, which, like humans, are prone to frostbite.
Finally and most importantly, dog experts emphasize the importance of paying attention to your dog’s behavior. Even when dogs speak not with words but with barking and body language, they are still sending you clear signals of what they want. Humans should not force their own assumptions about a dog’s behavior on the animal, but rather trust their intuition as to how the animal’s actions correspond to its likely emotions.
“Depending on the dog’s breed and tolerance to cold, dogs can enjoy the snow as much as their owners,” explains Sumridge. “Looking for signs of a cold or hesitation to stay outside means it’s time to take a break. Otherwise, humans and dogs can have fun in the cold with the right clothing and protection that is comfortable for the dog. “