Cold Weather Safety for Dogs: Insights from a Sled Dog Veterinarian

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By Sophia Yin, DVM, MS

Some dogs were bred for cold weather and enjoy being outdoors.

Brrr. It’s below 20° and the only sane place for a person is sitting inside in a nice cozy, heated home. But what about your dog? While I generally recommend all pets stay inside too, some dogs love being outdoors and were bred for cold weather—when is it safe for dogs to stay outside in the cold?

I had the extreme good fortune to meet veterinarian, Dr. Susan Whiton on a recent trip to Anchorage, Alaska. She provided a personal tour of her sled dog kennel and told me how she and her husband, top musher Vern Halter, own Dream a Dream Iditarod Sled Dog Kennel. For 21 years Vern has raced the Iditarod or Yukon Quest. He has placed in the top 5 of the Iditarod three times and the top 10 eight times.  Susan Dream A Dream Dog Farmhas focused most of her work attending to the dog’s medical and health needs.  In addition to her veterinary degree, Susan has completed the IVAS animal acupuncture course and studied both canine physical rehabilitation as well as osteopathy. Susan has even raced in the Yukon Quest herself, just for fun! So I knew there was no one more qualified to answer your questions about dogs in cold weather than Susan!

Here are some of Susan Whiton’s tips on cold weather safety for dogs.

Q. Which dogs can tolerate cold weather?

A. The animal’s ability to tolerate really cold weather depends on age, nutritional status, health and coat density. The northern breeds with the thick undercoat do the best: Siberian Huskies, Alaskan Huskies, Malamutes, etc.  

My Gordon Setter (long since passed away) could be outside in a well-strawed dog house at 20° below for the 8 hours when I was at work, but she slept inside at night and she was on a high-fat, high-protein performance dog food.  She lived in Alaska her adult life and grew a thick coat over the winter.

JesseMy current border collie Jesse tolerates the cold temperatures very well.  Her coat is very thick and she eats the same high-energy food and high fat treats that the sled dogs do. She can be outside all day in the bitter cold but comes inside at night.

My 15-year old border collie can only be outside for 15 – 20 minutes before she starts shivering.  When she was younger she was just like Jesse in her tolerance for cold.  

Puppies under 8 weeks of age do not tolerate the deep cold at all even the double-coated breeds. Their ability to regulate their body temperature does not even begin to develop until they are around 2 weeks of age. As they start to eat solid food we start taking them out for monitored amounts of time. We have some 8 week old pups that are outside all day long if it is – 10°F or warmer. If we see them just huddling in their dog house and not playing we bring them back inside. Health, nutritional status, diet, thickness of hair-coat and body mass affect how quickly they will develop a tolerance to the cold. A thick-coated fluffy Pomeranian at one pound will not be able to tolerate the cold as well as the 10 pound husky pup.

Q. How do you know when it’s too cold for your dog?

A.  If your dog is shivering or refusing to come out of its dog house or a curled position it is probably too cold.

Q. What diet should they eat if they are outside for long periods during the day?

A. The calories in most commercial dog foods come from carbohydrates. In very cold weather, the dogs do better with a higher amount of fat calories. A study indicated a sled dog racing the Iditarod required 10,000 calories a day to meet their metabolic needs. The only way to meet that high caloric need is with a diet high in fat calories. Most pet dogs do not need that many calories and may get very sick from a high fat diet.

During the race… High fat diets are essential for meeting the caloric needs of these super athletes.   Photo by Susan WhitonWhen I ran the Yukon Quest in 1987 we encountered -55° F temperatures at night and -20° F during the day. The sled dogs did fine at those temperatures. They were being fed a very high fat, high calorie diet up to four times a day during the rest periods and often got fatty meat snacks during the runs.And at home… These puppies have just been on an off-leash country frolic. Now it’s chow time. They’re waiting for their high fat, high calorie diet.

Q. How are dogs with a thick undercoat able to keep warm when sleeping?

A. When they sleep they curl up with their tail over their nose, which traps the heat against their bodies. There are lots of photos of resting sled dogs covered with snow. They are holding their heat well since the snow is not melted. The dogs that are not doing well will have ice on their fur. It indicates that they are losing enough body heat to melt the snow. Because their coat is not insulating well more ice will build up making the hair less lofty and less insulating. The thick undercoat of the Northern Breeds provides loft, like a fuzzy mohair sweater, and keeps the warmth next to the animal rather than allowing it to escape. The Iditarod sled dog race only allows Northern Breeds in the race because other breeds can’t retain heat well. So when the ice hits their coat it melts and then freezes.Thick undercoats on northern breeds provide loft and keep warmth next to the dog.

Q. What type of housing is warm enough for sub zero temperature?

A. Our sled dogs have individual houses big enough for them to move around inside but small enough to allow them to be warmed with body heat. The houses all have legs that raise them off the ground. The space under the houses provides insulation from the frozen ground. We constantly monitor the straw to keep it dry because damp straw would soon be frozen to the bottom of the doghouse which would be frozen to the ground making it harder to keep the bedding dry.

There is a thick layer of straw inside every house and we add new straw at every cold snap to replace the loft. The old straw is removed and replaced with new straw several times over the winter because it will get damp from the snow that the dogs bring in on their fur. Wet straw loses its ability to insulate. It is important that the dryness of the straw be monitored and replaced if it gets damp. Sometimes the boy dogs miss when they mark the corner of their houses and the straw gets wet from other liquids.Dog houses are big enough for movement inside but small enough to be warmed by the dog’s own body heat.

Q. How do you keep dogs warm during a race?

A. Cold is not a problem when the dogs are running during the race. Overheating is a bigger problem for the sled dogs. I raced in the Rocky Mountain Stage Stop Race out of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The temperatures there were often in the high twenties and low thirties. My cold weather dogs from Alaska had trouble with the heat. They got frozen meat water as treats rather than fat as a snack to keep them cooler. Think of a hardy Minnesotan running the Ironman in the heat and humidity of Hawaii. It must have been like that for my dogs.

The dogs do need to stay warm when they stop at the checkpoints for their rest. There is a fresh bale of straw for every team at every checkpoint on the Iditarod. Every musher will make straw beds for the dogs at every rest. Many mushers also have fleece dog coats and blankets to put on top of the dogs as they sleep for extra warmth. Vern (my husband) had special insulated dog coats with pockets on the inside for hand warmers. He used these coats at the 24-hour rest period to provide extra warmth so the dogs would be warm without curling up. They could sleep warm with their legs and back stretched and relaxed, allowing for better recovery. The dogs sleep on the line and sometimes curl up with the neighboring dogs but usually just snuggle into their individual straw beds.  Vern puts special insulated coats with pockets for hand warmers on the dogs so instead of curling up, they can sleep stretched out for a more restorative sleep.  Photo by Susan Whiton

The sled dogs will wear nylon and fleece coats during the run in windy weather to protect the un-haired parts on the underside. The tip of the sheath on males is vulnerable to frost bite in very cold weather when it is windy. The booties protect the feet from the abrasive snow but they do not add warmth. In very cold temperatures the snow becomes harsh like sandpaper and the dogs must wear booties to protect their feet.Vern is leaving a check-point and all the dogs are booted.   The boots protect their feet from the snow that is so cold it acts like sandpaper on their pads.   The boots do not provide any warmth.  Photo by Susan Whiton

So there you have it. Insights from an expert. While, I know, my little JRT would not enjoy sleeping in the cold, but for dogs bred for and raised in cold climates, the story is different. Whiton adds, “It is hard for humans who think 30 F is cold to imagine dogs doing well at -30° F.  But the dogs do amazingly well if they are acclimated, healthy, fed well and housed well.”

To learn more about cold weather safety for dogs, read Six Cold Weather Tips in Dogs and Cats and Cold Weather Safety in Dogs and Cats.

 

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36 responses to “Cold Weather Safety for Dogs: Insights from a Sled Dog Veterinarian

  1. Really awesome concept cold weather safety for dogs. There was no one more qualified to answer questions about dogs in cold weather than Susan! Thanks!

  2. I have two Siberians, a year old. I live in the foothills outside of Denver, Colorado at around 7500 feet, so it gets below zero fairIy often in the winter. I know they love it outside in the snow, and probably prefer it, but I like having them inside, in crates, at night. But will that interfere with their body’s thermal regulation, and stop them from growing a heavy coat? It is better to let them stay outside at night? I have a well insulated doghouse under my deck, so they have protection from wind and rain. .

  3. I’m in the same situation as DJ Himstedt. I have a Siberian husky that I like to keep in with me at night but during the day he is in a really nice run with a roof and straw in his box. However, I do worry about screwing up his bodies thermal regulation and don’t want him to be cold when he’s out there. Is it OK to be bringing him in and out?

  4. I have a twenty month old long haired German Shepherd bitch who has slept outside since when I got her at four months old .
    I have had a large dog run built for her and she loves it Ive recently put a duvet in for her to sleep on and she has slept in later for several hours I had to wake her its very cold
    at the moment is it safe for her to stay outside I dont want to disrupt her routine she walks into her bed at 11am every night and I dont hear a peep until the next morning.

    1. Hi Nikki,

      There are numerous DIY sources online that can offer excellent blueprints and building plans for dog houses. Unfortunately, CattleDog Publishing is not one of them.

  5. I have a 50 lbs female Siberian Husky and I wish to visit somewhere that will be ideal for both of us. My only requirements are that there is lots and lots of sunshine and plenty of hiking trails that will be fun for her and challenging for me. Neither one of us can stand grey skies, rain, heat or humidity. We are looking for a place where we can enjoy being outside all day long.

    Suggestions?

    1. Please visit Sun Valley, Idaho, my home for almost fifty years. My huskies and Samoyeds have enjoyed our variety of roads, trails and forested paths. Some inns and motels allow dogs. Sun Valley Animal Center also boards dogs. Shops often have water bowls for your furries. St Francis Pet Clinic and SV Animal center provide excellent veterinary care. When I was working on our ski mountain and gone for the whole day, my dogs stayed in an insulated triplex dog house. Now retired, our dogs (two golden doodles and a Sibe), stay indoors until we return from skiing. Then they get to play and run off lead at the Warm Springs dog park or out different canyons.

  6. We have a litter of nine Mals born the 4th of November. We would ideally like to move them to the outside shed as they get mobile and harder to clean up after. It is a stone shed with no door, so they can go in and out to potty, but have a dry safe place to sleep.

    Temperatures here have been down to 3 (37f) at night and up to 11(50) in the day.

    Would it be safe to put them outside with their mama?

    1. Introduce them slowly to the outside. Go out with them for about an hour at a time and see how they do. I don’t think they are old enough for overnight yet in those temps.

  7. I have a husky that loves being outside in colder weather and I live in Missouri. But I had several people tell that she can be outside.

    1. I live in Missouri as well. I am a new owner of a 8 month old Siberian Husky who hates sleeping inside at night. The temperature is in the single digits, but I’m considering winterizing an outdoor area for him to sleep.. I just don’t want to do something that could harm him or get him too cold.

      1. thats crazy im from missouri also and have the same thoughts too. my timberwolf husky hates it inside and gets way too hot but its been pretty cold this week. he has a plastic igloo house rated for these temperatures but he never gets in it unless hes scared of something like a car and he wont stay in it long at all. this is my first husky so im unsure if hes fine or not.

  8. We have a husky/yellow lab mix. He is 21 months old. We are giving him food from a company called Zignature, a it provides low glyciminc nutrition. He also gets egg, kefir, vegetable, or other foods.
    Is this good enough or do we need to do more?

    He likes the outdoors, has an undercoat but not as thick as a husky’s..
    We leave him outside when it is cold as long as it is not extreme or wet. He has a doghouse with straw. Any recommendations beyond this?

    1. Hi
      It’s interesting to read you give yours Kefir.
      This definitely recovered my two after they got hold of a year old fully iced/marzipan Christmas Cake – 8lb., minus one slice out, in the food waste bin!
      I didn’t realise this until my husband told me the following morning he’d put it in there the night prior & we came bk at 11pm to two poorly woofs!
      I immediately gave them nearly 400ml each that morning.
      Both threw up and evacuated their poor bowels again.
      Called my vets & went straight over (10 mins away).
      He said up to five days’ IV fliuds & monitoring with him.
      My girl had pancreatitis – due to levels slightly raised from the sugar; my boy was ok.
      They stayed in overnight; I took them over to the night stay & collected next morning.
      I brought all their food with them, incl more Kefir prior to their o/n stop but this time just two tblspoons for pm & am feeds.
      They were back home under my watch before midday (I’m a retired nurse in peri-op / OR).
      The vet was interested in the Kefir and I explained all the benefits. He reckons that’s what got them home so early, and my quick thinking.
      I feed my two HuskyxMalamutes this along with raw veg, raw eggs incl crushed in shells, coconut oil, wet raw Vacpac: Forthglade/ Lovejoy or raw Albion – comes frozen.
      Frozen carrots also help clean teeth and they love them – good for teething pups and in hot weather too.
      The vacpacs store on shelf as I have little freezer room. Great for camping & travel.
      The kibble is small, & Xcel & ideal for pups through to adult, incl nursing mums. (Variations in nutritional feeds for racing to retired hounds).
      My two are under the 40kg mark & the healthiest all round esp in coat, ears, eyes, teeth etc in condition, (and well behaved) that my vet/s have seen and there are many huskies in my area.
      My boy is 5+ now and my girl (more woolly coat) is 6 in Feb 2018.
      I vary feed amounts to the exercise regime as I run them in a rig too.
      They have 24/7 access outside to a large run, four shelters, two with straw, on wood on decking off the ground, but choose to sleep indoors.
      I aim to foster this breed, hence purpose built big run, shelters and three larger separated/gated areas – one very large with grass, others gravel & concrete, and a patio decking section too.
      My girl used to sleep outside a lot nestling into the gravel under the boat, but she is more indoors now.
      The article is fascinating and I have saved the link to advise future enquiries.
      I have bred WHW, owned Boxers, Labs and grew up with 100’s of rescued/ rehomed & adopted strays in Borneo.
      My mum also set up chicken farming (day old chicks hatching en route from Australia on a three day flight), and fostered anything over 12 years from nrly 50 orphaned orangutans, otter kits, clouded leopard cubs, anteaters, sun bears, wild birds, domesticated birds, slow loris’, mousedeer, gibbons, macaques, (I had baby bats/rats), cats, horse, pony, baby crocs etc etc. Life was never dull then.
      This breed has stolen my heart.

  9. We have a husky/yellow lab mix. He is 21 months old. We are giving him food from a company called Zignature, a it provides low glyciminc nutrition. He also gets egg, kefir, vegetable, or other foods.
    Is this good enough or do we need to do more?

  10. hi I have a senior Husky( 10 year old), she sheds a lot throughout the entire year, we thought it was because the indoor warmth, right now in Toronto where we live,it is -9 (C) to -18 plus windchill, should we keep leave her in the garage or any other suggestion? Much appreciated

  11. Hi, I’m worried about my neighbor’s sleigh dogs. The dog houses are on the ground. Does this mean they can’t stay warm enough? It’s going to be well below freezing for the next ten days. Is it really safe for them to be kept outside?

    1. Hi Kara. As long as they are putting bedding done and it is dry and it is bedded fairly thick it should be sufficient to keep them warm. If the dogs are Huskies they can tolerate the cold very well. If it gets to cold they will typically go into the dog houses and curl up on the straw. It’s hard for us to ever think of dogs being left out in the freezing weather as we know the damage it causes humans, even death. Most dogs should not be kept out — small dogs, dogs with no coat (boxers, pits and the like), older dogs who don’t regulate their body temperatures well anymore. We have been so conditioned to think of our dogs as humans we forget that they are also meant to survive outside. We have bred most dogs to be companions and many are more or less designer dogs. They no longer have the survival instincts they once had. Northern breed dogs, guardian dogs are all bred for very harsh weather and if kept outside more than in, and provided with shelter and water, they tolerate the harsh weather just fine.

      1. I built a dog house for my Shepard the out side went to the ground the inside was 18 inches above the ground. I over do things like insulated the walls and floor with 1.5 styrofoam which the dog couldn’t get to.

  12. Hi I have an Alaskan Malamute I live in Florida he’s inside during the hot months and only goes out to use the bathroom but during the winter even though it’s not that cold here is he okay to be outside at night this is what he loves during the winter I cannot get him to come in?
    Thanks

  13. We live in Vero Beach Fl. and almost never have cold weather, however we are experiencing temperatures during the day of 40’s and 30’s at night and I can’t keep my 6 year old Serbian husky inside. I’m worried it might be to cold. She seems to be loving it. I do not leave her out all night and she is not allowed outside unless we are with her. Is she safe?

    1. Your dog is likely happy about the weather for the time in his life. She is a double coated dog and they are made for temperatures below zero so she is perfectly fine. She will tell you if she needs to come inside.

  14. I have a one year old border collie. We made an insulated house for her and there is a heating pad in there for her. It is in the single digits at the moment in Utah. Should we be bringing her inside at night?

    1. Border collies are well suited for colder weather but traditionally not that low. It’s always best to err on the side of caution.

  15. I live in Kansas and in the country. I have my dad’s older lab mix. This dog was always outside when my dad was alive. We live on the river and he loves it in the summer months. I have a raised wooden porch and that’s where he sleeps and hangs out when he’s not chasing something. I have hay for him to sleep on in the winter. I was wondering if it would be better to put the hay in a blanket or just leave it alone. We are supposed to have a cold winter this year. Thank you for your guidance on this.

  16. I have two Alaskan Mals..9 and 11 years old. Brother and sister. Live in BC..they r outside most of the day..come in an out of the hse but dont like to stay long . They generally sleep in a huge porch laying on several blankets with the front door ajar at ngt so they can go to the toilet if they wish. Its like a huge kennel. They seem comfortable enough..but i worry that they get cold..its only -1 at ngt sometimes noy even right now. They have good fur coats. We walk them twice a day..unleashed cause we r set in 170 acreages. They dont wonder off but they love exploring. I feed them on Hill’s Science diet..low in fat high in fibre and every other day in their food they get a squirt of Salmon oil, 1/4 tsp of greens supplement, probiotics twice a day a mix of nupro protein gravey mix and my female gets a 50plus vit . After breakfast they get a teething stick which helps to clean their teeth and a cookie..a cookie after their pm food. Plenty of water. After which all of this sometimes i feel i don’t do enough for them.

  17. Wolves – from which ALL dogs are descended from – dig a lair a couple of feet under ground and huddle together to stay warm. I personally saw this at a wolf rescue ranch, here in NM.

    So frankly, I think that it is inhumane to take a single dog (like an older collie) and leave him outside for hours on end till about 11 pm when it is in the 20’s. The poor dog doesn’t even have a coat on, booties or a doghouse. I am referring to the actions of my stupid selfish neighbors who have very limited compassion for animals. Years ago, I called animal control on them for this very thing, and they got their relative who’s a lawyer to write me a menacing letter threatening to bring harassment charges against me. So I dropped my complaint against them because I could not afford a lawyer and did not want criminal charges.

  18. We have a female GP due to have pups the end of Jan. Both Mom and Dad are working dogs outside 24/7. They do have access to shelter at anytime but very rarely use it. Knowing the breed prefers the colder temps I am wanting suggestions on what is sufficient living conditions for the pups? They will be in a large fully enclosed barn with bedding and a heat lamp..is this enough or should they have a much smaller enclosure to keep the heat in? We live in NE Oklahoma.

    1. Hi Donni. I am, the Web and Brand Manager here at CattleDog Publishing, The Legacy of Dr. Sophia Yin and the parent company of this website. I also happen to raise and rescue Livestock Guardian Dogs here in the hills of California and have been working with Pyrs for over 50 years. I’ve whelped more than a few litters so have been where you are. I’m going to email you in a bit (watch for an email from SilkRoadlGDs.org) with more info but in short, they are going to need to be in a space that you can keep at least 80-85deg at all times, at least until they can manage their own body temps.

  19. Hello – We recently took in a husky/shepherd mix who is a year and a half old. He was kept outside and fenced in the front yard of our cousin’s house. He asked us to take it as the neighbors would call the dog warden on him for it being outside. We have 22 acres in southern Ohio where we can let him run and play (once trained). I have been researching to make sure he has what he needs i.e. High Protein, no grain food. We have just now gotten him to where he will allow us to put him on a short leash so that he gets used to it for purposes of taking him to the Vet and public walking. He refused and fights us but now he is calmer. We bought a plastic house for him as he refused to use the igloo our cousin had. He does not seem interested in the one we have either. We do have some hay outside on our porch and a dog pad and blanket.

    Ideally how much hay do they need to stay cozy i.e. thickness. I need to find out his weight too so that I can figure out how often to feed him and how much. It is all new to us and we are making sure we play often. We tried to use an electric inground fence but it did not phase him. I don’t like to tie him up with a long “chain” because he needs to run however we have a 1200 ft driveway up to the main road and he loves to chase cars. He ran off the first day chasing a car up the driveway and clear across to the neighbor’s yard. Trying to work with him little by little and do what is right for him.
    Any tips and suggestions would be welcomed and appreciated 🙂

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