Did you know?
Sitting in a nice hot sauna at the gym today I was conversing with a guy who was excitedly conveying his plans for a three day winter camping trip with his dog, a Rottweiler/Doberman mix. I must admit, I was jealous. I remember the days when I had the freedom to take off for a few days into the silence and solitude of the back country on snowshoes. I never got to take a dog along, but that certainly would have been the cherry on the ice cream sundae for the soul. However, I digress. What I really want to write about are the precautions to take when bringing your four-legged friend on a winter adventure.

You may not be quite the die hard fan of winter to want to do a snow camping trip, but even if you decide to take your dog on a winter walk in the snow there are some things to consider, especially if the temperatures are in the teens or below.

Let me tell you why.
Some dogs are more sensitive to the cold than others. Small breeds, short haired dogs, puppies and geriatric dogs, dogs that are normally “indoor” pets, and those with heart or other medical conditions are all more sensitive to colder temperatures. A dog’s normal body temperature is between 99.5 and 102.5. When a dog fitting one of the above descriptions is exposed to colder temperatures he or she often has a difficult time keeping his/her core body temperature within the normal range. When the temperature dips below the normal range hypothermia sets in. Hypothermia means that your dog is loosing body heat faster than it can be replaced.

Signs of hypothermia:

  • shivering
  • lethargy
  • stiff muscles
  • pale or gray gums
  • stumbling or lack of coordination
  • fixed and dilated pupils
  • low heart and breathing rates
  • collapse
  • or even coma

With mild hypothermia your dog is likely to be shivering and appear lethargic. As the hypothermia increases in severity the other symptoms become evident – effectively your dog becomes increasingly unresponsive as his body goes into heat conservation mode. At this time your dog’s focus will be on keeping his vital organs working by restricting the blood flow to all but these parts of his body. If it’s not treated, hypothermia can be fatal.

Prevention is Key
Dogs sensitive to cold should be kept inside with quick potty breaks outside. The small dogs and short haired breeds benefit from a doggy jacket that helps to keep their core warm. Booties may also be a good idea for three reasons. One, lots of heat escapes through a dogs foot pads. The booties can help decrease the heat loss. Two, dogs with long hair often get ice balls caught in the hair between the toes. The ice balls can be irritating and your dog may stop every few minutes to chew at the balls of snow. Three, if there is a layer of ice on top of the snow; the jagged edges can actually cut your dogs pads. That is rare here in Colorado, but might be more likely at higher elevations with repeated melting and freezing.

Mild hypothermia can be reversed by getting back in a warm environment and wrapping your dog with a blanket until the shivering stops. Hypothermia that has dropped the dogs temperature to the 90-94 degree range will require rewarming methods. Water bottles filled with warm water placed around your dog deliver a warm heat source that is safe. Stay away from heating pads as it is easy to burn your dog’s skin and cause a hot spot. It is recommended that you take your animal to your family veterinarian or veterinary emergency service for observation and/or treatment if you need to treat for hypothermia. Severe hypothermia requires immediate veterinary intervention. Unfortunately, it may be difficult to reverse the damage at this level of hypothermia, but we can hope for the best.

Fortunately the gentleman at the gym was aware of the potential dangers for his dog from winter camping and was prepared. He had two dog jackets, was prepared to have his dog sleep with him, and knew the signs and treatment for hypothermia. He volunteered that he would willingly cut his trip short if his dog didn’t seem to be able to handle the cold weather. I hope for both their sakes that their trip is peaceful and refreshing and is just the beginning of a many more adventures together.