Although many dog owners have their pets inside with them or at least inside at night, there are just as many dogs that happily live outdoors. Often these are the larger breeds of dogs or dogs that live in the country and have been raised all their life as outside dogs. The good news is that these dogs, provided they are a suitable breed for the climate, will naturally adjust their coats to the changing conditions in the autumn and grow thick, full inner coats to help provide insulation and hold heat close to their body.The inner coat is very downy and fine, literally trapping the warm air close to the body and preventing the cold air from getting close to the skin.
However there are lots of situations that a warm coat is simply not enough to protect the dog. In climates where sleet, wet snow or rain occurs, this dampness on the outer coat will eventually seep to the inner coat, greatly diminishing any insulating capacity. In addition the wet hair gets close to the skin, actually chilling the skin and preventing any insulation at all. In effect the cold air is then trapped next to the dog's body and their overall temperature will start to drop. In severe weather or where the dog cannot get into a warm dry area frostbite and hypothermia is a real concern.
Monitor The Weather
Even those dogs that are kept outdoors all their lives may have difficulty in extremely cold or blizzard type conditions. In more moderate climates winter weather than includes heavy rainfall or sleet may be just as problematic as the very cold conditions. It is important for owners to monitor the weather and have alternative plans for housing their dogs if very cold or wet conditions are forecast. One option if the dog is not house-trained is to have an enclosed kennel complete with a sheltered sleeping area or doghouse where the outdoor dog can actually be confined during extreme weather conditions.
If you do decide to build a kennel you may also want to add a fairly good sized fenced run so the outdoor dog still has space to move about while being kept in a sheltered area. Outdoor doghouses or kennels can be simple to build or can be purchased ready built for very reasonable amounts. With proper care and maintenance these shelters can be kept in great shape for as long as necessary and can be used by more than one dog over their lifetime. In addition a good kennel or shelter and run can be very useful for confining your dog if you have to go away and don't want to leave the dog full run of the yard, farm or garden.
Often if the owner doesn't have an outdoor kennel or shelter and doesn't want the dog in the house providing a comfortable bed and food and water in a garage can be a good alternative, especially if it is heated. One caution if keeping your dog in the garage is to ensure there is no anti-freeze either on the floor or in containers where the dog could potentially get into it. Dogs are highly attracted to the sweet tasting compound but it is also highly toxic and just a very small amount can result in toxicity or kidney and liver failure and death.
Providing Fresh Water
Finding a way to give your outside dog fresh, clean water that doesn't freeze over is going to be a challenge in cold climates. While dogs can eat snow for some hydration, it is not an acceptable alternative to water. There are heated water dishes and floating heaters that can be used in very large water containers that can help in preventing icing over. In kennels and heated dog houses water will remain liquid, however there is a greater risk of debris and dirt getting into the dish. If you are keeping water in the living quarters be sure to change at least once a day and perhaps even more often if there is more than one dog using the shelter.
In very cold or wet conditions there are lots of sweaters and insulating vests that can be used to help your dog stay warm. Most dogs will adjust very quickly to having these extra layers of protection, however you will need to monitor your dog for the first few times he or she has the sweater on to ensure they are not panicking or stressing out with the clothing. Give lots of praise and make wearing the clothing as positive as possible the first few times.
Limit Strenuous Exercise
Outdoor dogs seem to understand to limit their intensive exercise during every cold periods, however working dogs that are herding, hunting or otherwise working with humans may not always listen to their own bodies. Overworking your dog in cold temperatures leads to an increase in core body temperature, which will then often result in a dramatic drop in body temperature when the dog stops to rest. In addition heavy panting will rapidly bring cold air into the body that is not significantly warmed in the nasal passages. This double cooling effect when the dog slows down or stops can lead to respiratory problems over time.
If you are working an outdoor dog in cold weather always provide a gentle cool down activity such as a moderate paced walk after high levels of exercise. This will allow the dog to slowly bring their core body temperature back down to normal without the sudden shifts associated with just stopping the activity. When your dog is no longer panting and breathing heavily, he or she is likely back to normal body temperature. Be sure to provide lots of fresh water for dogs that are active during the winter as the air tends to be much drier, leading to the increased likelihood of dehydration.
Finally, feeding a good quality high protein and fat diet is very important to help the dogs stay healthy and regulate their body core temperature. If you have any concerns about your outdoor dog's winter diet be sure to consult your vet or animal nutritionalist for what the minimum protein and fat contect should be based on the weather in your area and your dog's activity level.
Other articles under "Pet Care During The Winter Months"