Protecting Dogs in the Cold Weather
In the UK we are continuing to enjoy what is officially now the coldest winter in 30 years. So much for global warming! If you’re a cat owner you’ll have seen a lot more of your cat recently because given a choice when it’s cold they’ll spend more time indoors, just nipping outside quickly to do the essentials. If you’re a dog owner you’ll have been wrapping up with layers and overcoats to brave the chill while exercising your best friend. But how many of us consider a dog’s ability to cope with the cold?
When you need to help your dog keep warm
There is a huge variation in the shape and size of dogs, not to mention differences in their coat. Just look at the extreme examples of an Alaskan Malamute with its dense double northern dog coat and the Mexican Hairless Dog! Each is ideally suited for its natural environment and indeed there is evidence that both breeds have been in existence respectively in Alaska and Mexico for at least 2000 years. Trade and travel have seen both these breeds go global and they now find themselves in environments that they simply are not equipped for. This is where their carers need to take precautions and use common sense to ensure the comfort of their pets. Malamute owners in Arizona need to provide them with ice-baths and Mexican Hairless owners in Finland need to provide them with Saunas! Well, may be not.
Acclimatisation and avoiding frostbite and hypothermia
Another important principle for animal carers to recognise is the process of acclimatisation. Livestock such as cattle, and sheep and even companion animals like horses and kennelled dogs generally cope well outdoors all year around. As the weather gets colder they develop thicker coats and generate more body heat by eating more. This is because the environmental temperature changes gradually as the year moves from summer though autumn, winter and spring. This gradual change allows animals to acclimatise as long as the temperatures are not too extreme or outside the animal’s capacity to cope. This is how polar bears and lions manage to cope in UK safari parks.So how does a dog that spends most of the day pressed against the Aga cope with going on a walk that involves navigating snow drifts and cutting winds directly from the Arctic? The answer is it doesn’t cope well at all.
Dogs are vulnerable to frostbite and hypothermia with less than an hour of cold-weather exposure. Long-coated breeds of dogs can go for short walks when the wind chill factor is above -6°C. For short-coated breeds, puppies, senior dogs or dogs in poor health they should not go out for walks until the wind chill is above 4°C.
Dog carers wrap up with clothes in preparation for a walk so why shouldn’t we wrap up our dogs before a walk in the cold. There are some great coats now for dogs and even booties. Booties don’t suit every dog but if you can get your dog to keep them on they also protect their feet from irritation from rock salt that is spread on roads to melt the ice. I had one client who took her English Pointer to the French Alps and he seemed to suffer from “snow-blindness”. She managed this problem using dog sun-glasses, Doggles®.
Cold Tail Syndrome symptoms
One problem encountered by dogs in the cold that is relatively common, but often poorly recognised is “Cold Tail Syndrome” or as the Americans call it “Limber Tail”. Typically it is seen in a dog following swimming in cold water but I have seen it in dogs after they have become chilled or wet on a walk. The first third of the tail extends from the rump but then the last two thirds hang down limply. The dog is unable to raise the tail and the dog appears to be suffering pain in the tail. Most owners think the dog’s tail is broken but also say that there was not an event that could have caused such an injury. It is seen in all breeds but most commonly sporting breeds and Labradors in particular. The condition appears to be associated with damage to the tail muscles which are located at the base of the tail. Occasionally the tail base is swollen which causes the hair to stand up. The tail is painful for the first 24 to 48 hours but most recover movement within a few days to a week without treatment.
Investigations reveal raised muscle enzymes in the blood, which diagnose muscle damage confirmed by muscle biopsies. Heat-sensing cameras show significant “cold zones” which are likely to be due to reduced blood flow. When assessed the nerve impulses in the tail are also abnormal. The investigations confirm muscle damage. The reduced blood flow is caused by swelling in the damaged muscles, confined by the skin of the tail compressing the tail blood vessels. Reduced blood flow to the tail starves cells of oxygen and nutrition and causes further damage.
While Cold Tail Syndrome usually gets better on its own, recovery times may be shortened by using non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which decrease swelling and reduce pain. Dogs have a one in three chance of a recurrence and 16% of dogs are left with a permanently altered tail posture.
So isn’t it about time that someone invented a dog coat that included a tail sheath? Keep your extremities warm when you move from a warm indoors to a cold outside! Animals that live outside all year around acclimatise and as the weather gets colder, they develop thicker coats and generate more body heat by eating more. An alternative approach is hibernation, I’m sure that’s what my cat is practising at the moment!
David Chamberlain BVetMed., MRCVS.
Veterinary Consultant to PetSafe®