Does Your Dog Need a Winter Coat or Boots?

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When winter winds come whistling through our Idaho valley, I’m the first to don a heavy overcoat, a knit hat and boots — and my dogs aren’t far behind. It’s a common misconception that dogs, equipped by nature with fur coats and a higher body temperature than humans, will do just fine in cold weather without accessories such as sweaters, coats and booties. That might be true for hardy sled dogs who spend their days in training for the Iditarod, but I can assure you that dogs with short or thin coats or those with certain size or health limitations need just as much protection from the cold as you or I do. Here’s what you need to know about dressing your dog for winter.

Coat Check

Dogs with short, thin or fine coats feel the cold quickly — but that doesn't mean that your pooch needs to bundle up every time he leaves the house. If your dog is going outdoors for a quick potty outing and coming right back inside, no need to wrestle him into a sweater or coat and booties. The same is true if you’re going for a brisk walk. My colleague Chris Zink, DVM, a canine sports medicine authority, says dogs who are exercising continuously shouldn’t need a coat because they create their own heat.

But if that brisk walk takes your thin-coated dog through the snow, or if he’ll be running through areas where ground water could splash up and freeze on him, then a coat or sweater is a good idea. Dr. Zink also recommends protecting certain sensitive body parts — some coats made for field dogs provide coverage of the penis and testicles.

Dogs who spend time outdoors but aren’t consistently active during that time can benefit from a sweater or coat to help them conserve body heat. For these dogs, I recommend a lightweight sweater or coat that won’t restrict your pooch’s front-leg movement. We (my dogs and I) are big fans of Fido Fleece. Have a couple on hand so your dog will always have a dry one to wear; putting a damp coat or sweater on will just make him colder.

Bassets, Dachshunds, Corgis and other small dogs may lose heat more quickly because their low stature or small body size puts them in closer contact with snow. Other dogs who may appreciate the comfort of a coat include pets with Cushing’s disease, diabetes, or heart or kidney disease. Their health conditions may make it more difficult for them to regulate their body temperature. Young puppies and old dogs are also more susceptible to chills. And even if your dog has a long or thick coat, he’s not made to spend hours outdoors in below-freezing weather without protection.

Finally, remember that while a coat can keep your dog warm, it can make it difficult or impossible for him to escape if he falls through ice into water. Avoid situations where that could happen.

To Shoe or Not to Shoe

What about those paws? Do dogs really need booties? That’s a matter of opinion. Some dogs can benefit from them, especially if they have furry feet that collect ice and snow between the toes, but fit is super important.

Booties should be comfortable, without rubbing against the dog’s paws, and of course they need to actually stay on. Dr. Zink says booties are most important for sled dogs running long distances, dogs walking on surfaces covered with salt or ice melter, which can be toxic, and dogs with hairy paws that collect snowballs. Be prepared to try out lots of booties until you find the ones that are right for your dog’s tootsies.

If you can’t find booties that fit well, or if your dog flat-out refuses to wear them, you can take other steps to protect his paws. As soon as he comes inside, soak his paws for a few seconds in a bowl of warm water, then dry them thoroughly. (If he’s a little guy, wipe down his legs and belly too.) You can also trim the fur between his toes to help reduce or prevent the accumulation of ice and snow there, which can cut the feet or cause your dog to limp. Help prevent cracked and bleeding paw pads by applying petroleum jelly or paw wax before your dog goes outside.

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