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How to Exercise Your Dog in Winter

dog exercising safely in the snow

Photo credit: Alexey Androsov © 123RF.com

Like humans, dogs need regular exercise to stay happy and healthy. During the warmer months, it’s pretty simple to make sure your dog gets out every day for a walk. But the winter months can present quite a challenge for many pups and owners alike.

As someone who prefers warm weather myself, I can’t blame Bella if she doesn’t want to frolic in the snow or face the freezing wind. Not all dogs enjoy (or are equipped to handle) the cold. But sadly, even just a month or two of laziness and lounging around can spell weight gain, obesity, and other physical and behavioral problems for a dog.

As I always told my patients, when it comes to exercise, some is better than none, and you need to improvise in inclement weather. The same advice holds true for dogs. Take them out for walks when you can, and when it’s too darn cold, find other ways to get them moving. Here is some information and tips to make exercising your dog in the winter easier for you, and safe and fun for your pup.

How Cold Is Too Cold for a Dog?

How well a dog tolerates the cold depends on several variables:

  • Size: Small dogs are much more sensitive to weather changes than large breeds.
  • Weight: Body fat serves as insulation, so thinner dogs have a harder time retaining warmth. (Note: This doesn’t mean you should fatten up your dog. Obesity presents its own set of challenges, which are far worse.)
  • Coat Thickness and Color: Dogs with thick coats are most tolerant of cold weather (Huskies, German Shepherds, and the like), while those with very thin coats (Greyhounds, Chihuahuas, etc.) are most affected by frigid temps. Coat color also plays a role. Darker fur can absorb heat from the sun, keeping brown or black dogs a little toastier compared to their light-colored counterparts.
  • Age. Puppies and senior dogs are less able to regulate their body temperature and tend to get cold much more easily than dogs in their prime.

As a general rule of thumb, most dogs can handle temperatures above 45°F. They may not like it, but it won’t affect their health in any way. Temps below 20°F, however, can become problematic, potentially leading to problems like hypothermia and frostbite.

The best way to assess how your dog handles the cold is to watch for body cues that indicate if he’s getting uncomfortable:

  • Shivering
  • Hunched posture; tucked in tail
  • Anxiety behaviors like whining or barking
  • Reluctance to keep walking
  • Lifting paws off the ground

If they exhibit any of these behaviors, head for shelter. (To learn more about how dogs communicate with body language, read this blog.)

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Protecting Your Dog with Winter Gear

If you have a small dog or one with a thin coat, it’s a good idea to take certain precautions before an outdoor walk. Sweaters, insulated puffer vests, and thermal/fleece jackets are perfect for helping vulnerable pups retain heat.

Booties can protect your pooch’s paws, though research has found that their pads are particularly adept at staying warm, even on the coldest of surfaces. Researchers discovered that the arteries and veins that supply blood to the paws are created and arranged in such a way that they act as a “counter-current heat exchanger.” When warm blood arrives in the paws, heat is transferred to the smaller veins, ensuring that the blood stays warm and that paw temperature remains in healthy range, despite cold external temps.

Even so, many owners feel more comfortable making their dogs wear booties. Be warned, it may take some dogs a while to warm up to them (pun intended). So introduce the idea slowly by letting them wear the booties around the house for short periods of time, all the while giving them lots of praise and healthy treats.

Another argument in favor of booties is that they protect paws from salt and de-icing chemicals, which can dry out, crack, and irritate the pads. If you don’t have booties, layering a thin coat of Vaseline on your dog’s pads can form a protective layer. Just be sure to gently wash and dry their paws once you’re inside to remove any residue.

Indoor Play Options

If your dog is totally reluctant to go outside to do anything other than relieve himself, it’s ok. (Sometimes it’s hard even for me to muster up the desire to go out just to grab my mail when the wind chills reach sub-zero temps.)

Rest assured, there are plenty of great indoor activities that can keep your furry friend active and entertained. The key is to make sure you actually do them. Remember, lazy dogs eventually become overweight, unhealthy dogs—and nobody wants that.

  • Play hide and seek. Most dogs enjoy searching the house for bones, freeze-dried treats, and toys. This not only keeps them physically active, but mentally challenged.
  • Stair runs. Running up and down the stairs is a great way to exercise your dog in the winter. Throw a toy or ball up the steps and let Bruno retrieve it. Repeat as many times as he (and you) can handle it! (If your dog is old or has joint problems, or if your steps are slippery and/or not carpeted, skip this.)
  • Hallway fetch. If you have a long hallway, play fetch with your dog by throwing a favorite toy or ball.
  • Indoor obstacle course. This is another fun way to physically and mentally challenge your pup. As you know, dogs have an incredible sense of smell. Make him work for his dinner or treat by creating an obstacle or agility course using chairs, hoops, blankets/sheets, and anything else you can find around your house. At the end of the course, hide the food in a box that he has to work to get into.
  • Doggy day care. If your budget allows, day care is an excellent way to wear your dog out. As an added bonus, it allows him to socialize with other animals.
  • Indoor dog park. Search your area for an indoor dog park. Like day care, it provides a source of exercise and socialization for your pet.
  • Dog treadmills. Dog treadmills are designed specifically for canines to get indoor exercise. Most fall in the $300-600 range. Obviously, this is a hefty price tag—and not everyone has room to fit a dog treadmill in their home. But it’s another option to consider if you live in a very cold climate and you want to have a reliable way to exercise your dog in the winter.

Finally, be patient. Only a few months until spring—and regular outdoor walks!

 From my heart to yours,

Dr. Stephen Sinatra signature

References

Ninomiya H, et al. Functional anatomy of the footpad vasculature of dogs: scanning electron microscopy of vascular corrosion casts. Vet Dermatol. 2011 Dec;22(6):475-81.

Coates J. How Cold Is Too Cold for Your Dog? PetMD. Last accessed Dec. 19, 2019.

© 2019 Stephen Sinatra, MD. All rights reserved.

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