Ahh, every veterinarian’s favorite loaded winter question. We get this one all the time, and I imagine every other veterinarian in Indiana does as well.
Here are some thoughts to guide your own decision making process (as you are your pet’s own best advocate)
THOUGHT #1: In 12 years I’ve been presented with only one pet who (probably) died of exposure, and he was a feeble little 16 year old miniature poodle with a weak heart, who somehow managed to escape out the client’s front door in the middle of a snow storm and they found him the next day.
THOUGHT #2: Far more dogs die in weather that is too hot than too cold.
THOUGHT #3: I went to veterinary school in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada where the temperature is routinely below -40F each winter, and there are still dogs and cats living outside. Do they live in a snowdrift? Of course not, they’re in a shelter of some kind. A garage, a tarp-covered crate, a screened in porch, SOMETHING. Does EVERY pet in Saskatoon live outside? Heck no, only the hardiest of all critters, usually those born and raised in the cold, can be found outside on the Great Canadian Prairie. But my point is this: are there dogs who thrive in the cold? Yes. Some of them even prefer to sleep outside of their perfectly well insulated shelter and roll around in that snowdrift in the “40 below”.
THOUGHT #4: On the other hand, many of those outdoor dogs and cats in Saskatoon had lost ear and tail tips due to frostbite. So obviously providing adequate shelter, high quality / high energy food, fresh and THAWED water (buy an outdoor electric heated stainless steel water dish!) is a requirement, especially if you’re supporting a feral cat community or have working dogs.
THOUGHT #5: It’s pretty easy to tell when your dog feels cold. If your Golden Retriever is stretched out, rolling around on his back playing in the snow, standing there with a dopey grin wagging his tail with little snowballs hanging all over his fur, or he’s holding the leash in his mouth for yet another snowy walk, he’s fine. On the other hand, if your Italian Greyhound is huddled in a tiny little ball, shivering outside the door praying for you to open it, she’s cold.
THOUGHT #6: Wolves still live outside. And it’s blizzarding right now outside my home in Carmel, but there are squirrels running up and down the trees like every other day. Do these animals enjoy being in the cold? A better question is, do they know living inside is even an option? If I were designing a wolf or a squirrel, I would not install a sensor that made them grumpy every time someone turned down the thermostat, that would be cruel. Since I believe animals were designed pretty well, my suspicion is that equating being cold with feeling uncomfortable is mostly a human experience, because we’re hairless wimps. I believe animals try to avoid cold so they don’t die, not because it feels icky to be cold.
THOUGHT #7: On the other hand, domesticated dogs aren’t wolves, and an indoor housecat is about as far from a thick-skinned feral tomcat as two critters can be. If I had a thin-skinned, shorthaired dog like a Boxer or something, or a squishy fat and happy little kitty whose feet have never touched pavement, I wouldn’t let either outside five seconds longer than it took them to pee and run back inside. That’s just common sense.
THOUGHT #8: On the other other hand, I have heard countless stories of working dogs and barn cats with access to warm shelter, choosing to sleep outside covered in snow instead. Provide that shelter, sure, but if your pet wants to be in the cold, let ‘em be in the cold.
THEREFORE, I have created the following set of rules to guide you, dear reader:
WINTER WEATHER RULE #1
The only dog or cat who should be allowed to live completely outside in Indiana:
a) Has more fur than body
b) Has a thick layer of fat under that layer of thick fur
c) Has a shelter to hide in when it’s windy
d) Has adequate high-quality, high-energy food and a heated water bowl
e) Is still given access to warm shelter like a barn or garage during REALLY cold weather.
WINTER WEATHER RULE #2
It is too cold to walk or run your dog outside when:
a) The news and weather people start talking about how many seconds of exposure it takes for your skin to freeze, or if “wind chill” is a major factor (residents of Saskatoon tune into the news just about every winter morning to decide how many layers of face protection to put on, before unplugging our cars for the drive to work. That’s cold.)
b) Barring the above, if you’re OK walking or running with a light jacket on, your pet is probably fine too. Get your exercise!
WINTER WEATHER RULE #3
Your dog or cat needs an ugly Christmas-themed sweater when:
a) You bought a particular breed of dog just so that you could put it in a sweater
b) Your urge to take funny cat pictures overrides your claw survival instinct
c) Excluding the above, probably never.
SPECIFIC COLD WEATHER GUIDELINES FOR DOGS AND CATS
Skinny thin-haired dog
(whippet, greyhound, min pin): Should come indoors when it’s cold enough that you wouldn’t be happy out there wearing a coat any thicker than what your pet is wearing. If it gets below 40-45F, bring these dogs in. You didn’t get a skinny little dog to keep it outside anyway, so this advice probably applies to about zero pet owners.
Solid, but still thin-haired or thin-skinned dog or cat
(pit bull, pug, bulldog, boxer, border collie, skinny German Shepherd, Mastiff, Rottweiler, Sheltie, or the average housecat): Should come indoors when it’s cold enough that you wouldn’t be happy wearing your heavy winter coat. If it stays below 32F, bring these dogs and cats in, or at the very least, provide a four-sided shelter like a tarp-covered crate, heated water bowl, straw-filled dog house or barn, and high-quality, high-energy food.
Giant fuzzy beast
(Malamute, Husky, heavy German Shepherd, Bernese Mountain Dog, Newfoundland, Great Pyrenees, feral cat) born and raised outside, can probably stay outside. There are very, very few days in Indiana cold enough to be a threat to life for these animals naturally bred and adapted to cold weather, who have been outside with access to shelter every day since birth.
Let common sense be your guide. I know I’ve said it three or four times, but here’s the list again: provide a four-sided shelter like a tarp-covered crate or garage or under your porch or in a barn, buy a heated water bowl, and use only high-quality, high-energy food, and then let your pet’s behavior be your guide. And when you’re trying to put yourself in your furry family member’s padded little feet, don’t think like a human, think like an animal.