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Optimal Winter Care for Dogs

Whether winter weather in your area means subzero temperatures or occasional dips below freezing, dogs that spend a good portion of time outdoors need special care and protection for the next several weeks. A dog’s food, housing, physical condition and veterinary care all should be considered this time of year.

Winter Nutrition
Dogs may want to eat significantly more food in winter than in summer. “There are two major factors that contribute to a dog’s need for additional calories,” says Bob West, Purina Director of Sporting for the Breeder-Enthusiast Group. “The outside temperature and the level of activity of the dog.”

As a general rule, dogs need 7 percent more calories for every 10 degrees the temperature drops below the moderate temperatures of spring and fall, West says. “If a dog is active in cold, adverse conditions, you can double his caloric needs,” he says.

Purina Nutrition Scientist Arleigh Reynolds, D.V.M., Ph.D., DACVN, an avid sprint dog competitor who lives in Alaska, stresses the importance of feeding a good quality canine diet year-round, rather than switching diets seasonally. “It can take dogs two to three months to metabolically adjust to a performance diet,” he says. “If you wait until you think your dogs will need extra calories, they’re going to be behind where they ought to be.”

Additionally, Reynolds says, poor quality dog food is not a per calorie savings. “It’s one of the biggest problems I see when I work with people.”

Though it’s important to maintain dogs in ideal body condition (defined as ribs palpable without excess fat covering), both West and Reynolds allow their dogs to gain a small amount of weight over the winter months for insulation and energy reserves.

“I will thin them down in the spring,” Reynolds says.

Importance of Water
Dogs may need more water in winter than any other time of the year. Their bodies need water as part of the metabolic changes that take place in winter and to process extra food they may be eating in cold weather, Reynolds says.

Access to fresh, warm water is essential for good health. “It’s important that the water is at a drinkable temperature — not barely over freezing,” he says. It may be helpful to use heated water bowls or keep dogs’ bowls inside heated kennels.

Providing a Warm Environment
“Humans can’t really adapt to cold weather, but dogs do,” Reynolds says. “Their physiology changes: their red blood cells change, they add fat, and their hair coat changes.” While dogs can adapt to cold weather, they also need the opportunity to be warm and dry, he says.

A dog that’s cold may be more prone to disease and injury. A warm place to rest will help a dog recover from exercise. “A warm, comfortable place to sleep allows a dog’s body to replenish itself for overall health.

The dog will rest and recover better, and won’t be so sore after exercise,” Reynolds says.

Kennel areas need to be dry and draft-free, and dogs need to have places to sleep that are comfortable and elevated off the ground. “Make sure dogs have good bedding; that will help them stay dry and rest better,” Reynolds says. While hay and blankets can be good bedding materials, they need to be changed regularly. Hay can develop mold, and dirty blankets don’t offer the same insulation as clean ones.

Sometimes climates with changing temperatures are more of a problem than cold climates. Dogs that live in a climate that’s cold for long periods of time have a chance to acclimate to the change. It can be harder to adjust to temperatures that might be 60 degrees Fahrenheit one week and well below freezing a week later. “The most danger is when temperature shifts happen rapidly,” West says. “Anticipate what might happen and prepare your dogs for it. Think ahead.”

Signs of Coldness
While a family pet might make it abundantly clear that he’s cold, it’s not always so easy to tell with high-drive dogs when they’re doing what they were bred to do. “They’ll hunt through it and then you’ll notice,” West says. He says to watch dogs carefully when they’re working for signs that they may be cold.

The first signs that a dog in the field is cold are shivering, less animation, and slower travel, West says. ”Eventually, as the cold feeling progresses, a dog will slow to a walk and in effect try to ‘curl up’ while standing. The posture change is an innate attempt to conserve energy or body heat.”

Sometimes a hunter will work one dog and then take out another. West cautions that it’s important that the first dog has a warm place to rest and recover while you’re working with the second one.

Proper Veterinary Care
Since cold weather takes a toll on a dog’s energy and on his immune system, it’s important to prevent or treat other things that can also stress the immune system. While many breeders routinely give their dogs veterinary checks at the beginning of winter or the beginning of hunting season, it’s important to keep an eye on basic care all winter long. For example, an owner should check for cuts, abrasions, debris in the eyes, as well as pad injuries every time he or she brings a dog out of the field.

“Cold weather is a stress that makes a dog more susceptible to injury and health problems,” Reynolds says. “If a dog isn’t eating well or shows other early signs of illness, don’t wait to take him to a veterinarian. A dog will go down hill a lot faster in the cold weather.”

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