How cold is too cold?

Cold temperatures can be extremely dangerous for our four-legged friends

Ying and yang: Two dogs play together in Tom Campbell Hill’s off-leash area in Calgary on Friday, Feb. 9, 2024. Both of the dogs are puppies and require extensive exercise in the winter months. (Photo by Nathan Iles/The Press)

Extreme weather conditions are the new normal as climate change continues unabated. Alberta faced a historic wildfire season throughout the summer months in 2023, only to welcome the new year with a snap of frigid weather that saw temperatures in Alberta plummet to -50 C for the third time in 20 years.

The effects of these extremes are obvious for humans, as cars struggle to start, and pipes begin to burst. For household dogs, however, the weather can be a matter of life or death.

“A dog that is outside in that kind of cold for even 15 minutes could see potentially fatal outcomes,” says veterinary technician Laura Mackenzie.

“They’re going to have decreased metabolism and decreased tissue perfusion, meaning you’re not going to have blood flowing to extremities like it should be. They’re going to have prolonged CRT. All the blood goes right to their chest, and you’re going to start seeing bradycardia.

“You can even see them go into shock.”

CRT refers to a dog’s capillary refill time. This is tested by pressing the gum area of a dog’s mouth where the capillaries are. When the pressure is released, blood should immediately refill the capillaries, indicating normal blood flow.

When a dog is in shock, however, these capillaries will not refill.

“You might see cyanosis,” Mackenzie said. “We’re talking a blue tongue and blue gums because they can’t get enough blood oxygen circulating through the rest of their bodies.”

This kind of biological malfunction can alter a dog’s behaviour in drastic ways. Mackenzie says a non-aggressive canine may bite, as the dog panics and tries to regulate its body. It can even affect bathroom training.

“He had a really hard time going outside to go pee,” said Jennie Whitehead about her three-year-old yorkie Huxley. “He got so backed up that we had to take him to the vet.

“He was so sick that he hardly got out of his bed. I was really worried.”

It’s an experience echoed by Meredith VanVolkingburgh and their 11-year-old Boston terrier Lola.

“She has accidents in the house, which she never does otherwise,” they said. “She’s very house-trained.”

Sensory stimulus: Meredith VanVolkingburgh holds their dog Lola in Calgary on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. Lola is missing her eyes and enjoys the sensation of being near the swaying plants. (Photo by Nathan Iles/The Press)

“That makes her anxious because she knows she’s not supposed to go in the house.”

Lola – who is also missing both eyes due to a prior medical condition – is a short-haired dog. As such, VanVolkingburgh must take precautions when venturing outside of their apartment.

“She has a thermal undersuit, a full snowsuit, and then boots,” they said. “The time it takes to get two dogs and a human ready for -40 C is literally a 20-minute operation.”

VanVolkingburgh says that their other dog, Otis, is Lola’s opposite. The two-year-old cane corso seems quite comfortable in the snow, as do many other large-breed dogs.

“Larger, hairier breeds are likely going to last and do better and adapt faster in the winter weather,”  Dr. Serge Chalhoub said in an interview with CBC,

The precise temperature that is dangerous for dogs is a spectrum. Chalhoub estimates it’s anything below -20 C is when frostbite can set into paws.

Meanwhile, in an article for Great Pet Care, Dr. Cathy Barnette said that 7.2 C is the cut-off point for dogs to spend long periods outside.

The generally agreed-upon rule, however, is that if it’s too cold for a human, it’s too cold for a dog.

“Go out at the same time as the dog,” said Mackenzie. “As soon as you can’t last outside, assume that their mucous membranes are drying out. So, get them back inside.”

As Mackenzie points out, Alberta’s famously dry climate can further impact a dog’s winter experience. According to Britannica, Alberta has a continental climate with winters that are arid due to dry Pacific winds blowing from the eastern Rocky Mountains. The permeable membranes of any dog breed – such as the eyes, nose, and paw pads – are vulnerable to these extreme, dry conditions.

“The colder it gets, the drier it gets, you’re going to have problems that become more respiratory,” said Mackenzie.

Furthering these dry conditions is the salt that is spread on sidewalks to combat ice build-up. This salt, which often contains calcium chloride, will injure the paws of a dog and can be harmful if ingested.

“Something I have learned about having a big, cold-weather dog is that if you live in the city, they still need boots no matter what,” said VanVolkingburgh.

“It’s about protecting the skin on their feet.”

It’s just as important to protect the mental health of a dog that is stuck inside. VanVolkingburgh has an unconventional recommendation: cardboard boxes.

“Anytime Otis is bored, I give him access to a cardboard box, and he shreds the hell out of it,” they said.

Meanwhile, Bon-A-Pet-Treat! manager Melissa Lee notes that sales of puzzle toys and treats tend to spike during cold snaps.

“We see lots of dogs that are cooped up inside during the day while people work,” she said. “Then, they get home, and it’s too cold to go out. So we’ve been selling a lot of brain activities and lots of puzzle games.”

“Keeping them busy keeps us sane.”

Helping hand: Melissa Lee helps a four-legged customer in the pet store she manages, Bon-A-Pet-Treat! in Calgary on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024. (Photo by Nathan Iles/The Press)
About Nathan Iles 5 Articles
As a news reporting and communications major in the journalism program at SAIT, Nathan Iles is working as a writer for The Press in 2024.