It was a chilly day, and Cleo the standard poodle arrived for her appointment looking chic in a plaid quilted coat. I asked her owner if Cleo would be cold without the coat, and she admitted that she didn’t know. “But she loves her coat, because she knows that when I put it on her we’re going somewhere,” she added.
Sweaters and coats for dogs are often objects of ridicule, but during our cold winters, some dogs benefit from being dressed for the weather.
A dog’s coat is provides insulation and helps prevent the loss of body heat into the cold air. I’ve seen Chesapeake Bay retrievers jump into frigid water to retrieve a stick, then return to shore and beg the owner throw it again. Labrador retrievers break through thin ice to swim after fallen game. And one of our clients has Tibetan mastiffs that prefer sleeping outdoors, ensconced in the snow, to being in a warm house.
But not all dogs have a thick, warm coat that keep them from shivering in our wintry climate. It’s not surprising that small dogs need extra insulation. Chihuahuas, miniature pinschers, and rat terriers, for example, simply aren’t equipped to deal with our winters. Even big dogs with short hair (especially if they are lean), such as greyhounds and Dobermans, tend to prefer being covered on their walks.
So how do you determine if your canine needs couture? By observation. During their dog’s first winter, most people figure out just how much cold they can abide. A cocker spaniel that can comfortably go on a 10-minute walk when it’s 25 degrees outside might begin to shiver after 15 minutes. The same dog in the same weather playing fetch will be uncomfortably warm with a coat or sweater on. Acclimation plays a role, too. The aforementioned cocker might, by the end of winter, be able to tolerate a much longer walk in the same weather with nary a garment.
Besides coat quality, age and health make a difference. Puppies, sick dogs and frail old dogs need to be kept warm. And most dogs can use a coat if it’s chilly and wet, or brutally cold and windy: Even northern breeds participating in the Iditarod have special jackets for that type of weather.
The same criteria apply to the need for dog booties: Observation is the key. You’ll know your pooch needs footwear if he limps from the cold on his walks, or does a dance, hopping uncomfortably from paw to paw. Many of our clients tell me their dogs need booties when the thermometer dips below 20 or 25 degrees. Dogs with hairy paws can collect ice balls between their toes, which can be painful and impair mobility, a problem also solved by booties.
With so many pet products on the market – Americans spent $13.72 billion on them (excluding food) in 2014 – you’re sure to find Fido the perfect garment to keep him or her cozy. Because many dogs have little or no hair on their bellies, I recommend buying a coat or sweater that covers that sensitive area, with an accommodation to allow male dogs to relieve themselves. As for booties: Unfortunately, it’s a challenge to find ones that dogs accept, or that don’t fall off.
My client’s old dog Cleo might not have actually needed her coat, but she didn’t mind it; and because her health is somewhat fragile, it sure didn’t hurt her. But be careful not to dress dogs that don’t need it. Being overheated, especially during aerobic activity, is uncomfortable or even dangerous. And using unnecessary sweaters or coats as a form of self-expression isn’t a great idea. That Roberto Cavalli puffer jacket may be a status symbol, but if your pug finds it repugnant, you’re not doing the poor guy any favors. A simple, practical coat – or none at all – might be sufficient. In Hamlet, Polonius says “the apparel oft proclaims the man”; but clothes don’t make the dog.