Bitter-cold weather has already visited us this winter, and you can bet that more is on the way. One question from dog owners that often crops up is: How long can my dog be outside when it’s cold?
It’s important to know the answer, because in Illinois, a law took effect on New Year’s Day that makes it a Class A misdemeanor to expose dogs to life-threatening situations for prolonged periods of time in extreme heat or cold. If you disobey this law, you can be fined up to $2,500 and serve up to a year in the slammer!
I can almost hear what you’re thinking: What constitutes “extreme cold” and “prolonged periods of time”? My friend Mark emailed me the other day with that question.
Mark has two Samoyeds and a golden retriever, whose privileged lives include access to a dog door leading from a heated laundry room to a large yard. They enjoy the freedom of wandering in and out of the house in all weather, even if Mark isn’t home. The arrangement suited both Mark and his buddies beautifully ̶ until a few days ago.
That’s when a concerned citizen called the police after seeing Mark’s dogs in his yard on a particularly frigid day. After Mark spoke to a couple of police officers, it became apparent to all of them that the law was vague; some guidelines were needed.
Fortunately, the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University has developed a chart to give us guidance. This is a very handy blueprint, and I used it to do some risk assessment for Mark’s dogs.
Here’s how they fared, assuming a dry day and a temperature of 10°:
1 Sanibel (47-pound 2-year-old Samoyed): Because she’s a northern breed and is acclimated to the cold, I subtracted 2 from her score. She’s medium-sized (for our purpose, that’s about 40 to 60 pounds), so I looked in the middle column (note the three dog silhouettes at the top of the chart). Her score at 10° is 3 (unsafe potential).
Aston (87-pound 6-year-old Samoyed): Again, he’s a northern breed and acclimated to the cold, so I subtracted 2 from his score. His number in the right hand column at 10° is also 3.
Bentley (100-pound 6-year-old golden retriever): He’s acclimated to the cold, so he gets 1 point subtracted from a score of 5 in the right-hand column. His score is 4 (dangerous weather; use caution).
Some easy math tells me that at 20°, Aston is in the first category, “no evidence of risk”, while the other two dogs are in the second category, “risk is unlikely, but be careful”.
The chart also takes into account wet weather, which raises the score. What it doesn’t really account for is Mark’s situation; his dogs can go into a warm room any time they want. They are unlikely to suffer any ill effects if their owner is gone for a few hours, even if it’s very cold. I still advised Mark to limit their exposure if the temperature is under 20°, for a couple of reasons. Is it possible that the Samoyeds, a breed that thrives in cold weather, could fall asleep in the sun and suffer hypothermia, or frostbite of the extremities? I’m not sure, but why take a chance? Also, it’s possible that another concerned citizen will notify the police on a future frosty day. A fine could ensue.
At what temperature, and for how long, is it safe to take Fido for a walk? A score of 3 shouldn’t keep most dogs from taking their regular walk (although some may need a coat). A 4 score warrants a short walk only. A score of 5 means a super-quick trip to the potty area, donning a thermal doggie coat and booties if your friend is old or frail, has a short coat, is a toy breed, or simply hates the cold and shivers.
We Midwesterners are made of tough stuff, and we laugh at the cold. But some of our tail-wagging friends may not be as hardy. So when in doubt, use the chart, and let common sense prevail.