A common question this time of year is, “How cold is too cold for my dog?” The answer is a bit complicated, but thankfully, the good folks at Tufts University already developed a system for animal welfare officers to reference.
The Tufts Animal Condition and Care (TACC) system (PDF) has many parts, ranging from body condition and environmental health to weather safety, and the scores are used as a screening tool for animal health employees to determine if neglect is occurring. I adapted their information into an easy to understand chart—simply find the outdoor temperature (taking into account wind chill, or the temperature that it actually FEELS outside), look at the size of your dog, and voila! You know based on the color if it’s safe for your pup or not.
Much like the handy color coded chart that my son's teachers reference before making a decision regarding playground time in the winter, it factors in the outdoor temperature and other variables and lays the answers out in a simple system. Red for potentially life-threatening, orange for danger, yellow for caution and green for safe. Easy peasy!
Of course, there are some caveats. You can see those in blue. Wet weather and breed of dog can tip the scale one or more points in either direction. Acclimation to the cold is an important factor, too. For instance, dogs who are training for the Iditarod in Alaska are conditioned to be in the cold over time. If you took an average Husky and dropped it off on an icy tundra, he would likely perish. If your dog is acclimated to cold weather, like many hunting and working dogs, his number on the TACC scale is different than if he’s used to lying in a warm bed all winter like my dog.
Cold weather and hypothermia in pets
Remember: Sometimes it’s simply too cold for pets to be outside, regardless of their breed. Prolonged exposure to dangerously cold temperatures can put pets in danger of hypothermia, which occurs when the body is no longer able to sustain normal temperature. Symptoms of hypothermia in pets range from weakness and shivering to inaudible heartbeat and trouble breathing, depending on severity.
If you do come across a pet that appears to be suffering from hypothermia, call the vet and move the animal to a warm area, then cover the pet with warm water bottles, blankets or towels. Heating pads can burn your pet, so put several layers between your pet and an electric heat source. Transport the pet to medical care as soon as possible.
As always, use common sense and go with your gut. If it’s a “lime green” kind of day, but you still feel like your pet will be too cold, keep him in! Remember, you are your pet’s best advocate—when in doubt, follow your heart.
Related reading: Why do dogs shiver and shake?