Danger Alert: How cold is too cold for a dog to be left outside?

"Dogs can die because of the cold, people should take this seriously..." 

Photo by stock_colors/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by stock_colors/iStock / Getty Images


The moment the mercury starts to drop reports about dogs left out in the cold start coming in, sometimes the stories are horrifying.

In Salem, Massachusetts this month, someone left this dog tied to a bench outside the Northeast Animal Shelter in 7-degree weather.

Credit: Northeast Animal Shelter, Salem, MA

Credit: Northeast Animal Shelter, Salem, MA

In Detroit, Michigan, also this month, someone abandoned a Pomeranian Mix in front of Detroit Dog Rescue. The dog did not survive, and the rescue is looking for clues based on this surveillance photo. 

Credit: Detroit Dog Rescue

Credit: Detroit Dog Rescue

Watchdog Mary has been inundated with messages from concerned people asking for advice about dogs they've seen left outside, even chained to doghouses, in chilly, freezing temperatures.  

Some have called police and animal control and ended up outraged when officers decided a dog's conditions aren't that bad, and the animal remains shivering in a snow covered yard.  

So just how cold, is too cold, for a dog to be left outside? When is it cruel? When is it dangerous? 

There's basic common sense which prevails for many pet parents and officers: If it feels cold to you, unless you own a sled dog, it probably feels cold to your pooch, don't leave them outside. If you have to think, "Gee, is it too chilly for my dog to be out?" Experts say bringing them inside certainly can't hurt. 

Cold weather evaluation chart

For those who need it spelled out in black and white, the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in Massachusetts created this Animal Condition and Care chart.  Veterinarians used scientific calculations to help evaluate when a dog may be in danger. (Click on the link above for the entire assessment document.)

Credit: Tufts University Animal Care and Condition

Credit: Tufts University Animal Care and Condition

If reading numbers and graphs seems too confusing, and you're still puzzled figuring out "how cold, is too cold?" Watchdog Mary contacted the American Medical Veterinary Association, (AMVA).

Lori Teller, DVM, who is on the AMVA Board of Directors, warned, "Dogs can die because of the cold, people should take this seriously." 

Teller explained there is a simple way to figure this out: "If it’s uncomfortable for you to be outside, then your dog may not be that tolerant," she said. "If you have to bundle up, your dog may be cold too. If your dog looks miserable, or is shivering, it’s too cold." 

A dog's age, breed, and the climate they're used to also plays a role. "What a Chihuahua in Florida can tolerate is different than a Malamute in Minnesota," Teller said. 

Photo by apixel/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by apixel/iStock / Getty Images


Tips on evaluating canines in cold weather

Teller said there's key points to keep in mind evaluating dogs in the cold: 

  • Coat Type: If a dog has a thin coat, like a Chihuahua or a Bull Dog, they don't tolerate cold as well as some arctic breeds like a Malamute or Samoyed.

  • Age: If a dog is older they may have a harder time compensating.

  • Signs of distress: If a dog looks miserable, is shivering, becoming sluggish and not responsive, that is dangerous. Call police right away.

  • Climate acclimation: Dogs who have always lived in Northern climates may be able to tolerate colder temps a bit more, but use common sense before leaving them outside.

"Even if it’s a sled dog, they need to be kept warm at night, Teller said. “They can tolerate the cold for a longer period than other dogs, but they can’t tolerate it for any prolonged amount of time without having chance to warm up."

And if you think, "Oh, my dog has a dog house..." Keep this in mind, "Dog houses provide shelter from wind, not temperature," Teller said. "But if it’s really cold, or there's a prolonged freeze, a dog house won’t be of tremendous help. Ideally those animals would be brought inside." 

Photo by Nataba/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by Nataba/iStock / Getty Images

 Should dogs be "outside" dogs?

Speaking of dog houses, and dogs who are kept outdoors 24/7, many animal experts and rescue groups now say the same thing, "The 1950's called, they want their dog care advice back..." 

Besides being at risk of being too cold, exposed to the elements, thunder storms, or having a possible encounter with a wild animal, a snake, or an allergic reaction to a bee sting, dogs are social creatures, they like having a family.

"I think most dogs like being inside dogs. It’s not exciting to be a lonely dog in the yard by yourself," Teller said. "Dogs should be able to get out and get exercise, but should not be running loose of course. It’s not in the dog’s best interest to spend its life chained in a yard without social interaction, and it’s a risk to its physical health to be in temperature extremes." 

If you see a dog in questionable or dangerous conditions

  • Call your local police and the animal control officer.

  • Document days, times and the conditions you observe.

  • Take pictures and videos.

  • The Humane Society of the United States has additional advice.

Photo by Creative-Family/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by Creative-Family/iStock / Getty Images

Tips for dog owners dealing with cold weather

If you weren't a believer in bringing your dog indoors in the cold, you must be by now. Here's some tips to help get you and your pooch through the winter:

  • Put a sweater or coat on your dog for walks and potty breaks.

  • Do shorter walks and indoor activities for exercise.

  • If your dog's activity level is decreased due to the cold, they may need a bit less food than normal. Make sure your pet doesn't put on winter weight.

  • Be careful of liquids on the road, it could be antifreeze, which is very toxic.

  • Wipe the road salt and anti-icing chemicals off your dog's paws.