Keeping your dog safe in Cold Weather

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Dr. Seth Bynum presents strategies for cold weather hunts as part of the Purina Sporting Dog Virtual Speaker Series

By Casey Sill

Elite working dogs can burn up to 12,000 calories in a big outing.

For a touch of perspective, that’s 45 eight-ounce New York strips — or 24 cups of performance dry dog food. There’s no way for a dog to keep up calorically on high intensity hunts, especially as temperatures start to fall in midseason. But there are proven methods to keep your pup safe and healthy in extreme cold, and Idaho based veterinarian Dr. Seth Bynum presented some of these tips via zoom recently as part of Purina’s Sporting Dog Virtual Speaker Series.

“You can’t fit 24 cups of food in a dog’s stomach,” Bynum said. “I mean, a lab might try, but it’s just not possible. So you’re not going to find a way to keep up with those calorie losses.”

Here are some of Dr. Bynum’s tips for maintaining the health and safety of your dog during cold weather hunts.

Food and body style

Despite it being an uphill battle, Bynum’s first key is to mitigate calorie loss as much as possible. That starts with feeding quality food that’s not only high in protein and fat, but is also highly digestible.

“That third part gets overlooked by folks, but it’s a very important factor,” he said. “There’s obviously multiple ways to achieve that, Purina Pro Plan is what I’ve been using for a number of years with great success.”

Hunters should think of calories as heat units for their dogs — more calories equals more wood in the stove, so to speak. Dogs obviously burn incredible amounts of those calories while running in the field, but they also lose a lot of calories while sitting still.

“Dogs burn calories in order to maintain body heat, even in the absence of exercise,” Bynum said. “So that needs be the baseline that we build upon for the rest of this stuff.”

Bynum begins increasing his dogs’ food intake prior to the start of hunting season in preparation for the long days ahead. This helps create some reserves that can be called upon as the season wears on, but Bynum said it’s not an excuse to let your dog get fat. He used the Purina dog condition system to give examples of the goldilocks zone for working dogs. The scale rates dogs from 1 to 9, with one being emaciated and nine being morbidly obese.

“I like to keep my dogs at a five going into the cold months, knowing that it’s ok to slip to a four or even a three if we’re really hunting hard,” he said. “But this is not permission to let dogs get into those upper numbers. We’re talking about moderate changes here.”

Water is often overlooked in cold temperatures, but Bynum said maintaining hydration is also a key to keeping dogs warm and safe.

“Metabolism is very dependent on water to carry energy through the body,” he said. “So don’t forget to water them up. And once you get home, consider heating their water just a bit to aid in their recovery. That way they’re not burning calories to warm their bodies after icy cold water cools them down.”

After the hunt

Multiple sources of heat loss can create a dangerous situation for dogs. Cold air temperatures, a wet dog and high winds are a bad combination, and Bynum said this oftentimes happens when a hunt is over.

“You’re tired, they’re tired, and you just throw them in the kennel in the back of the truck,” he said. “That can be a very dangerous situation, especially if you have a long drive ahead of you.”

Frostbite is fairly rare in dogs, but can occur under certain conditions. The most susceptible areas on a dog are their ears, tails and scrotum. Bynum said hunters should check these areas periodically throughout a cold hunt, and again thoroughly when the hunt is over and the dogs are ready to go back in their kennel.

If your dog is wet, it’s very important to get them as dry as possible before they’re kenneled, and to make sure cold airflow through the kennel is as restricted as possible. If conditions are especially brutal for the drive home, it may be time to sacrifice the cleanliness of your back seat and keep the dogs in the heated cab for the return trip.

Vests and boots

The necessity of neoprene vests is long debated in gun dog circles and their popularity is somewhat regional across the U.S., according to Bynum.

“There’s a lot of geographical preference,” he said. “They seem very popular in the northeast for field dogs. I tend to only run one with a young dog that’s more lean.”

As is the case with most precautionary measures, Bynum said dog vests are very situational.

“Sometimes they need them, sometimes they don’t,” he said. “They definitely do a great job of insulating heat. But sometimes when your dogs are working in the field, they don’t really need that extra insulation.”

On more static hunts, especially when water is a factor, Bynum does recommend a vest. Snow boots are another hotly contested piece of dog gear, and Bynum said the list of cons for boots often outweighs the pros.

“I have a love hate relationship with them, mostly hate,” he said. “In winter months they definitely do a good job of protecting against sub-snow hazards — rocks, branches and things like that. However, they’re difficult to keep on and there’s a negligible traction benefit. They can protect against foot abrasions, but can also cause blisters. They’re a double-edged sword.”

Know your dog

Much of cold weather hunting revolves around common sense. There’s no definitive temperature that’s “too cold” to hunt. Bynum said he’s hunted in single digits with no issues, and seen hunts in the mid-30s become dangerous. It’s all about knowing your dog and understanding the situation.

“Use your brain,” he said. “That’s a really good rule of thumb across the board.”

Breed and coat density are important, as is recognizing abnormal behavior in your dog. Serious health threats like hypothermia are relatively rare, but can be easily avoided by closely monitoring your dog. The same is true for a dog’s long-term health.

“Putting your hands on your dog, watching their condition and then trying to maintain that condition is important,” he said. “It’s about training yourself to recognize what a good body condition is.”


Casey Sill is the public relations specialist at the Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever national headquarters in White Bear Lake, Minn.