5 Farm Dog Myths Busted to Help Your Canine Survive Winter

Winter’s bitter chill is tough on all of us—even your well-coated farm dog.

by Stephanie Staton
PHOTO: iStock/Thinkstock

Our farm dogs work hard to make daily operations run smoother and safer for those of us who share the land with these furry farmhands. Similar to maintaining your equipment, you need to provide some basic necessities to keep them in top condition. Winter can be a particularly difficult time, so let’s bust some common myths about dogs and the weather conditions they may face during the cold months.

Myth No. 1: A Coat Is a Coat

While most dogs have fur, they are not all coated equally. In 2010, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs published a “Livestock Guardian Dogs and Their Care in Winter” fact sheet, which stated that livestock guardian dog breeds “generally have a long, flat, weather-resistant outer coat that sheds water, and a thick, downy undercoat for warmth. Rough-coated, undercoated, short-eared dogs can withstand lower temperatures than smooth-coated, greyhound-shaped dogs.”

The article quotes Ray Coppinger, a professor at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., who studied 1,000 LGDs during his 10-year Livestock Guarding Dog Project. According to Coppinger, body mass really determines cold resistance in dogs. At subzero temperatures, he found that medium-sized dogs less than 72 pounds “start to take action against the cold by shivering or increasing their metabolic rate [burning energy to produce heat]. Larger dogs, such as LGDs [that weigh around 100 pounds], can withstand even lower temperatures before reacting to the cold.”

Dog jackets may be cute and might serve short-haired dogs well in freezing temperatures for short durations outdoors, but a dog jacket or sweater could prove detrimental to thick-coated outdoor dogs, preventing the animals from properly self-regulating body temperatures. Breeds like the Siberian Husky, Malamute and Saint Bernard are perfectly suited to cold temperatures, while the Chihuahua, Greyhound, and terrier and pinscher breeds won’t do well without a little extra outer insulation.

Joe Kinnarney, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, warns against leaving any pets or animals outside for extended periods of time in below-freezing weather conditions. As temperatures begin to drop, watch for signs, such as shivering or seeking access to indoor areas, to gauge your dog’s threshold. Increasing caloric intake can also help your dog regulate its body temperature; check with your vet about proper amounts.

Myth No. 2: They Don’t Need Help

LGDs have a special bond with livestock, perceiving them as part of their pack; however, individual personalities will impact how closely the dog interacts with its pack members. According to Coppinger’s study, some LGDs will burrow to the center of a flock for protection from winds while other dogs will lie in fence rows, using shrubs and snow banks to deflect winds. Similarly, they found that some dogs—particularly older ones—sought shelter from cold rains in provided doghouses while others slept outside the pole barns housing their wards and still others supplied a doghouse that was never used. The key is to provide options suited to your dog’s personality, which will require keen observation and flexibility.

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Myth No. 3: Snow Equals Drinking Water

Hydration is a key factor in the health and safety of all your farm inhabitants, especially in cold weather. While it may seem as though dehydration is a greater danger in the heat of summer, the dry air that comes with cooler temperatures saps moisture as the animal pants in addition to decreasing thirst, so access to fresh water is imperative.

To ensure your dogs have access, Susan Nelson, a clinical associate professor and veterinarian at the Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine’s Pet Health Center, recommends monitoring water bowls closely and avoiding metal bowls which could lead to an unpleasantly stuck tongue or lip.

“It’s easy for your pet to get dehydrated over the winter as it is easy for water bowls to quickly freeze over,” Nelson says. “Water bowls should be checked at least twice a day at a minimum. Icy bowls should be emptied of their frozen contents and filled with fresh water. Avoid metal water bowls as your dog’s tongue could get stick to the metal. Use plastic or ceramic instead. Wider and deeper bowls will freeze more slowly than narrow and shallow bowls. Consider purchasing a heated water bowl for your pet so they can have unfrozen water 24/7. Having access to fresh, unfrozen water will make it less tempting for your dog to drink out of puddles in the street, which may contain antifreeze from engine leaks.”

If your dog is eating snow, it is most likely just a fascination with the novelty of the texture; however, it could be a sign of thirst. Check water bowls and monitor your dog for signs of illness. If the snow-eating persists, consult your veterinarian; it could be a sign of other issues. The habit can also affect the dog’s ability to regulate body temperature.

Myth No. 4: It’s too Cold for Fleas & Ticks

Ticks are usually active in the spring, summer and fall,” according to Michael Waldvogel and Charles Apperson of the Entomology Extension of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service at North Carolina State University. “However, the adults of some species are active in the winter.”

The black-legged tick is one such species, but other species might take advantage of extended warm spells or mild winters, which draw these relatives of mites and spiders out of hiding for a mid-winter snack. It’s a good idea to continue your flea and tick regimes year-round for this reason.

Myth No. 5: There’s No Need for Grooming

There are many hazards on the farm, and winter adds a threat with ice and snow. If left unattended, clumps of snow in fur and ice between toes can lead to injury and even lameness for your canine helper.

The AVMA recommends checking your dog’s paws frequently for signs of cold-weather injury or damage, such as cracked or bleeding paw pads. Clipping the hair between the dog’s toes may help reduce the risk of ice accumulation, and you should remove any snow clumps to avoid water saturating your dog’s coat.

From livestock guardians to companion animals, all your canine farmhands deserve protection from the hazards of winter. Heed these simple tips to stay ahead of the curve and ease the harsh effects of cold climates.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2016 issue of Hobby Farms.

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