Many people own animals that must live out side during the winter months. Some homes have outside dogs, many have cats that
spend a lot of time outside and, of course, farm livestock are not brought into the home during the winter no matter how harsh
the weather. If an animal must stay outside there are management practices you can do that will enable the animal to be as
comfortable as possible during the cold months.
The very first thing to determine is whether your pet is the type of pet that can live outside normally. Small animals whether
dog, cat, rabbit, guinea pig or other small animal tend to have a harder time staying warm just because they do not have enough
body mass to maintain a body temperature that will allow them to survive in frigid temperatures. Think about two containers
of water...one an 8 oz glass of water and the other a large swimming pool. The glass of water will freeze solid in just a
few hours while the pool takes many days to freeze just because there is so much more water to cool down. The same is true
of our pets. Yes, our bodies do have an internal temperature control but at some point that internal regulator will fail
under extreme condictions. Consider two different breeds...one a Long Haired Chihuahua of three pounds and the next a rough
coat St. Bernard, well over one hundred pounds. The tiny dog is not able to maintain body temperature as long as the big
dog because he doesn't have enough body mass. Large animals...horses, goats, sheep, cattle, etc....tend to have much more
body mass than our domestice pets and therefore, under normal conditions, are much more likely to be able to cope with extreme
Of course the enviornment plays a major role in keeping your pets or livestock healthy in extreme cold. If you must keep
healthy small animals outside...such as pet rabbits...you should remember that under wild conditions the rabbit lives in a
hole in the ground, a den, which actually insulates the rabbit against the extremes of nature. Yes, they cope very easily
with cold weather but their lifestyle provides an underground home away from the elements. Many man made rabbit hutches,
while nice to look at, are actually not great at providing the type of protection the rabbit needs to keep warm and should
be filled with soft fluffy hay to give the shelter the ability to protect the rabbit better. Both cats and dogs need a den
to be comfortable and protected. These dens are not a large drafty dog house or a back porch. They are well protected, draft
free and insulated areas that the dog or cat can retreat to in bad weather....just like the rabbit. Barn cats use hay mows
quite effectively but suburban and urban cats are not as fortunate. Urban cats often live in an outside world devoid of soft
cozy places...instead coping with concrete. Outside cats can be offered protected places created by the owner or residents
of an area using boxes with straw in them. Keep in mind that blankets used as bedding often attract moisture and become part
of the problem much quicker than shavings, straw or hay. Goats are particularly suspectable to pneumonia if they get wet
or must live in an environment where they are subjected to winds. They are able to handle the cold if their enclosures are
draft and moisture free. Horses should have, at the very least, a three sided shed in their pasture for protection in extreme
weather unless the owner brings them into a barn when the weather is bad. Chickens also need a sheltered place to roost out
of drafts and wet weather. Feathers are great insulation and do a fine job of keeping body heat in but wind ruffles the feathers
and prevents them from doing their insulation job. Dogs kept on chains are less able to cope with the cold than a dog in
a kennel run. The chain does limit exercise and also becomes ice cold in winter. A dog lying on a cold chain must force
it's body to work harder to keep warm.
Location of shelters will be critical in helping animals cope with bad weather. If you have large animals and plan on building
three sided sheds for shelter observe the site to see where the 'prevailing winds' come from and from which direction major
snow storms arrive. If winter winds come from the north west...which is common... then building a three sided shed with the
opening to the west or north is not going to provide much shelter in storms and the wind will push the snow and freezing rain
into the opening. If you are building a dog house use natural wind breaks...such as a house wall or a barn wall to provide
added protection. Also, like the three sided shed for large animals....don't angle the opening of the dog house in the direction
of winter winds. You can also design dog houses with a built in, inside wind break which is ideal if the pet must stay outside.
The built in wind break prevents any wind from any direction from entering the sleeping area.
The breed, especially in canines where there is such diversity in coat length, plays an important role in whether an animal
of a particular species should be housed outside during extreme weather. The Great Dane and the St. Bernard are both giant
dog breeds but the Dane has a short coat with little protection from the elements. The St. Bernard, even the smooth coat,
still has a much thicker and longer coat than the Dane. The Saint also grows a thicker undercoat. The Great Dane may survive
a cold winter but be miserable or he may eventually freeze to death. He is a giant breed but is not really equipt to spend
long hours out in the cold because of the length and thickness of his coat. Many cats live outside yet there are some breeds
created by man...the Rex breeds and the hairless Sphynx in particular....that do not have a coat that insulates them from
the elements. Some horse breeds, such as the Thoroughbred do not handle cold weather very well and should either be kept
in a barn, blanketed during extreme weather or both.
Most people think long haired dogs will have no problem dealing with extreme cold. They appear to be adequately equipped
to stay warm in the worst weather just because they have long hair. Unfortunately, some breeds do not have is that undercoat.
The undercoat is short, soft, very dense and designed to keep body heat in. A long sparse coat, without that undercoat,
isn't going to do much to protect the animal from the cold. When people go out in the cold it is natural to dress warmly.
This often means dressing in several layers of warm clothing...long underwear, sweater and then a winter coat, hat and mittens.
The animal world dresses for winter months by growing their winter clothing....the heavy winter undercoat. Animals develop
heavy or thin undercoat according to their breed, health, nutrition and length of time to become accustomed to gradually changing
seasons. A pet that is kept outside all the time will naturally grow that coat to protect against the extreme weather however
a pet that has lived in the house and then must instantly adjust to outside living is not going to be able to adjust quickly
enough to survive if temperatures and conditions outside are extreme. Animals need a couple of months of gradually decreasing
temperatures to signal their body to grow a heavy undercoat.
Nutrition, body condition and overall health can have a profound effect on an animal's ability to stay warm while living outside.
At the beginning of this article I spoke of 'body mass'. When evaluating body mass you should also consider 'condition'.
That is to say....is the animal thin or in good weight? Does the animal have a layer of fat for insulation? Does the animal
have underlying health issues that might cause enough stress to prevent the animal from dealing with extreme cold? A thin
or sick animal is far more likely to be negatively affected by cold weather than a healthy animal in good shape. Animals
in good weight have a layer of fat and a good healthy coat to keep body heat in. If you must keep a pet outside it is critical
to make sure that the animal's phsical condition is good in order to insure that their life outside is not, at the very least,
miserable and at the most....the cause of their death. The conscienscious owner starts looking at the animal in the summer
and making adjustments to make sure that nutritional needs are met to insure that extra layer of fat is there when cold weather
arrives. Sometimes just switching to a higher fat, quality food will be enough for dogs and cats. Livestock will need extra
hay as the digestive process creates heat. And of course don't forget water DAILY. No matter how much extra food you give
your outside critters it won't be enough if they don't have enough water to complete the digestive process.
Also a part of body condition is the condition of the coat. Malnurished animals often have a thin, unhealthy coat not able
to do the best job keeping an animal warm. Matted hair on dogs and cats does not insulate correctly so long coated dogs should
be thoroughly groomed in the spring to get mats off in time for a good healthy coat to grow before winter and then in the
late fall to make sure the coat is ready to do it's job as a winter coat. Regular grooming of outside dogs is the ideal as
that assists in keeping the coat healthy all year long and helps to prevent external parasites that can prevent ideal body
fat conditions. Dogs that are dealing with internal parasites have comprimised immune systems, a digestive system that is
working overtime to try and compensate for the damage done by the parasites and are more suspectable to all the diseases and
challenges of living outside.
Age can be a major factor in your animal's ability to survive outside in the winter. Young animals are often more active
which creates heat. Older animals usually start to develop arthritis and other old age problems which discourage activity
and prevent them from dealing correctly with the cold weather. Most animals tend not to show pain as people do so as your
outside pets get older you should make sure you have yearly checkups with your veterinarian to make sure the pet is healthy
enough to handle the stress of winter weather. Old pets tend to spend a lot of time sleeping and this lack of activity and
need to sleep force the outside pet to sleep on ice cold ground. Many of these outside older pets did just fine as youngsters
in a particular environment but risk death in the same environment as an older debilitated pet.
While many of us wish that all domestic pets could enjoy the benefits of living in a home with family, but that just isn't
going to happen. There are many pets who must live outside. It is the responsibility of the pet owner to make sure their
outside pet is comfortable in all types of weather. Dogs that have thick undercoats, are in good weight and physcial condition
and have access to good food, fresh water and a dry, draft free shelter can survive the winter months outside with no adverse
affects. On the other hand, dogs that lack undercoat or have poor coat, are thin, old or ill, are not fed enough good quality
dog food, do not have access to water and are not provided with proper shelter will be miserable and could very well be in
danger of dieing in winter weather extremes. It doesn't take much effort to create a snug and comfortable shelter for our
domestic pets. Thinking ahead and planning for those extreme weather conditions will help you to manage the pet's cold weather
needs properly and provide the best possible care.
Some owners have discovered that providing an indoor sleeping area for night time is an ideal way to make sure that the pet
does not suffer during extreme winter weather conditions. These owners provide a safe place either in the home's basement
or in a garage where the pet can benefit from a slight elevation in temperature during times when they are less active. The
slightly increased temperatures of these areas reduce the stress of winter on the pet but does not subject the pet to the
hot and cold temperature extremes it would be exposed to if it were brought into the heated part of the house during the night.
Livestock are just as vulnerable to extreme winter weather conditions as our domestic pets for all the same reasons that our
domestic pets need extra care during the winter. Many people tend to think that because they are often very big that they
can handle these extremes just fine without proper shelter. Some can, in ideal conditions, but if they are not cared for
properly in other management areas....good vet care, good nutrition and attention to unique health concerns...many large animals
live a miserable life during the winter.
Before designing a shelter you should check the laws which apply to housing animals of all different species. Most farm animals
must have at least a three sided shed and domestic pets are also usually required to have a shelter. Some communities require
these small animal shelters to be insulated while other communities require just the bare basics. Hopefully, you will provide
the best possible shelter for your animals and not the bare basics.
The information in this article is designed to make you aware of the needs of the animals in your care. It is not supposed
to solve the answers to all your winter management issues...just give you some things to think about and hopefully, do more
research. If you have an animal that you must leave outside in the winter don't forget a few key points. Look at the way
that animal survives in the wild, make sure the pet is in optimum health, make sure that it is properly groomed and on a diet
designed to provide the best nutrition possible during the winter months.
This article may be reproduced for educational purposes only if credit to the author, Diana Oliver, and the web site are included.