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Should your dog wear a coat in winter?

Traditionally it has often been small dogs that are put in coats, but nowadays high end clothing can be found for all shapes and sizes. Below are some common questions when it comes to dogs and coats.

Aren’t dog coats just a fashion trend?

Dog clothing is becoming more popular, but not only for fashion reasons. We now have a better understanding of the negative impact of the cold on illnesses or potential illnesses. Being cold can make dogs sick or sicker. Hypothermia, a condition in which the body loses heat faster than it can produce it, is a serious medical emergency.

But in the old days dogs didn't need coats!

In the past, many dogs lived in outside kennels. They built up a protective coat in preparation for winter, which warmed them like a thick fur jacket. Today many of our dogs live in the house, where they spend at least 20 hours of the day at an average of 21 degrees Celsius. This can mean they don’t build up such a thick winter coat. Although the coat changes, the undercoat is not as fully formed. We have seen this most clearly in dogs that have been brought to us, for example, in the middle of winter from eastern Europe. Their coats are often very dense and protect them like a thick woolen sweater.

Which dogs need coats in cold temperatures?

  • Short and thin coated dogs (Magyar, Vizla, Dalmatian, Greyhound, English Pointer, German Boxer, Bloodhound, Beagle, Bull Terrier, Rhodesian Ridgeback, Doberman, French Bulldog, Whippet, Great Dane, Weimaraner, English and American Bulldog, etc.)

  • Dogs without an undercoat or no change of coat (Poodles,Bichons, Kerry Blue Terriers, Soft Coated Wheaten Terriers, Löwchen, Bedlington Terriers, Lhasa Apso, Shih Tzu, Yorkshire Terriers, Coton de Tulear, Lagotto Romagnolo, Portuguese and Spanish Water Dog, Papillon, etc.)

  • Small dogs (Chihuahua, Bichons, Pug, French Bulldog, Miniature Spitz, Pekingese, Prague Rattler, Parson and Jack Russell Terrier, West Highland White Terrier, Japanese Chin, Dachshunds, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Cairn Terrier, Lhasa Apso, Yorkshire Terrier, Boston Terrier, etc.)

  • Thin dogs - they do not have a protective layer of fat

  • Greyhounds! These dogs are often very cold-sensitive

  • Old dogs - they no longer have a strong immune system, they are more sensitive to cold, and may already be burdened with health issues

  • Puppies - they cool down very quickly and do not yet have a fully developed immune system. Puppies very often suffer from bladder infections.

  • Sick dogs - their immune system is already burdened so further weakening needs to be avoided. This especially includes dogs with diseases such heart problems and kidney weaknesses.

  • Dogs with thyroid disease - they are particularly sensitive to cold

  • Dogs with musculoskeletal problems (spondylosis, HD, ED, etc.)

  • Freshly imported dogs from southern countries who may not be used to the cold

  • Dogs fresh from the groomer

Some dogs are also just more sensitive to cold than others – like humans!

But my dog never shakes or trembles!

Trembling is not the only sign of being cold, and it can actually be a symptom of hypothermia. When a dog trembles, it doesn’t just mean it’s a bit cold – it means it has already been exposed to the cold for too long or with too much intensity. The tremor is caused by increased contraction of the muscles. The body is trying to heat up again. Trembling is a signal to the brain: 'Look out! First stage of hypothermia! Find somewhere warm!'

How cold should it be for a dog to need a coat? There is no exact number – the cold isn’t the only factor, but also the wind. The wind chill effect is the perceived decrease in air temperature felt by the body on exposed skin due to the flow of air. It means that the body will feel colder, even if the temperature is the same as it was on a previous, less windy day. A general rule to go by is that a dog coat should be used as soon as people put on their winter jackets, and at the latest when also wearing scarves and gloves.

What makes a good dog coat?

Unfortunately there are a staggering number of ineffective and uncomfortable dog coats on the market! For example, the ‘turtle shell’, which is padded at the top with nothing at the bottom to protect the heart and shoulders. Or hooded jackets, which do nothing for the dog and look more like children’s clothing.

Dogs are sensitive to the equipment we put on them and can quickly feel uncomfortable (and often unable to communicate this to us). Dog coats should be functional and pleasant to wear. A good coat:

  • adapts to body movement so the dog can move freely. Ideally, it fits like a second skin.

  • covers the back, chest, neck and as many joints as possible and as much belly as possible

  • does not promote the development of moisture between the outside and inside fabric

  • has a protective zipper so stop hair getting caught

  • is lightweight

  • is noiseless and doesn't rustle with every movement.

  • is washable and does not smell

Good modern coats are therefore often made of softshell - a material of high quality and high price. A lot of winter sportspeople wear softshell because it has elasticity, is windproof, water repellent, soft, light and thin - ideal qualities for canine winter clothing. The harness can easily be fitted over it without any problems.

Which brands do you recommend?

Finding a really good coat can be challenging. In my experience only two big players (and hopefully many smaller companies) make sensible canine clothing - Ruffwear and Hurtta. Ruffwear has the better models while Hurtta has the better sizes. For dogs who are short and wide, such as Pugs, French Bulldogs and Cairn Terriers, Wolters has some options that may be suitable for them.

What do you think? Have you come across any great dog coat brands? Share in the comments!

Sonja Hoegen owns and runs dogcom in Germany and is a member of the PDTE Board.

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