Do Dog Paws Freeze? Paw Facts About Dogs

Ever wonder how your dog can walk for any length of time at all out in the cold?  I know if I were walking outside barefoot in anything less than 10 degrees Celsius, my toes would be cold.  And if it were below zero, my feet would be freezing.

Do dog paws freeze in winter? Are they somehow immune to the sharp pain of the cold?  We unravel this mystery with some fun feet facts of our furry friends and family. Say that one three times fast.

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Ancient Times

In ancient times, before there were many domesticated dog breeds, there were a variety of wolves and dog-like species around the world.  Some of these relatives are the Coyote, Arctic fox, Timber Wolf, Grey Wolf, even the African Painted Dog is another commonly known relative of the dog.  Over time, mankind has helped to create many of the domesticated breeds of dogs we have today. But, these domesticated dogs still have the building blocks from their distant wild relatives.

One of the connections many domesticated dogs have with their ancient relatives is an interesting heat exchange system in their feet.  The veins and arteries exchange heat with each other. This ensures that the dog’s feet stay at a reasonably comfortable temperature. It also makes sure that blood is warmed up to safe levels before it pumps back up to the heart.  A dog wouldn’t want freezing blood coming back up the legs, chilling its core, right?

Inherited Heat Exchange System

So, why don’t dogs paws freeze? Most breeds have inherited this interesting heat exchange ability to some limited degree.  Some breeds, however, have a more advanced ability to deal with the cold. And some breeds are just better suited to outside life. Depending on which breed, some have different amounts of hair on and around the toes and pads.  This acts as extra insulation from the bitter cold. Breeds like Husky or even the Saarloos are much better suited for the cold than breeds like the Yorkshire Terrier or Basenji, for example.  The Husky has paws that can handle cold and not freeze like a Yorkshire terrier.

Seasonal Changes

There have also been studies that discussed seasonal fur changes of dogs and their wild cousins.  When the temperatures drop in the fall, moving into winter, many animals get their ‘winter coat’. Dogs are no exception to this phenomenon. Many breeds of dog shed throughout the year.  And this shedding can make way for a new coat, more suited to the seasonal conditions. For example, when the days cool and shorten in fall, many dogs shed their light winter coats and grow in a thicker winter coat.  Likewise in the spring, when the temperature starts to warm and the days get longer, this triggers the opposite. Another molt, shedding off the winter coat and giving way to a lighter, summer coat.

This season coat shedding and growing can be pronounced on the feet over time and on breeds which are well suited for cold conditions.  Breeds that can withstand the cold for longer periods often have warm, dense fur on their feet and around their toes. This fur is often slightly greasy which also makes it more waterproof and also helps to trap air between the fur strands.  This trapped air also helps to insulate the feet.

What Temperature Is Too Cold For Your Dog?

A big doggy covered in snow.
A dog covered in snow.

There are a lot of different dog breeds and many have distinct characteristics.  There are some breeds that originated in cold climates so their dog paws don’t get as cold as breeds from warmer climates. That being said, the temperature a dog can ‘handle’ varies from breed to breed. Generally speaking, however, we can make some basic assumptions on this topic.

  1. Dog Size.  The larger the dog, the longer it can tolerate cold.  This is due to the ratio of the surface area of the body to the mass of the body.  The larger the dog mass, the lower the ratio of surface area to mass and thus the greater the ability for the dog to retain heat.  In other words, small dogs get cold faster than big dogs.
  2. Dog Fur.  Some breeds have thick, long coats well suited for the cold.  Other breeds that have short, less thick coats will get cold faster. I made a chart after extensive research, of breeds well suited to colder, outdoor conditions.  You can see the chart here
  3. Breed Origin.  A good way to tell what temperatures a dog can handle is to look at the dog breed place of origin.  For example, a dog bred in colder climates, like the Labrador Retriever (from Newfoundland, Canada) or the Husky (from the great North) is much better suited than a breed that originates from warm or even hot climates such as the Pharoah Hound from Egypt.  Check out my article on dog breed origins to find out where your dog came from.  This will give you a good indication of the kind of climate the dog is suited for.

Safe Assumptions?

So, generally speaking, I believe it is safe to say that from 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius) to 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius) is safe for large and medium dogs and caution should be taken with small breeds.  When I say caution, I mean that you shouldn’t leave small breeds out for extended periods without monitoring them closely to make sure they aren’t getting cold.  

From 32 degrees F (0 degrees C) to 14 degrees F (-10 degrees C), large dogs are okay for short periods, medium dogs with caution for short periods and small dogs for a very limited time and extreme caution should be taken.

Lower than 14 F (-10 C) and extreme caution should be taken with any/all breeds except those specifically bred to handle arctic conditions. A dog’s paws freeze at these sorts of extreme temperatures so dogs can only be outside for a short time. Without protection like booties, that is.

Dogs out in winter snow who could use an insulated dog house.
Cold winters call for an insulated dog house with a heater.

How Do I Tell If It’s Too Cold For My Dogs Paws?

Dogs, just like people, exhibit certain signs when they are getting cold.  The first sign is shivering. If you are outside with your dog, and you see the dog shaking, trembling or shivering, then get your dog into warmth as soon as possible.  At this point, the dog’s paws freeze, or at least they get really cold and the dogs are getting cold blood to their torso. Once shivering sets in, hypothermia is not far behind so take this sign seriously.

The next symptom dogs typically display when getting cold outside is lifting their foot.  I’ve witnessed when walking my Yorkshire Terrier, that she will lift and hold one of her feet up when it gets too cold.  This is a sign to take immediate action and get your dog indoors before they get frostbite. Frostbite is very serious and dogs can suffer just like people from frostbite.  If you are taking your dog outside in the cold, watch for this sign. Bring your dog inside and let them warm up if you see your dog holding a leg up off the ground.

My Suggestions And Recommendations To Help Your Dogs Paws

Use doggy booties so your dog paws don’t freeze.  Watch out for salt and de-icers. Some are better than others, but I like these ones from Amazon.  They have a reflective material on them that helps your pooch stay visible at night.  Always a bonus if you are anywhere where there’s busy traffic, hustle and or bustle if you know what I mean.  

Dog Booties

Bibliography

  1. Wikipedia
  2. Peripheral Thermoregulation: Foot Temperature in Two Arctic Canines – Robert E. Henshaw1, Larry S. Underwood1, Timothy M. Casey1:  Science  03 Mar 1972:  Vol. 175, Issue 4025, pp. 988-990  DOI: 10.1126/science.175.4025.988
  3. Lumbar sympathectomy and cold acclimatization by the arctic wolf.
  4. https://phys.org/news/2012-01-dogs-ice-paws.html
  5. https://www.pri.org/stories/2012-02-28/why-dont-dogs-feet-get-cold-snow-japanese-scientists-may-have-answer

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