Despite originating from cold climate areas of Europe, German shepherds do get cold too and can be at risk of hypothermia and frostbite if they stay in the cold for too long. Therefore, it’s important that you know what temperature is too cold for your shepherd, and on the first symptoms of a cold, take the proper steps to ensure that your dog is safe.
Healthy German shepherds in the prime of their lives should be able to handle temperatures up to 20° F. But once the temperature dips below 20° F, it is simply too cold for any shepherd dogs (1).
So is it too cold for your dog? If the answer is “yes,” then you want to keep reading because I’m going to share with you some proven ways for you to safely enjoy the great indoors or outdoors with your dog even in the dead of winter.
6 Factors that Affect How Your German Shepherd responds to the cold
German shepherds can tolerate cold weather well thanks to their distinctive anatomical, physiological, and behavioral attributes. Here are a few factors that are responsible for their resilience to cold.
1. Thick, double-layered coats
The double coat is one of the most distinguishing features of cold climate dog breeds such as German shepherds, Siberian Huskies, Newfoundlands, Samoyeds, etc. These two layers of protection — overcoat and undercoat—are what allow them to thrive in frigid temperatures.
The outer coat is composed of a dense, coarse outer layer. It acts as a water-repellent barrier that protects your dog from a range of cold weather elements such as rain and snow. Whereas the undercoat is plush and warm and serves as an insulator to keep the dog’s body warm.
However, you should note there are still some variations in the length and thickness of the coat. It can be a short, medium, or long outer coat with, and some without, undercoat. Obviously, the medium and long-haired German shepherds with undercoats will fare better in cold weather than their other cousins.
2. Body size
German shepherds are medium to large-sized dogs. This means compared to the smaller dog breeds, they have a higher percentage of body fat, which provides additional insulation and protection from the cold.
3. Coat colors
This breed’s predominant colors are sable, black and tan, and solid black, which are the colors that attract heat. On a clear day, German shepherds of these colors can bask in the sunlight and absorb in the sun’s heat rays (albeit white and gray-colored shepherds), making them warmer in those freezing days.
4. Age and Health
The very young, the very old, and sick German shepherds aren’t able to regulate their body temperature in the same way as healthy shepherds in their prime can. They, therefore, need even more help against the cold temperatures.
Be aware that all temperatures are not created equal. There are various weather factors that make the cold feel much worse than it reads on a thermometer, including wind, humidity, and rain.
6. Other Physical Traits
Other well-known physical traits that dogs who live in cold climates have developed to insulate themselves: a low surface-area-to-volume ratio, fluffy bush tails, and countercurrent heat exchange.
Bergmann’s rule (2) states that the body mass of species will increase as latitude or exposure to cold increases. This is related to the fact that larger animals tend to have less skin (in relation to their weight) to conserve heat better. Whereas conversely, smaller-bodied dogs tend to have more skin, which makes heat escape faster. As a result, small dogs get colder more readily than do large dogs because they have less insulation.
During cold days, you may often see your German shepherd sleeping in a curled up position with their big bushy tails snug up against their noses with their feet tucked in. These bushy tails are not just for accessories; they have an essential function to keep your dog’s body as well as their paws warm. Bushy tails are used to lock in the warm air that the dogs breathe out and, in turn rendering the air inhaled warm.
Countercurrent Heat Exchange System
According to the research team, led by Dr.Hiroyoshi Ninomiya, dogs have what is called a countercurrent heat exchange system located in their paws. This system is essentially a network of small veins or venules, all working together to ensure the dog’s paws temperature stays within a normal range.
Can Dogs Get Sick from Cold Weather?
Yes, your dog can get sick from cold weather, no matter how tough your dog may seem to be. Here are some top ways cold weather could affect your dog.
- Increased joint stiffness
- Greater danger of slipping or falling
- Difficulty regulating body temperature in puppies, sick, or elderly dogs
- Susceptibility to frostbite
- Susceptibility to hypothermia
- An increased risk of skin irritation (dry or cracked skin)
How Do You Know if Your German Shepherd is too Cold?
As you have seen above, the cold temperature is not something that you can treat lightly. Here are some signs your dog is too cold and needs your help.
- Howling or barking
- Struggling to breathe
- Getting anxious
- Struggling to move or lifting their paws off the ground
- Hunching their back
- Tucking their tail
- Getting lethargic or appear to be drowsy
- Pale or bluish gums
How to Keep Your German Shepherd Warm in Cold Weather?
The good news is today’s dog owners have more options than ever to protect their dogs from shivering cold, from booties to coats to dry nose balms. Listed here are some tips to help your dog through the harsh winter.
- Keep your GSD well-groomed and brushed. Your German shepherd’s double coat is their first line of defense against cold weather, which is why you want to keep their coat healthy by grooming and brushing it regularly.
- Keep them indoors when the temperature is frigid outside. If your dog lives outside, consider investing in an insulated dog house with a sloped roof and raised floor. A sloped roof helps prevent the water from seeping inside the house, while a sloped floor helps to shield your dog from chilly ground. Plus, depending on how extreme the weather is, you may also need to attach a heater to the dog house.
- Provide warm beddings. Give your dog a cozy blanket to snuggle up to in their bed. It will be helpful to shape the blanket like a donut so that your dog can nest down inside the blanket comfortably. If your dog needs more heat, you can also consider inserting heated dog pads inside their house.
- Make sure they have constant access to plenty of fresh water to drink from. Just like their hoomans, dogs can become hydrated in cold weather. When the temperature is below freezing, check their water bowl regularly to ensure the water inside the bowl hasn’t frozen over.
- Increase their food intake. You should feed your dog more foods, preferably foods high in protein, to keep them warm during cold months.
- Get them some clothes. Additional clothing, such as a sweater or coat, can be beneficial, especially to puppies or geriatric dogs, to limit their exposure to extreme temperature.
- Get them some boots. Dogs’ paws are one of the few areas that are not protected by fur, and booties are a great way to keep their paws from freezing and from the salt and antifreeze chemicals that are used on roads and sidewalks. If booties are not your dog’s favorite, wiping off their paws with soap and warm water can help to clean the salt or chemicals that they accidentally step on.
- Dry them thoroughly. When they return from a walk, in addition to wiping off their paws, be sure to towel dry them as much as possible, and if needed, use a hairdryer as well.
- Avoid bathing. In the winter, try to avoid bathing more than once every two weeks. For in-between bathing, you can use waterless pet shampoo to keep your dog looking sharp and smelling good. When bathing your dog, do it in enclosed and warm places like a garage, and dry them off thoroughly after.
- Don’t leave them in a car. Leaving your dog unattended in a car for too long on a cold day can wind him up in potentially cold-related issues like hypothermia.
Also read: Best Dog House for German Shepherds
What to Do If Your Dog Has Hypothermia?
Please note that the combination of fainting, sudden lethargy, and blue gums and tongue are serious indications of hypothermia. If you notice two or all of these three symptoms in your dog, don’t wait to bring your dog to the vet!
If you can’t reach your vet right away, call an emergency veterinary practice. In the meantime, do the following first aid steps:
- Step 1: dry them up with a towel and hair dryer.
- Step 2: bundle them up in thick blankets.
- Step 3: place a hot water bottle in their belly.
- Step 4: monitor their temperature. Any reading below 100℉ is considered hypothermia.
- Step 5: continue monitoring their temperature. Once their body temperature returns to normal, you can remove the hot water bottle but keep them bundled up.