Winter Hiking With Your Dog: Don’t Let the Cold Spoil the Trip

If you're an avid backpacker or outdoors person, you're not likely to let a little snow or cold weather keep you from participating in this favorite pastime. You know the importance of being prepared. However, if your dog accompanies you on these treks, you need to be prepared for him or her as well. Hypothermia and frostbite are not just problems for you. They are a hazard for your furry friend as well.


When a dog is exposed to extreme cold for a long period of time, his or her body conserves heat for the internal organs by shutting down blood flow to the extremities. Without blood flow to keep them warm, ice crystals can form in the tissues of the feet, tail and ears. If exposed long enough, the crystals can cause the tissues to die. Although generally not life threatening, frostbite can cause a dog to lose toes, the tip of its tail or the tips of its ears. Frostbite is most common in puppies, older dogs, small dogs and dogs with short hair.

Signs of Frostbite

When a human experiences frostbite, the first symptom is usually numbness. Your dog can't tell you his or her foot is numb, so you need to watch for signs after your dog has been in the cold for a while. You might notice white or grey patches on the skin or pads of the feet. These patches will be cold to the touch because of lack of circulation and ice crystals.


Although frostbite is usually not life threatening, hypothermia can be. If you notice signs of frostbite on your pup, you need to check for signs of hypothermia because it is life threatening and quick action matters.

Hypothermia occurs when your furry friend loses body heat quicker than she or he can replace it. When you take your dog hiking in cold, snowy weather, his or her paws will transfer heat from their paws to the ground. If this occurs for a long enough time, a dog's body is not able to replace this heat and bodily function starts to diminish.

Signs of Hypothermia

When dogs can no longer maintain body temperature due to environmental temperatures, their bodies respond in ways that conserve heat. For example, you may notice the following in your dog:

  • Lethargy
  • Stiff muscles
  • Extreme shivering
  • Stumbling and incoordination
  • Decreased respiration and heart rates
  • Dilated pupils
  • Delirium and coma

If you notice any of these signs of hypothermia, time is of the essence.

Treating Frostbite and Hypothermia

When you are hiking, you need to be aware of the signs of frostbite and hypothermia and take action. If you notice signs of frostbite on your pup's feet and ears, warm the area slowly with warm towels or blankets and carefully massage the area with your warm hands. If these areas turn red and swollen, see your veterinarian as soon as possible to prevent tissue damage.

If you are out in the environment, warm your dog by vigorously rubbing the skin and wrapping him or her in warm towels until you can get to a warmer environment. Also, if you have access to the following tools, use them:

  • Portable heaters
  • Hot water bottles
  • Heat blankets
  • Warm baths
  • Hair dryers

If your dog is unconscious or having breathing troubles, wrap your pup in a warm towel, place on a flat board to prevent neck injury and take him or her to your vet or the nearest pet emergency hospital.

Keep Them Safe

There are precautions and safety measures to protect your furry friend on your cold weather excursions. Number one, make sure your dog is old enough, not too old and in the required physical condition. It may also be a good idea to try the following:

  • A coat or vest will help conserve body heat, as well as dog booties.
  • Trim hair around paws to prevent ice build up and to better check for signs of frostbite.
  • Avoid letting your dog get wet.
  • Have emergency equipment, such as heat blankets, and stretchers.

Take your dog to your veterinarian after possible cold weather problems. The veterinarian can determine any long-term effects of frostbite and hypothermia and mitigate them as much as possible. Yes, you love to have the accompaniment of your best friend on your wintertime treks. However, use your common sense and take a few precautions, and you can both enjoy the fun and exercise winter can provide.