If you love German Shepherds and you live somewhere it gets really cold in the winter, here’s some good news:
German Shepherds are built to tolerate cold weather.
No German Shepherd should be out in sub-freezing weather 24/7. But almost every German Shepherd can withstand long hours in the cold, outdoors, if they have protection from the wind.
German Shepherds are great dogs for cold-winter climates. They are able to withstand the cold for one very good reason.
German Shepherds Have Double Coats
German Shepherds have something in common with Siberian Huskies, Shiba Inus, Bernese Mountain Dogs, and Great Pyrenees.
They have a double coat.
This means that they have a top coat of long hair that protects them against ice and snow, and a bottom coat close to their bodies that keeps them warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.
A German Shepherd’s upper coat consists of long, coarse hairs.
They don’t give frozen precipitation lots of places to accumulate.
German Shepherds shed these longer, coarse hair more or less constantly. (Yes, that means that no German Shepherd is hypoallergenic.)
A German Shepherd’s lower coat consists of short, fine hairs. They create a multitude of tiny air pockets that trap air warmed by your dog’s body.
German Shepherds shed and renew their undercoat in a “blowout” that lasts for about 10 days, twice a year. Your house will have a carpet of dog hair about twice a year.
The effect of these two coats is that German Shepherds “dress in layers,” but they only change their layers twice a year.
Their shedding and regrowth cycles are timed to give them maximum protection from cold just in time for winter.
Double coats make German Shepherds ready to romp and play the first snow of every winter, or even the first snow of their lives.
They won’t need any kind of doggie sweater even at temperatures of 20° F (-6° C).
They can stay outdoors for up to two hours unprotected even at temperatures of -10° or -15° F (-23° to -26° C), if their coats don’t get wet.
But not all German Shepherds are equally well adapted to the cold.
Not All German Shepherds Are Equally Cold Tolerant
German Shepherds can be born with thick, warm undercoats and long-, short-, or medium-length topcoats.
Once in a while, a German Shepherd is born without and never grows its protective undercoat.
Dogs that have normal undercoats with medium or long hair in their topcoats will have fewer problems with the cold than dogs without an undercoat or dogs that have short hair in their top coats.
How you groom your German Shepherd also makes a difference in how well it stands up to the cold.
German Shepherds shed hairs from their top coats all year long. Keeping a German Shepherd well groomed prevents tangles.
When the long hairs in your German Shepherd’s coat are free of tangles and debris, they form a continuous protective layer against the cold.
Grooming German Shepherd during the Winters
Comb your German Shepherd at least once and preferably twice a week. Use detangling spray if needed.
It’s OK to skip bath time for three or four months in the winter. German Shepherds usually don’t have an unpleasant odor.
Their undercoats produce a substance similar to lanolin that keeps them well lubricated and warmer.
If you must bathe your German Shepherd because it rolls in something or gets sprayed by a skunk, then be sure to do the bath and dry-off in a warm, heated room.
Don’t let your German Shepherd go outside with a wet coat. Hypothermia is possible even on a cool day if your dog’s coat is wet.
German Shepherds stand up to the cold well, but that doesn’t mean it is easy for them.
German Shepherds produce more of the stress hormone cortisol in January (in the Northern Hemisphere) than at any other time of year. The stress hormone even accumulates in their hair.
German Shepherds begin to “stress out” at the first hint of cold weather.
Their bodies gear up for fighting the cold in ways that also make them more sensitive to stress and more reactive to situations they perceive as dangerous.
They have higher levels of stress hormones all the time during the winter.
A German Shepherd’s body produces an additional surge of stress hormones when it is outdoors in the cold.
Anger management issues that aren’t a problem in warm weather can be harder to handle if you let your German Shepherd get too cold.
Taking Care of German Shepherd in Cold Weather
German Shepherds are cold-tolerant, but there are things you can do to keep them healthier, more comfortable, and easier to manage in cold weather.
Here are some of the most important tips for taking care of German Shepherds in the winter:
- Make sure your German Shepherd has protection from the wind. Wind chill can turn tolerable cold into bitter, painful, miserable, and even deadly cold. If your dog stays outside in cold weather, make sure it has protection from wind chill. A heated dog house is a good outdoor option for your German Shepherd.
- Keep your German Shepherd on a leash when it’s not in an enclosed space. German Shepherds navigate by their noses. They are actually nearsighted. It is easy for a dog to lose your scent in ice and snow. If you get separated and your German Shepherd is not on a leash, it can get lost.
- Watch out for salt and chemicals. Salt and calcium chloride used to melt ice and keep ice off sidewalks and roadways can be hard on your German Shepherd’s paws. If you take your German Shepherd out for a walk over pavement or sidewalks treated with salt or chemicals, wash their paws when you get back home. Be sure your dog’s paws are dry before they go outside again. Don’t let your dog lick its paws or drink from puddles. Consuming road salt can cause severe diarrhea and dehydration.
- Make sure your dog has drinkable water. The water in your dog’s bowl can turn to ice if it is left outside in freezing temperatures. Make sure your dog has access to water indoors or in a heated space, so it can stay hydrated and refreshed.
- Winter is not the time to put your dog on a low-fat diet. German Shepherd puppies have specialized fat cells called brown fat. These fat cells burn fat to make heat rather than storing fat to make your dog fatter. In adult German Shepherds, these fat cells turn white, but they still burn fat to make energy to keep the dog warm. Since your dog’s furnace is fueled by fat, don’t give them low-fat foods in the winter. You don’t have to feed them extra fat (it can cause smelly diarrhea). Just don’t avoid normal amounts of fat already in meat, poultry, and fish.
- Consider your German Shepherd’s age and health status. Puppies have less body mass to generate heat and get colder in the winter. They need extra protection from the cold. Dogs that are more than seven years old, and dogs that have hypothyroidism may also be cold-sensitive.
- Be on the lookout for signs of hypothermia. This is such a vital topic we will discuss it in more detail.
Hypothermia is a potentially fatal condition. There is a point at which a dog experiencing severe chill can enter what veterinarians call a “hypothermic spiral.”
When a dog’s body temperature falls below 94° F (about 34.5° C), it stops shivering.
Its blood vessels that had been constricted to help keep heat in your dog’s core relax and start to radiate heat to the environment.
When your dog’s body temperature falls below 88° F (about 31.5° C), it stops making additional heat and death comes in minutes.
German Shepherds that have recently had anesthesia are at the greatest risk for hypothermia.
The after-effects of being “put under” for an operation leave your dog especially vulnerable to the cold. It’s important for German Shepherds to recover from surgery indoors.
German Shepherds that have not eaten enough protein for their bodies to make sugar — a dog’s body uses excess amino acids from protein foods to make sugar even if it does not eat carbs — are especially vulnerable to hypothermia.
It’s important to feed your dog on schedule in cold weather.
Dogs that have diabetes, thyroid problems, or other chronic conditions also need extra protection from the cold.
You can tell that your dog is hypothermic by these signs:
- Shivering. Shivering that stop is an especially grave sign
- Stiff muscles
- Gray or pale gums
- Stumbling, lack of coordination, or appearing to be lost even when indoors
- Staring straight ahead
- Dilated or fixed pupils
- Slow breathing
- Slow pulse
Severe hypothermia in your German Shepherd requires an emergency trip to the vet.
When hypothermia is mild — your dog is still shivering — make sure it is dry and warm it up with a hair dryer, with hot water bottles, or with an electric blanket.
Avoid heating pads, because they can damage the skin.
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