by Barry Burtis D.V.M.
A reader of this column recently suggested she hoped I might say something that would encourage more people to get sweaters or jackets for their dogs. She reported that throughout the harsh season of winter she was greatly distressed to see dogs chilled and shivering when outside for a walk or some exercise.
A quick response might be that dogs don't really need protection against the cold. We have all seen pictures of their close relatives, wolves, tracking through deep snow quite oblivious to freezing temperatures in their search for food. Veterinarians will tell you that unless exposed to extreme conditions for extended periods, dogs are unlikely to suffer from frost bite or hypothermia. Many dogs seem to quite enjoy playing in the snow, gulping great mouthfuls of it as they plow into the snowdrifts. Why then would you bother with cumbersome, constricting wearing apparel for a dog going outside?
However, let's think about this coat wearing question a bit more. People could go outside without winter gear, if they wished, couldn't they? Despite our mother's advice to dress warmly before we go outside in the winter, are the real dangers to our health not a bit over-rated? Medical authorities tell us we don't 'catch a cold' by forgetting to wear our parka and scarf when we make a quick trip to the corner store. We see people going for a swim in the frigid waters of Lake Ontario in the middle of winter for Polar Bear Swim events. Similar activities take place in cities across Canada. These people are not rushed off to a hospital immediately for medical care, are they? A recent newspaper photograph showed snowbathers, clad only in toques and bathing suits, heaping piles of snow on a smiling participant in the annual Quebec Winter Carnival snowbath in Quebec City. The outside temperature at the time was minus 13C. There was no follow-up story the next day about critical illness that had befallen all those who took part in the fun.
My point here is that most of us have a winter wardrobe, not because we fear a health calamity if we fail to use it, but rather we choose, for our comfort, to wear it. Normally, we dress warmly in winter not because we have to but instead because we want to do so. Since we no longer live in unheated caves with only an open fire to take away the chill, our bodies have lost the ability to gradually acclimatize to falling temperatures. The shock of cold wintry air that strikes us when we step outside our centrally heated comfy homes on a sub-zero February morning can be quite overwhelming, if not downright unpleasant. Now, guess who, surveys tell us, has been sleeping curled up with you under a cozy comforter all night? Of course, your dear friend, the household pooch. Do you really believe he/she is very different from you? Think how you would feel about immediately running out in the backyard every morning for bathroom duties or heading out for your morning constitutional without any coat to protect you from the cold.
I would venture to suggest that given the choice our pets would be sitting there waiting for you to zip up their jacket, just as we do. One of the biggest changes in small animal veterinary medicine in the years that I have practiced involves the increased use of pain management medicines now available for our patients. After surgery or when recovering from any number of health problems these drugs speed up recovery and make that recovery a much more pleasant period of time. Sometimes you just don't know how bad something is, until it's not bad anymore. I would encourage you to keep these points in mind and if your pet does not have proper winter attire, try some. One more point to remember. Size does not equal toughness or resistance to cold. A Doberman will be just as thankful for protection from the cold as a Yorkie.
I guess I don't have an irrefutable medical argument to convince owners to dress their dogs in winter. But I do believe it's a kindness you can do. Do it as a good deed for your dog; make a fashion statement for your pet and the wintertime streets of our town will come alive with warm dogs, dressed in sweaters or jackets, strolling the sidewalks in comfort, with their people at their side.