Unlike our own human feet, dogs' paws are more utilitarian. Their paws are expertly designed to withstand frigid conditions, such as ice and snow. The paw pads on the bottom of your pet’s feet act as well-insulated snow boots. The thick outer skin, fatty tissue, and intricate vein networks that make up dog paw pads act together to mitigate cold weather, keeping the paws safe from the typical dangers of freezing temperatures.
Each paw acts as its own cooling and heating regulator; a circulatory system processes the cold temperatures it experiences from the ground, effectively warming the blood before sharing it with the rest of the dog's body. This contribution of warm blood helps maintain a safe core temperature and so not only are the paws protected, the whole body benefits, according to research (source).
However, despite this superior circulatory system, a healthy dose of concern for your loyal friend is still warranted. Extended and/or frequent time spent outdoors during the winter and early spring can eat away at your pup’s otherwise healthy skin and coat, necessitating a proper way of protecting dog paws in winter.
The Biggest Danger to Pets' Paws in Winter
The real culprit of degrading paw healthiness during the winter time is more so from de-icing fluids and products littering the ground than actual ice or snow. Even some of the most safe and pet-friendly ice melts can be dangerous for the dog.
These salts are toxic to dogs and can cause adverse reactions when reacting on top of the skin, and may cause intoxication when consumed (likely to occur when your pet grooms their paws by licking and gently gnawing at the affected areas). It’s also possible for a paw to scrape over sharp shards of ice or de-icing salt creating an open wound that’s especially painful, difficult to heal, and highly prone to infection.
Luckily for you and your canine companion there are plenty of options to help them avoid paw degradation during the winter time. Using a combination of below safety tips and some dog paw protection products, your pooch is likely to be safe from winter dangers.
Ways of Protecting Dog Paws in Winter
Know Your Pet’s Cold Tolerance
Just as canine breeds vary, so too does their tolerance to weather conditions. Frigid temperatures for double-coated, larger, younger, healthier, or more active dogs may cause them little worry, but for older, smaller, thinly-coated dogs or those suffering from medical conditions (particularly arthritis) the cold weather may be problematic.
Breeds originating from colder regions, such as the Siberian Husky, Bernese Mountain Dog, or Akita have a higher tolerance for cold weather than Chihuahuas or Basenjis, both of which hail from desert, arid regions. Similarly, dogs with little to no fur, such as the nearly-hairless Chinese Crested, sleek Greyhounds, and skeletal Whippets have more difficulty in snow and freezing rain.
Of course, if you’re unsure of your lovable mutt’s exact pedigree, it’s easiest to tell their cold-tolerance from their general demeanor while outdoors. If your pet isn’t enjoying the winter wonderland, then they’re likely to express this by tucking their tail between their legs, shaking, and refusing to venture out into the arctic landscape to the point of you having to prod. Pulled back ears and a low, slow wagging tail can also represent anxiety and/or a sense of being unsure.
Paying attention to your dog's nonverbal tell-tale signs such as these will help you better understand your dog and determine when, why and what you can do for them to help them learn to enjoy or at least tolerate colder weather.
Alter Your Walking Routine
During the winter, the sun sets earlier, giving our days less sunlight and therefore less warmth. One way of protecting your dog’s paws is to walk them during the warmer hours of the day rather than early in the morning or late at night.
If your schedule allows, you may also try to anticipate the weather. If it’s supposed to start sleeting at 10 a.m., for instance, maybe try to plan their outdoors time for earlier in the morning to get ahead of inclement weather.
Additionally, you may want to keep walks on the shorter side. Owners of smaller breeds should keep walks under 15 minutes when temperatures drop below 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Owners of dogs built for snow and in good healthy shape, with temperatures dropping below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, should try to limit walks or outdoor playtime to 15-20 minutes.
These temperatures are worsened when moisture and/or wind are present. A good rule is to deduct 5 to 10 degrees from what your weather resource reports for each additional element (be it ice, rain, or harsh, fast winds).
Routinely Monitor the Paws
Paw care shouldn’t begin and end during the winter, but it should be paid more attention to during cold season. While it’s unlikely your dog’s paws are severely suffering from winter exposure, it is common for the skin to begin to dry out and crack. In moderation, this is simply normal, but without care, cracked paws on a dog can lead to infections and discomfort for the animal.
Several different dog-approved lotions, creams and moisturizers may be purchased and become part of your daily routine. The lotion will help keep the paws well-hydrated and moist, protecting them from inconvenient and potentially painful cracking and splitting.
Another danger during the winter may be sharp objects hidden under blankets of snow which your pet could step on. Dogs are masters at handling pain and their discomfort may go unnoticed. That’s why routinely monitoring the paws is important as foreign debris may become lodged in between toes where the skin is particularly vulnerable, later resulting not only in discomfort but bruises and infections.
Alter Your Pet’s Home Life
Here's a rule of thumb pet owners should follow: if your comfort and health would be severely compromised by being outdoors then it’s likely that your dog’s would as well. This is particularly applicable for dog owners that typically keep their animal companions in the backyard. During the winter, it’s recommended that the dog is allowed indoors or at the very least provide them adequate shelter and warmth.
Dogs who spend more time outside in cold weather should also be fed a bit more during the winter. Their bodies are working extra hard to keep warm and so they’re burning more calories. A simple way of supplementing this is by giving their food bowl a little extra love during the holiday season.
Also, during this chilly season, your front or back door should become a paw-wiping station. Keep a dog paw wash and a towel by the door to use when you wipe and dry your pup off on your way back inside. If this isn’t something they’ve experienced before, it may take some getting used to for your pup.
When washing dog's paws after a walk, giving them plenty of verbal affirmation and praise while you gently cater to their paws will help them cooperate with you. Eventually, this will become so routine that your dog may even lift their paw up for you, especially when prompted verbally or with a soft graze of your hand.
Alter the Grooming Routine
While it’s never recommended to cut or shave heavy or double coated breeds, groomers and pet care professionals do recommend trimming any low-hanging trundles or strands as these are most vulnerable to collecting moisture and ice. You particularly need to trim hair on dog's paws and in between their toes before winter sets in.
Another important winter grooming tactic is to ensure your pet’s nails are clipped to an appropriate length. Overgrown nails reduce a dog’s ability to be stable on slippery surfaces such as ice.
And while allowing your dog’s hair to grow thick and long will help them warmer, you should still regularly brush them. Matted fur lays too close and thick to the skin, reducing the body’s ability to regulate its temperature and exposing the dog to more dangers. Moreover, consistent grooming will help spread the natural oils through your dog's fur, providing further protection.
The Best Dog Paw Protection for Winter
As far as paw protection goes, there are two most common products (1) paw balms which act as “shields” when applied, and (2) dog shoes or socks, sometimes called booties, which are worn. You need to use only one of these at a time.
Paw Balms and Waxes
Protective paw balms and paw waxes (applied before a walk) are not the same as moisturizing lotions (applied after a walk, at home). Paw balms/waxes are particularly popular in regions known for harsh winters. This is mainly since these topical creams do a great job of protecting paw pads from de-icing salts that often cover the sidewalks after an ice storm of snowfall. Not only that, but many of these products add skin-soothing elements to help keep paws from hyperkeratosis and becoming cracked.
Because they’re made by pet people for pet people, popular paw balms and topical creams utilize non-toxic and non-allergenic ingredients, so even if your dog does lick at their paws, they’ll stay safe. Wax-based balms also act as anti-slip topical solutions, helping animals keep their grip on dangerous, slippery surfaces where it’s hard to find traction.
Even if the above products are completely natural and safe, you can take it a step further and choose to make your own homemade pet’s paw balm at home. It's easy to do and ingredients aren’t difficult to find within your household or local grocery store. All the equipment needed is a pot to boil the contents together.
A simple homemade dog paw balm recipe:
- 2 tablespoons coconut oil
- 1 tablespoon shea, mango, or avocado butter
- 4 teaspoons unscented beeswax
- 2 tablespoons olive or grape seed oil
(note: while grapes are toxic to dogs, this seed-based oil is safe)
This simplistic DIY dog balm can be stored and used for up to 2 years. Its benefits aren’t limited to just one season out of the year. You’ll find the tackiness of the wax and the moisturizing qualities of the oils help the paws stay healthy while walking on hot pavement during the summer, too.
Balms and waxes can get messy and it takes more time to put them on and then wash them off. Dog shoes may be an easier, more convenient solution but not all dogs will be fine wearing them. Alternatively, you can pick socks for dogs – their benefit is that dogs may be more open to wearing them and they can be warmer, but the downside is they don't provide as much traction or protection as booties.
The benefits of wearing most paw-protective gear during the winter is plain. There’s no need to rinse or wipe your pet’s paws off after every outdoor excursion, no need to worry about any harmful snow-deterrent chemicals eating away at their skin or becoming ingested, no need to wonder if sharp ice or objects have become lodged. All in all, dog booties provide more and better paw protection, and there are specifically designed boots for winter time as opposed to hiking shoes, or all-season ones.
How to put boots on your dog (without them protesting)
Smaller breeds are typically more tolerant of wearing something over their paws; many dogs will protest to the point of pulling them off or simply refusing to move. Fortunately, just as any other bewildering and new thing in their lives, dogs can be appropriately trained to accept wearing booties, just as they were trained to accept their leash, or harness, or muzzle. There's a technique for this, and more on it below.
With the correct methods and patience your pet can learn to be comfortable with booties in as little as five days. Proper introduction is the most important factor. You don’t want to put all four booties on all four paws all at once. Not only will this be overwhelming, it’s unlikely the dog will recover from distrusting you when those booties are around, making it near impossible for you to put any of them in the future.
During this process, it’s also beneficial to use a treat that is extremely motivating to them. That can mean getting something they don’t usually eat on a daily basis, like shredded bites of chicken, cut up hot dogs, or pieces of bacon. The more exciting and delicious the treat, the more likely they’re to come around to the idea of wearing boots.
Here's a full guide on how to put on dog shoes, but it all boils down to these five steps:
1. Introduce the shoes. Show your pet the booties with an outstretched hand. When they sniff at them or walk in their direction, give them several treats. Do this a few times throughout a day, until they begin to associate the very presence of the booties with a delicious treat and praise from you.
2. Touch your dog’s paws. This is important sensitivity training you should begin when they’re a puppy as it makes vet and grooming visits much more pleasant and easy going. Many animals feel very vulnerable when their paws are touched and so spending some time getting your pet familiar with the sensation of being touched there will benefit the both of you. At first, only touch a paw for a couple of seconds and always follow up with a treat. Build up the time. After working on the front two paws, move on to the back two. The back two paws are typically more sensitive, and dogs are generally more protective of these, thus extra patience may be needed when maneuvering sensitivity training here.
3. Touch the boots to the dog’s paw. Treat them when they see you have the booties and treat them immediately following it being touched to their paw. Some dogs may pull their paw away from it; that’s okay, they still deserve a treat. Slowly but surely, you’re conditioning them to associate the boots with positivity.
4. Start very slowly. For a few seconds only, put one bootie on a front paw, without fastening it. Quickly take the bootie off and treat your pet. If they instantly protest to this, try not to become frustrated. They’re telling you the process is moving a little too fast for them, in which case your response should be moving back a step and working on that for more time. If your dog is ready for this step, repeat it over the course of the day in short intervals. This will keep them from feeling overwhelmed and you from feeling impatient. Once your dog is okay with the booties being on their front two paws, follow these same steps with the back two paws.
5. Put them on. The final step is to put all four booties on at once and slowly make it a routine. Your dog is likely to look a lot more like a new-born fawn in their initial, awkward steps, but they will grow used to it. Let your dog become more accustomed to their new fashion statement in the comfort of your home or backyard before taking them on a walk or excursion in the snow. Once they walk relatively well in them and respond appropriately when you get them out to be put on, they’re ready to enjoy a frolic in the snow.
With the above tips on protecting a dog's paws and using either balms/waxes or booties, you and your pup will be ready to go into the harsh winter weather without serious repercussions that may cost a lot more if you fail to prevent any injuries, infections, dry skin, hyperkeratosis and more.