Skip to main content

Steamboat Magazine

Snow-Dog Safety

12/26/2022 08:00AM ● By Dagny Mckinley
(Photo: Ruby runs alongside  backcountry skiers Mike and Sarah Limberg on Rabbit Ears Pass.)

Steamboat Springs, CO - Winter means dogs bounding through snow, playing fetch with snowballs and sporting ice-frosted whiskers and eyelashes. Before heading out for the next adventure, consider these tips to keep pups safe on the trails and in the snow. 

Communication: Watch for signs of pets being uncomfortably chilly. Picking up paws in an exaggerated manner means the ground is too cold. Trying to turn around on the trail is another sign that the dog is uncomfortable or the trail is too hard to navigate. When temperatures drop, blood moves away from paws, ears and tails up to vital organs and can result in frostbite and/or sore paws and extremities that are tender to the touch. Excessive licking of extremities  
post-adventure can mean they got too cold and recovery time is needed.

(Photo: Hank wears goggles to protect his eyes from sunlight reflecting off snow.

What to Wear:
Dogs with longer coats are naturally insulated against cold weather, but short-haired breeds may need a coat or sweater. Make sure the fit is right to avoid chafing and irritation under the legs. While most dogs don’t need them, booties can help protect sensitive paws against crusty snow or long distances in cold weather. Tom Thurston, Iditarod musher, recommends cloth booties. “Hard booties can lead to sore wrists. Cloth booties allow for a full range of motion. If you are on ice or in icy conditions, take the booties off. Dogs need their claws for traction.” If the dog has a pink nose, use Zinc for protection against the sun.

Hydration and Hunger: Dogs hydrate by eating snow, but in the spring when the snow turns to ice, they may not be able to get enough. Bring water or soak some food in water flavored with beef or chicken broth to help them hydrate. For more than a couple of hours on-trail, bring snacks or even a full meal. 

(Photo: 16-year-old Reese wears a vest to keep her warm on cold outings.)

Common injuries:
According to Dr. Lee Meyring from Steamboat Veterinary Hospital, the most common winter injury occurs when a dog tries to pass in front of a backcountry skier and is cut by the ski’s sharp metal edge. These wounds bleed a lot, so keep a compression bandage on hand or keep dogs behind skis. If the adventure is more than a few hours, consider a staple gun and bandages. The most common injury in spring is a cruciate ligament injury or rupture, usually caused by dogs post-holing off trail when there’s a crust over the snow. Dogs are more likely to punch through snow, even on packed trails, than someone on skis or snowshoes. Walk 50 feet or more down the trail to test conditions. Another cause of limping can be snowballs building up under the pads of a dog’s paw. Feel under all their  pads and melt out the snowballs with warm fingers. If the problem is recurring, consider using musher’s wax.

Wildlife Encounters: Deep snow and a lack of food mean that elk, deer and fox need all their energy just to live through the winter. Additional stressors like dog chases can be fatal for these animals. Have dogs under voice command or on-leash.

Puppy Play: “Play close to home until you know your puppy can handle the adventure,” recommends Dr. Meyring. “Test their tolerance for exercise before you head out for hours.”

Living in a winter paradise provides opportunities for play, exploration and adventure. Being prepared keeps dogs safe and happy all winter long.