Sufficient shelter in winter is vital for your pets

As the beautiful colours of autumn are all around us and the leaves drop off the trees, winter makes its approach known with the chill of the morning and evening air. You may be tucked snugly in your warm bed, but where is your dog? Should he have a spot indoors or can dogs sleep outside in winter?


Dogs – then and now 

Wolves, the ancestors of the domestic dog, are equipped to withstand harsh winters in extreme conditions outdoors. The Arctic wolf has a double coat – the inner coat provides a waterproof barrier against the skin while the outer coat is thick and insulating in winter. Dogs have been domesticated and selectively bred over thousands of years to meet our needs. Where wolves are native to a particular region in colder climates, there is a vast difference in dogs, seen in their physical appearance, size and coat type.

So can dogs sleep outdoors today? “To answer the question, I would have to say ‘yes, but’,” says veterinarian Dr Amanda Haechler. “The individual requirements, breed and size of the dog must all be considered. Most medium to large breeds will cope outdoors, provided they have sufficient shelter, while the smaller breeds should be kept indoors. However, your individual dog’s health and history and where you live in the country will also be a factor.”


Looking at the facts

* Shelter is a requirement of the law

Dogs are vulnerable to changes in the weather and if they are outdoors, even during the day while you are at work, you need to provide a place of safety and shelter from all types of weather.

The Animals Protection Act 71 of 1962 is national legislation. Section 2 of the Act states that it is an offence to keep an animal in conditions of confinement or in a manner that causes them unnecessary suffering or in any place that lacks space, ventilation, light, protection or shelter from heat, cold or weather.

“How the provision of shelter is undertaken is the key,” says NSPCA spokesperson Christine Kuch. “A cosy kennel in a draught-free area with decent bedding and the floor of the kennel lifted slightly above ground level would be considered acceptable.”


* Circumstances differ – not all dogs can sleep indoors

Many of the families who live in impoverished conditions in squatter camps or poor townships love their pets but cramped conditions don’t allow pets to live indoors. “Pet owners who are caring and responsible will provide shelter for their dogs in some way,” says Adrienne Olivier, founder of Funda Nenja, a township dog training initiative in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. “Despite high unemployment in the area, families manage to get money together to provide shelter for their dogs, who are valued and loved. These people are doing the best they can given the circumstances they live under.”

Some people may build their own kennels or dig deep to purchase one from an animal welfare organisation. Funda Nenja sells kennels at a sponsored price to the participants of their outreach programme.


* Animal shelters may have limited options

With limited resources, rescued pets at various shelters may be housed in outdoor kennels. They may not have the resources to provide five-star accommodation, but all reputable shelters will do their best to make sure pets are comfortable.

“We are very lucky at HAWS to have large kennels with canvas blinds that we close at night during winter,” says Linda Spencer-Coye, chairperson and kennel manager of The Hartbeespoort Animal Welfare Society (HAWS). “We are also well supported by various drives that allow us to provide our dogs with blankets. The very young, sick or elderly animals are kept indoors in our clinic.”


* Safety aspects  

Other aspects of our society must be considered. If you choose to leave your pet outdoors, your garden must be secure to ensure your pet’s safety. Outdoors, dogs are vulnerable to poisoning or theft.

For this reason the NSPCA advocates that companion animals sleep indoors. “While many people may motivate the keeping of a dog outside as protection, the most valuable ‘assets’ are the people,” says Christine Kuch. “Indoors, dogs are safe from poisoning but above all, they can interact better with the people and warn against potential intruders more effectively.”


It is a personal choice

The final decision rests with the individual pet owner, their personal circumstances and resources. The key is to make an informed and educated decision. “As a pet owner I choose to have my dogs indoors in their own room on mattresses,” says Dr Haechler. “However, as a vet I cannot judge anyone who chooses to have his or her dog outdoors in an adequate shelter, provided that all his needs are met.”

Veterinarian Dr Donald Leask says he would not try to convince a dog owner to bring in a dog who is happy to sleep outside. “Many dogs are comfortable sleeping outside and as long as this is not associated with neglect – the owner allows time for walks and for bonding perhaps by bringing the dogs inside in the evening while they watch TV – that is okay in my opinion,” he says. “My own dogs sleep in a comfortable waterproof kennel at night which is raised off the ground and has a thick insulating mattress. They like the kennel but also like to be outside where they can run around.”


10 points to consider

  1. Consider your location in the country. Winter temperatures and climates differ in South Africa – consider the vast differences in the climates between Sutherland, Cape Town, Durban and parts of the Free State in both winter and summer. Not all breeds can cope in all conditions. A Husky or Saint Bernard may cope very well in colder weather, where a short-coated breed like a Jack Russell Terrier may not. If you have a mutt, consider his size and coat type. Dogs with undercoats and/or rougher coats tolerate the cold better than dogs with shorter, softer coats.
  2. If you don’t already have a dog, but are considering one, be responsible when you choose a breed to welcome as part of your family. Consider why you want a dog, coat types, size and temperament. Some breeds need constant companionship and need to be with their humans at all times.
  3. If you get a new puppy and want your dog to sleep in your bed, introduce him to this from day one. If you want him to sleep in the same room but on the floor, give him a comfortable dog bed and teach him to stay there.
  4. Your dog may also have a preference as to where he sleeps. If you are rescuing or re-homing a dog, what is his history? Some rescue dogs don’t settle down in the house. Dogs who are terrified during thunderstorms will be more comfortable indoors.
  5. Has your dog reached his senior years? Senior pets may suffer from arthritis and other joint diseases. The cold weather may increase discomfort and pain. Both young and senior dogs diagnosed with joint conditions will be more comfortable indoors in winter. A thick foam mattress can help reduce pressure on joints. The bed should be placed in a draft-free area of your home and should be easy to get into and out of.
  6. You can increase your pet’s food portions during winter. Take your dog for a free weigh-in at your vet at the start of winter. Monitor his weight over the next week or two. If it drops, increase his food by 5 to 10%. Weight loss during winter will impact on your dog’s ability to cope with the cold. If your pet is overweight, speak to your vet for advice.
  7. If your dog sleeps outdoors in any season, provide sufficient shelter from the elements. The location of an outdoor kennel is important. The backyard, away from the front gate, is preferable. Good kennel locations for summer and winter differ. The winter sun is lower in the sky, so check for glare. In summer your dog needs shade during the heat of the day. A wall or other solid structure on one or more sides of the kennel can provide a good wind break. Also consider your rainy season and the direction of the kennel door during these periods.
  8. Whether dogs sleep indoors or outdoors in winter, they should be comfortable, dry and warm. If you use an outdoor kennel, include the same comforts you would for an indoor bed. Fabric stores stock thick fleece during winter. For a good price you can get a couple of metres of fabric and cut several blankets to alternate in the washing machine.
  9. Shorthaired breeds will benefit from a dog jersey in the winter, even if your dog only spends part of his day outdoors. Jerseys must be changed and washed daily! Do not let your pet wear one jersey the entire winter! Breeds with thicker coats do not need jerseys.
  10. Never allow your pet to be uncomfortable. If he shows signs that he is cold outdoors, review his sleeping area. A cold dog may whimper, tuck his tail between his legs or flatten his ears against his head. Your dog may also appear restless or he may wrap himself into a tight ball and start shivering. If your pet shows signs that he isn’t coping outdoors and you are able to provide a warmer place inside, do so for the comfort of your pet.


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