When the summer sun is shining it’s easy to romanticize late season hunting. We imagine our canine hunting partners fearlessly diving into frigid water to make blind retrieves or busting through snow drifts, tirelessly searching for birds. We tend to reflect on the positive aspects of late season hunting, and while our dogs can certainly perform in winter conditions, we need to take precautions in the cold.
In winter and even fall, hypothermia is a concern for all dog breeds. Even when it doesn’t seem overly cold to us our dogs could potentially face a hypothermic situation.
Nutrition as a Foundation
Physical conditioning, a healthy coat, and post-exercise recovery after a hunt are all supported by a nutrient-packed diet that is optimized for the rigorous activities of sporting dogs. Feeding a performance diet provides our dogs with a balance of nutrients designed to help them succeed in the field. However, late season conditions can take a caloric toll on our dogs. It is important to give them the proper amount of kibble to support the extra effort required in cold conditions.
“When it’s cold there is a daily struggle to keep a dog fueled up with the caloric requirements he needs,” says Dr. Ira McCauley, a Team Eukanuba veterinarian and passionate waterfowl hunter. “In colder temperatures, in windy conditions, and in icy water, dogs need enough body mass and fat to keep them warm. The additional calories help them perform at their full potential. Feeding a premium diet is an important factor to help keep them tuned up for cold weather.”
Underweight dogs have a harder time maintaining their body temperature and consequently, are at a higher risk of hypothermia. Sporting dogs need more calories when working in winter conditions as compared to milder temperatures. The effects of winter conditions—cold temperatures, wind, and moisture—compound to significantly increase our dog’s caloric needs.
“Just sitting in a duck blind on a cold day a dog is burning more energy than if it was sunny and 70 degrees,” says Dr. Joe Spoo, another Team Eukanuba veterinarian. “One of the biggest things with performance nutrition is that when someone asks how much you feed you really shouldn’t have a consistent answer. It really should depend on the dog’s activity level, the temperature outside, and the conditions the dog is working in. In winter, those factors can combine to create a situation where a dog needs more food than at any other time of the year.”
Coat, Conditioning, and Acclimation
A dog’s coat is its first line of defense again hypothermia. Waterfowl breeds like labs, chessies, and even standard poodles have coats designed to grow thicker when exposed to cold temperatures and this makes them more cold resistant than short haired dogs. However, all dogs produce a substance called sebum from glands in their skin. In cold conditions, sebum covers a dog’s coat and acts as a natural water repellent. For this reason, a dog with a healthy coat is more resistant to hypothermia because it sheds water more easily. That applies whether a dog is making water retrieves or running through wet, snowy cover.
“Maintaining a dog’s coat requires a tremendous amount of protein and amino acids,” says Russ Kelley of the Eukanuba Pet Health & Nutrition Center. “This need is so great that from a requirement standpoint, the skin uses more protein than any other system including muscles.”
As Kelley notes, protein plays a huge role in skin health, but minerals like zinc, selenium, and Vitamin E are also important to maintain healthy hair and skin. Moreover, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids add sheen to a dog’s coat.
Along with a healthy coat, physical conditioning also helps a dog maintain his core body temperature, and nutrition is the basis of conditioning. Feeding your dog a nutrient-rich kibble like Eukanuba Premium Performance 30/20 SPORT with a blend of nutrients catered to the intensity and duration of their exercise will help nourish everything from their muscles to their mind.
“Maintaining [a dog’s] fitness is important for the cold,” says Dr. Spoo. “The cold doesn’t wear down a properly conditioned dog like one that’s out of shape. Conditioned dogs stay focused on the hunt.”
Many hunters enjoy the companionship of their sporting dog both in the field and in the house. However, hunters should realize that a dog accustomed to the warmth and comfort of inside living are at a higher risk of hypothermia. For this reason, it’s important to acclimate dogs to the cold prior to late season hunting.
“Getting your dog acclimated to the cold is so important,” says Dr. Spoo. “A dog that spends most of his time indoors is going to be more prone to hypothermia than one that is hunted regularly, lives in an outdoor kennel, and is used to the cold.”
Acclimating a dog to the cold is simple. Start with short training sessions or walks once temperatures begin to drop in the fall and gradually increase the duration. In the fall, getting a dog out early in the morning or late in the evening will simulate the cold daytime temperatures to come. Keep in mind that acclimation doesn’t happen in a weekend. Repeated exposure to the cold for longer periods of time over the course of several weeks will help increase tolerance.
Don’t let fear of hypothermia keep you and your dog cooped up inside this winter. With a combination of optimal nutrition, conditioning, and cold acclimation you will both start looking forward to late season hunting.