Cold feet, warm heart

Based on years of experience, I attest: it’s difficult to fall asleep with cold feet. Socks help, but they can get too hot later. Solution? Get a dachshund or two. No matter the ambient temperature, the natural habitat for these dogs is at the foot of the bed, buried deep under the covers. Much like those bed-warmers of old that were heated on the fire and placed between the sheets to warm the bed, my dachshunds, Walter and Miriam, serve the same function.

Advantages of a dachshund over the old-time bed-warmers: there is no warm-up time on the fire or stove necessary, you won’t be burned and a dachshund will stay warm all night.

Compared to an electric blanket, dachshunds are a green alternative: they require no electricity.

I find one of the disadvantages of owning heat-seeking missile-dogs is that they hate the cold so much, they must be cajoled to go out just to “do their business.” But with their thin, smooth coats, it’s no wonder they’re cold all the time. They’ve got no insulation at all – how would any of us feel being plucked from our warm beds in the morning and placed, naked, on the frozen ground in 15 degree weather to “do our business?”

Now, with the cold and the snow that sometimes accumulates to a depth measuring up to their necks, I have some very unhappy dogs. Even with the paths we make, they can only withstand about two minutes of walking on the snow before they start whimpering, shivering and intermittently holding up a paw, walking awkwardly as if all their feet have lost feeling. Walter and Miriam seriously hate the snow, while Kevin and Shultz (the ones with fluffy, thick coats) only dislike it immensely.

It’s sad, really. Until the dachshunds, I’ve never had a dog that disliked this weather. But then, I’ve always owned large, ruddy, outdoorsy dogs that had Newfoundland and retriever and even indefatigable terrier in them.

All of the dachshunds’ predecessors adored the snow. Ramona, our last dog, could sit on the stoop for hours in weather like this. At first sight of snow, she’d romp and kick up her heels and bury her snout, taking long, luxurious sniffs of what must have been the purest scents to her. If you weren’t careful, she’d plow you down in a rush of exuberance, galloping by with her tail flying like a flag and ears flapping in the wind she created.

While all dogs are built pretty much the same on the inside, with a few important breed-related exceptions, when it comes to temperature tolerance, not all dogs are created equal.

Ramona was a Newfoundland. She had thick, water-resistant, insulating fur, and much more tolerance to cold than my little dachshunds.

Plus, she was way-taller. Standing neck-deep in the snow without a coat must be pretty awful for dachshunds. Put some snow on your bare belly and see how it feels.

Admittedly, some of my dogs’ intense dislike of the cold also has to do with acclimation to outdoor conditions, or lack thereof.

If I took them on longer walks in the winter, they would gain some tolerance and stamina. If I kept them busy and moving, the snow would stop bothering their little feet so much, and they’d be fine for a reasonable distance and time, wearing cute, little sweaters. So, when should one worry about frostbite?

Frostbite is caused by a lack of blood and ultimately oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, and prolonged exposure to cold, causing irreversible cellular damage to the tissues of the body part in question. We infrequently see frostbite in pets around here, unless the animal was left in the cold for long periods with inadequate shelter – more common in strays, but tantamount to abuse in pets.

Warm blooded animals must maintain a relatively constant core body temperature, or risk death. A normal core body temperature for dogs and cats usually is between 99 and 102 degrees. When the core body temperature dips too low, a condition called hypothermia develops. Organ function slows and brain function is altered, ultimately leading to dementia and death.

To avoid hypothermia, lots of automatic chemical and thermoregulatory checks and balances are initiated by the body. Shivering generates heat by working the muscles. Skin pores close and sweat glands are turned off to avoid cooling the body further through sweating. (Yes, animals sweat; some more than others.) Peripheral vasoconstriction, (restricted blood flow to the extremities) keeps the majority of the blood in the warmest part of the body, preventing cooled blood returning from the extremities to drop the core body temperature. This vasoconstriction in the extremities is what ultimately leads to frostbite. But what’s worse – a loss of ear tips and toes or death? The body tends to choose life over limb.

Just like us, animals can lose extremities to frostbite: ear tips, tail tips, toes and footpads can be affected.

So, why can animals walk in the snow (albeit sometimes not so comfortably) shoeless, and avoid frostbite in normal circumstances? Ah, that brings us to ducks: Why don’t ducks’ feet freeze to the ice on a pond?

Because ducks study thermal engineering, of course.

Duh. And other animals study it, too. The wild bunnies in our yard have perfect, long ears, and their feet make cute little tracks in the snow.

All thermal engineering students know about countercurrent heat exchange. In the case of ducks and other animals that can walk bare-footed on ice with naked, wet feet and not get stuck (or cry), this physiologic phenomenon is ingenious and effective. Warm blood from the heart is pumped to the legs, where it passes very close to vessels carrying cooled blood from the feet on its way back to the body (countercurrent). The warm blood is cooled down; the cooled blood is warmed so as not to lower the duck’s core body temperature – heat exchange.

The ducks’ wet feet stay cool, keeping them from sticking to or melting the ice, but maintain a proper blood supply, preventing them from getting frostbitten. However, ducks do not make good bed warmers.

Other dogs may apply, but the position of Chief Bed Warmer is best filled by a smallish-sized dog or cat that can withstand high temperatures and seeming low oxygen levels, buried deep under down comforters and heavy blankets.

Also, a dog with stubby legs that won’t get in the way and a long body that can accommodate one’s feet like a pre-heated slipper is ideal. My models don’t squeal like a girl and then yell at me like my husband does when I get into bed with popsicle toes.

Heck, my dogs don’t seem to mind when I put my icy toes right onto their warm bellies. And as they warm my cold feet, they also warm my heart.

They’re pretty good dogs.

Daverio is a veterinarian at Williamsport West Veterinary Hospital.

Her column prints every other Sunday in the Lifestyle section.

She can be reached at