It’s hard enough owning a dog in a city like New York, where backyards are scarce, traffic is plentiful and taxis often don’t welcome canines. Add in a foot or so of snow, another polar vortex and temperatures just north of zero, and being responsible for a dog becomes a serious challenge.
But what about the dogs themselves?
Woof! It turns out that extreme cold and snow makes dogs uncomfortable, just as it does humans. And winter conditions can be particularly excruciating for animals. For one thing, cold can exacerbate arthritis in older dogs, said Dr. Sarah Sullivan, a veterinarian at Uptown Veterinary Associates in Harlem. But the main issue in New York seems to be the salt, which bothers all dogs, regardless of their age.
“My dog doesn’t like this weather,” Ronda Xanthos said of her 12-year-old French bulldog named Frenchie. “He doesn’t even want to take a walk, let alone touch the snow.” Part of the reason is because he sinks easily below the snow, she said.
“She’s in agony,” said Sharon Albert, glancing down at Gabby, a small eight-year-old Bichon that trotted alongside her on a late afternoon walk in 19-degree weather, seven with the wind chill.
Gabby and Frenchie are two of an estimated 600,000 dogs in New York City, according to the New York City Economic Development Corporation, though the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has only given out roughly 80,000 licenses.
When the snow fell on Tuesday, Xanthos was walking her sister-in-law’s dog, Rudy, and she got a little worried when his face—a saliva-covered nose and mouth—was freezing up. She was afraid of frostbite, and isn’t quite sure how to tell. Sharp rocks hidden by the snow are a problem too. Sullivan, at her veterinary practice, said she has seen a number of cases recently of cuts on dogs’ feet caused by rocks.
But there’s a bigger problem: “It’s the overabundance of salt. You see that?” Albert pointed to a patch of sidewalk under an awning nearby, empty of snow but white with salt. “It burns their paws.” She had wrapped Gabby’s curly white fur in a pint-sized jacket and secured Velcro dog booties onto the dog’s paws. One had slipped off during their brief excursion.
The city’s salt spreaders, operated by the Department of Sanitation, use a mixture of salt and liquid calcium chloride, according to the city’s 2013-2014 winter snow plan. It’s possible that the calcium chloride exacerbates the problem, but it’s really the rock salt that’s very abrasive for the dogs, said the veterinarian.
“If they’re having a problem with salt on their paws, they’ll usually be walking normally and suddenly develop a pronounced limp,” she said.
Curly, a five-year-old Standard Poodle, starts lifting his feet and crying when he gets salt in his paws, said his owner, Lisa Eckstein. One solution is little boots for dogs; another is a wax that protects them.
While salt hurts their feet, some dogs like the taste of it. A lick or two won’t do any harm, Sullivan said, but any more could cause an upset stomach.
Animal-friendly salt, called “snow-melt,” is available as a substitute for salt and chloride, often identifiable by its blue or green color. Some buildings use this dog-friendly salt on sidewalks, said Albert. But most landlords and the city do not, said Kat Barry, who has worked at Pet Market on Broadway and 109th Street for five years.
Some dogs, and some owners, aren’t too bothered by the excessive snow, salt, and cold weather. The cold makes the park less crowded and easier to navigate with her 14-month Havanese, Leo. “I actually enjoy walking him in the snow,” Goldstein says. “In the summer, it gets really smelly.”
This week Rudy, the dog of a veterinarian in Tribeca, was wearing a wool sweater and rubber boots. “He can stay out all day,” Xanthos says. On the day of the snowstorm, he was out for almost two hours.
Some breeds, of course, like Huskies, are much more adapted to the cold than humans, Sullivan said. For them, summer walks can become unbearably hot, and the cold could be an opportunity to stay out longer. But Chihuahuas, Pitbulls, and other breeds with thinner coats don’t have as much insulation and have more difficulty with the cold. Owners should shorten their dogs’ walks and avoid leaving them unattended. Just like young children, the pets can’t easily communicate when they can no longer stand the cold, so the owners must watch out.
And then there are the humans.
“It sucks. It’s freezing, “ said Jamar Holmes, a professional dog walker who starts at 6:30 in the morning and walks until 5 p.m., six days a week. He carries baby wipes for the dogs’ paws.
The worst part for him, though, is how cold his own paws can get.
Bad-weather days bring in more business, however. Owners don’t want to go out for a walk on such a cold day, he says, but “the dog still has to use the restroom.”