Dogs are amazingly adaptable animals. As I prepare to confront the cold, donning heavy coat, scarf, gloves and hat, my yellow lab waits patiently barefoot and unclothed to go outside. He hardly notices the merciless wind which seems like it has blown straight out of Siberia. And Bosun was overjoyed to see 13 inches of snow outside our front door inlate December. His foot pads gripped the icy lane with sure-footed certainty. I was reminded that the famous nautical Sperry Topsider shoe was invented because the shoe’s maker modeled the sole after a Labrador’s pads. Each digital pad, though superficially smooth and tough, is actually composed of countless ridges and folds which afford a suction like traction on slippery surfaces. Generations of sailors grip their boats’ decks safely because one man was inspired by his dog’s feet!
There is no more obvious example of canine adaptability than that displayed by the northern breeds as they effortlessly accommodate to extremely cold weather. Siberian Huskies, Alaskan Malamutes, Norwegian Elkhounds all have physiologic modifications which allow them to survive in their native clime. Their heavy double coat which insulates their bodies from extremes of temperature is well known to all. Recall how well padded their relatively short ears are. The tail curls upward and lies close to the body for
warmth. And their peripheral veins course more deeply in the flesh, as any vet knows who’s tried taking blood from them. These are all anatomical examples of core consolidation: keeping vital structures close to the center of the body for warmth. The impressive ability to compete in sled dog events like Alaska’s Iditarod can be accomplished by endurance, stamina and strength. Northern breeds are well muscled, and running long distances is an exceptional feat for a well-conditioned dog.
Closer to home, our hunting retrievers endure the icy Chesapeake waters with a water repellent, insulating coat. They swim effortlessly using webbed feet. While we require sunglasses to shelter our eyes from intense sunlight and glare, dogs tolerate bright light because of a relative lack of light receptive cells called cones on their retinas. Yet the abundance of retinal rods enable impressive night vision. Search and Rescue dogs employ a sense of smell forty times more powerful than ours to do their jobs.
The extensive and specialized array of dog breeds has allowed them to occupy niches to perform specific tasks. Yet with all this specialization, we must remember that dogs have their limits. Though Chessies and labs have adapted to cold water retrieving, a couch conditioned pet has no business in and cannot perform well in icy water. Dogs develop a tolerance for harsh temperatures on land or at sea. And few animals, whether two or four footed, can survive a fall through the ice. Ice is a hazard all too familiar in our area, and all individuals should be extremely cautious around ponds, creeks and local rivers. It is estimated that dogs can survive less than one hour in icy waters before hypothermia and fatigue lead to drowning. Never leave pets unattended around frozen bodies of water.
While many of us don’t share Bosun’s enthusiasm for the cold weather, we should properly prepare for it.