Out in the Cold
By Jennifer Boncy
Pet apparel manufacturers make it a priority to keep pets warm and safe in the winter, while still striving to appeal to fashion-conscious shoppers.

Flannel pajamas on a Yorkie or a sweater on a Doberman can solicit smiles during a Sunday morning stroll, but many pet apparel manufacturers take winter gear far more seriously. They say the best winter apparel should not merely be decorative, it should serve a greater purpose.

These products do for pets what they do for humans—they protect the wearer from the harsh effects of the elements, whether it is snow or ice, rain or sleet, or just plain frigid air. Co-opting what winter-gear manufacturers know about keeping people warm and dry in extreme climates, pet apparel companies are applying similar technology to gear for dogs, while taking into account the physiology of dogs, as well as their comfort, the way they move and the winter activities they are likely to engage in. Manufacturers are also intent on dispelling the notion that because pets have fur, they don’t sometimes need the added coverage and warmth winter pet apparel can provide.

Cold Crusade
The market is brimming with cutesy dog outfits that do little more than make people smile and coo. But for entrepreneur Gail Sanders-Luckman, the creation of winter garments for pets is a weightier matter, and she says she is on a crusade to let people know that dogs get cold too.

“It’s a tremendous trend for people to anthropomorphize their dogs, and they dress them up, but they don’t always address the needs,” says Sanders-Luckman, owner of Kumfy Tailz, which specializes in gear designed to keep dogs warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

Kumfy Tailz’ line of harnesses feature a pocket made to hold a gel pack that can be chilled to keep a pet cool when it’s hot outside or can be heated to keep the pet warm in the cold. The company has just launched its first winter coat, featuring a suede outer shell, a cotton-batting inner shell, sherpa fleece lining and the company’s signature gel pack. The pocket rests against the pet’s chest and belly—the spot where, Sanders-Luckman says, the pet needs the most protection.

“In order to help the dog regulate its body temperature, the core of the dog needed to be addressed, which is the chest and upper abdominal area,” she says. “That’s where most of the major organs are and where most of the vasculature is. It’s where the protection against the elements is the thinnest—the hair and the skin is the thinnest.”

Ruffwear is another company in the business of keeping pets warm, specializing in performance outdoor wear for dogs. The company’s product line includes fleece jackets, puffy coats, jackets and boots for dogs. Made specifically for pet owners who head for the hills and not the couch when temperatures dip, the apparel mimics high-end outdoor gear made for humans, often using the same high-tech materials, but re-engineered for dogs’ needs.

“A lot of people in the pet industry design for fashion, and we come from the opposite angle. We design our gear for function first,” says Susan Strible, Ruffwear’s director of marketing. “Of course, we want it to be aesthetically pleasing and fashion forward, but we want to make sure it functions first.”

Not every dog owner will find a use for many of Ruffwear’s products. It is a specific customer that needs gear such as the Bark ‘N Boots Polar Trex dog boots made for winter traction and insulation, and the Cloud Chaser storm-ready shell jacket designed to keep canines comfortable while running through deep snow for long periods of time. But for pet owners who do brave the elements with their pets to participate in any number of outdoor activities, the products are crucial and can even be life saving.

“A lot of our customers depend on our gear to perform, so they don’t have to get 10 miles out on a snowy trail and realize that something failed or that they need to fix a piece of gear—it’s that piece of mind that they can rely on,” Strible says.

But even casual hikers and other pet owners who are not outdoor enthusiasts often seek protective winter pet apparel, and find themselves drawn to the quality offered by  the top brands in the category.

“We inspire those customers who may not be so outdoor oriented to embrace this gear because it’s so functional, it’s durable—they don’t have to worry about it falling apart in one or two season,” she adds.

In fact, making products that are meant to last has helped some companies weather the economic downturn. Pet apparel manufacturer Pedigree Perfection reaps the rewards that come from being known for its durable, high-quality products, says president Rhonda Meloro. And despite the recession, she says, dog owners haven’t skimped on outfitting pets for the winter.

“People are more prudent [these days], but our garments and boots are made to last,” Meloro says.

The frigid winter temperatures in Montreal, where Pedigree Perfection’s founders first conceived its products, inspired the development of many of its garments, which include boots, snowsuits and raincoats. And Meloro says the company has always been committed to designing products that were not only durable, but that also met dog’s unique needs. For example, she says, the company designed its fleece-lined PawTectors boots at a time when the only other options failed to consider dogs’ physiology.

“The rubber boots that were on the market then would get cold and be very uncomfortable,” Meloro says. “Dogs also perspire through their paws so you need something absorbent and that stays supple in cold temperatures.”

Style Counts
With function and quality addressed, manufacturers turn their attention to aesthetics. The most dedicated dog-owning outdoor enthusiast may not scrutinize the color or style of the dog coat she is considering—for this shopper, these attributes take a back seat to the product’s construction and functional features. But for many, what the jacket, coat or boots looks like influences their buying decision. “We manufacture garments for pets that have all that functionality, and there’s a lot of thought put into the fabrics because of their use, but people are purchasing them on an emotional level, so we create them in colors and prints that appeal to us,” Meloro says.

The team at Hip Doggie also stresses the practical reasons to dress dogs for cold weather, but as the company’s name suggests, style is key. “Hip Doggie is known for unique designer fabrics such as eyelet, specialty laces and great sweater knits,” the team says. “Hip Doggie offers great styles, but with added value, such as 2-in-1 reversible jackets, where you get two different coats for the price of one.”

Even designers at Ruffwear have an eye for fashion. “While we do appeal to the avid outdoor enthusiast,” Strible says, “the not-so avid come to us for the pure aesthetic and the durability our designs offer, as well as the thoughtful design elements that appeal to people.”