Pet owners assume cats and dogs don’t get cold because of their fur coats, but pets do get cold and can suffer from hypothermia if their core temperature drops below their normal body temperature. I had a dog that loved to play in the snow, but his short coat wasn’t enough to keep him warm. He would get so cold, his teeth chattered if he wasn’t wearing a coat and booties that kept him warm. Our pets are just like us and some do better than others in cold weather. Any time you see your pet shivering, she’s cold. Pay attention because hypothermia can be a life threatening condition that can happen inside or outside the home.
What is hypothermia?
When the core temperature of the body begins to lose heat faster than it can produce it, that’s when hypothermia can set in. The normal temperature for a dog or cat is 100 to 102.5 degrees F. When their body temperature drops under their normal body temperature, they are at risk of developing hypothermia. Pets can experience a mild, moderate or severe temperature drop. Mild cases are between 90 – 99 degrees F, moderate between 82 – 90 degrees F and severe hypothermia is a body temperature under 82 degrees F.
Causes of hypothermia.
Just like us, pets can get too cold even at 50 degrees F. A wet pet exposed to cold air and wind can become hypothermic. Outside pets without proper shelter that keeps them dry and out of the wind, no access to fresh unfrozen water, inadequate nutrition from their food (poor quality food) or a matted and unkempt coat are at risk of getting too cold. A healthy winter coat is essential for outside pets to survive winter and if their coat has mats, it can’t keep them warm. Their coat loses its insulating protection when it’s wet or matted and it can’t trap body heat. Outside pets should always be brought inside during periods of extreme cold, snow and wind.
Medical conditions like kidney disease, arthritis, hypoglycemia (low blood pressure), respiratory problems, an improperly functioning thyroid (hypothyroidism), recovering from surgery and anesthesia, poor nutrition resulting in low body fat, or hypothalamus (the area of the brain controlling appetite and body temperature) can cause a pet to be more susceptible to hypothermia. Young, newborns, old or sick pets are susceptible to cold temperatures.
Symptoms to watch for.
Symptoms depend on how severe the hypothermia is. Mild cases include shivering, weakness, lack of alertness and cold feeling skin. Moderate cases include muscle stiffness, lack of shivering, low blood pressure, a blank stare and slow and shallow breathing. Severe cases include difficulty in hearing a heartbeat, dilated and fixed pupils and difficulty in breathing. If your pet falls into a coma, that’s a serious life threatening emergency.
How to treat hypothermia.
Mild cases can easily be treated at home. If your pet is outside, bring her inside and cover with a warm blanket. You need to get her core body temperature back to normal. The most accurate way to tell when the temperature has returned to normal is to take your pet’s temperature with a rectal thermometer.
Moderate cases may require a vet’s care. Be prepared to call if your pet’s condition worsens. You will need to use heating sources other than a blanket to warm your pet. A heating pad, plastic bottles filled with warm water or uncooked rice (put in a zip-lock bag and warm in the microwave for a few minutes) works well. Don’t use hot water. You risk burning the skin if the water is too hot. Put something in between the heat source and your pet to prevent burns. When their temperature returns to normal, stop the warming process. Call your vet if you haven’t already done so.
Severe cases must be taken care of by your vet because your pet will need professional help to warm her from the inside with warm enemas and IV fluids. Wrap her in a blanket and call the vet on your way to the office. It’s always a good idea to have your pet checked out by your vet even if the hypothermia is mild.
How to prevent hypothermia. Cats, small dogs and short haired dogs are more at risk than longer haired dogs, but even a wet Husky can get too cold. Well groomed, healthy pets with access to unfrozen fresh water, quality food and a dry shelter (preferably raised off the ground) with plenty of warm bedding can usually do fine outside as long as their owner keeps a watchful eye on them and brings them inside when the weather turns really cold or snowy. The best way to prevent hypothermia is to keep outside pets inside if possible during winter months.
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