Winter weather conditions do not have to be severe for your pet to become dangerously cold. Hypothermia occurs when your dog’s body temperature falls below normal. Since hypothermia can be a life-threatening condition, knowing how to recognize the signs can save your pet’s life.
The normal body temperature for dogs is between 100°F and 102.5°F. Hypothermia occurs when a dog’s temperature drops below 100°F due to loss of body heat. There are four ways your pet can lose body heat:
- Evaporation happens when moisture on your pet’s skin or mucous membranes (nose or mouth) dissipates into the air. Evaporation comes in handy when it’s hot outside and your dog pants to cool herself down. But, if you send your pet outside into the cold still damp from bath time, she will lose body heat more rapidly than if she were dry.
- Convection occurs when heat from the body transfers to the air around your pet. Cold winter air causes your pet to lose body heat quickly.
- Conduction happens when heat from your pet’s body transfers to an object your pet is in contact with. If left outdoors in the cold, a dog curled up trying to stay warm quickly loses body heat to the frozen ground.
- Radiation is when heat is exchanged between the body and nearby objects, even though the objects aren’t in contact with the skin. Cold objects outside suck heat away from your pet’s body, quickly lowering her temperature.
All dogs are susceptible to hypothermia during the winter months, but certain dogs are at increased risk:
- Toy and small breeds (Chihuahua, toy poodle)
- Short-haired breeds (Boston terrier, beagle)
- Puppies and geriatric dogs
- Sick dogs and those with chronic health problems (heart disease, diabetes, etc.)
- Underweight and obese dogs
- Dogs without adequate shelter
- Wet and/or matted dogs
- Breeds with short legs whose chest and abdomen are closer to the ground (dachshund, Pekingese)
When a dog’s body temperature begins to decrease, she responds by shivering. These involuntary muscle contractions generate heat in an attempt to bring the temperature back up to normal. The blood vessels in the skin also constrict as the body works diligently to keep internal organs warm and functioning. Early signs of hypothermia may include:
- Muscle stiffness and shivering
- Pale gums
- Ataxia (lack of muscle coordination)
- Dilated and fixed pupils
- Decreased heart and respiration rate
Mild cases of hypothermia—when body temperature drops between 95 and 99°F—can be treated by slowly rewarming your dog. Bring your pet to a warm, dry area, and wrap her in blankets to encourage her body temperature to rise. If necessary, heating pads or warm water bottles can be placed on her, but a barrier, such as a blanket, should be placed between the heat source and your dog to prevent contact burns.
If your dog’s temperature doesn’t begin to rise within 30 minutes, or if it drops below 95°F, seek emergency medical attention. At this point, core rewarming is necessary. This treatment may involve warm intravenous fluids, warm enemas, and airway rewarming with oxygen therapy. Failure to act quickly can lead to worsening of hypothermia, which can be deadly.
Hypothermia is best prevented by limiting exposure to cold temperatures. Keep these safety tips in mind:
- Monitor weather conditions and forecasts to know when time spent outside should be limited.
- If your pet falls into one of the increased risk categories, possibly purchase coats and sweaters to keep your dog warm and dry. Pets with short legs who are lower to the ground lose body heat more easily and may benefit from the extra layer of protection.
- Reduce time spent outside on walks and exercising if temperatures and wind chill are below freezing. In severe weather conditions, limit outdoor time to short bathroom breaks only. Keep in mind that if it’s too cold for you, even when bundled in multiple layers, it may be too cold for your dog. In all cases, monitor your dog’s behavior. If she is playing and doesn’t appear to be in distress, she may be showing you how much better she can deal with the cold than humans.
- Keep the hair between your dog’s toes trimmed short to prevent snow and ice from accumulating. Even though your dog’s paw pads are thick, frostbite can develop quickly if ice is in contact with the skin. Booties are also a great way to keep her feet warm and dry if she will accept them and walk with them on.
Stay diligent in your efforts to keep your pup warm this winter so you can look forward to a happy and healthy year together.
Want more information about hypothermia? Contact our hospital.