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Hypothermia in Dogs and Cats

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It’s easy to think that our pets – with their luxurious fur coats – couldn’t possibly feel the chill of freezing temperatures. Some dogs and cats handle winter better than humans, but other pets are higher risk and more susceptible to cold weather dangers. Unless your pet has a very thick coat like a husky or Great Pyrenees – he or she may experience hypothermia. All pet owners who live in colder areas (like Minnesota!) need to be educated about this very serious, very fatal condition.

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 What is hypothermia?  

Normal temperature for dogs and cats is 99.5 – 102.5°F. Hypothermia occurs when a pet loses body heat and core body temperature drops too low, anything 97-98°F. When cold, our dogs and cats are very similar to us. They will try to warm up by shivering, and they’ll try to stop heat loss by curling into a ball.  

Why is being cold a veterinary emergency?  

Maintaining an internal temperature is vital to life; every organ system can shut down if body temperature continues to drop.  

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How do pets lose heat? 

Dogs and cats lose body heat through touching cold objects or their heat getting whisked away from them by, say, an icy breeze. That’s why it’s important for pets to have a barrier between their bodies and cold surfaces like floors, cement, and ice, as well as sleet, snow, and wind.

What are the signs of hypothermia?  

The most common signs of hypothermia in dogs and cats are: 

  • Shivering
  • Reluctance to move or curling into a ball
  • Dull expression
  • Slow heart rate
  • Coma-like state (in severe cases)

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What can I do to prevent hypothermia?  

  • If your dog enjoys the cold weather and is NOT at higher risk of frostbite or hypothermia, and you plan to let them outside unmonitored for more than ten minutes, invest in an insulated dog house so your dog can escape from the elements if they need to.
  • If you know there are outdoor cats in your neighborhood, let your local shelter know. There are many programs for outdoor cats and some rescues even provide pre-made feral cat shelters that you can put out. 
  • Accessorize! Invest in a pet jacket that is wind/waterproof and other pet-specific winter gear to help maintain your pet’s body heat. Also, use boots to keep your dog’s paws safe during walks.
  • The best way to warm up a chilly pet is to wrap them in a warm, out-of-the-dryer towel. Smaller pets warm up fastest with skin-to-skin contact so put that kitten on your chest! 

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What NOT to do in cold weather: 

  • DO NOT leave your pet unmonitored outside for long periods of time. This goes for both dogs and cats – please keep your cat indoors during winter. 
  • DO NOT allow your pet near bodies of water that may not be frozen all the way, and do not bathe your pet and then go for a walk. Wet pets and the cold just don’t mix! 
  • DO NOT leave your pet unattended in the car on a cold day. During the summer, we educate pet owners on how a hot car acts as an ovenit traps heat inside and can cause a fatal heat stroke in pets. During winter, it’s the opposite effect; a cold car acts like a refrigerator and traps cold air inside the car. Being left in a cold car will cause your pet to lose body heat quickly, potentially leading to hypothermia and/or frostbite.
  • DO NOT use heating pads or hat water bottles on your pets; they can cause burns. Leave external warming to veterinary professionals who will use blankets that circulate warm air and warm fluids in the vessels. 
  • If your pet experiences frostbite, avoid touching or aggressively heating the area. Instead, use lukewarm water to slowly re-warm the affected spot as you travel to your family veterinarian or local animal emergency hospital.  

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Accidents happen… 

If your cat accidentally got shut in an unheated garage or your dog was outside in the cold for too long, how can you tell if it’s an emergency or not? If there is any question that your pet may have hypothermia or frostbite – bring him or her to your family veterinarian or local animal emergency hospital right away. A veterinary technician can check a rectal temperature (sorry pets!) and guide you from there.

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We hope you and your pets have a warm and safe winter. If you do experience a pet emergency and your family veterinarian is unavailable, both our Oakdale and St. Paul locations are open 24/7 for emergency care. If you have any questions about how to keep your pet safe from the cold, contact your family veterinarian to discuss your concerns.

Written by Jo Daney, DVM.

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