Thursday, December 1, 2011

Hypothermia and Your Pet: What are the Signs?

By Linda Cole

Winter is just around the corner and as temperatures begin to fall, so does the danger of pets developing hypothermia. It doesn't have to be freezing for us or our pets to become too cold. If you have an outside cat or a dog that enjoys winter sports or just playing outside in the snow, you should know what the signs of hypothermia are and how to treat it.

A good friend of mine recently told me a story about a kitten she had. “My tiny kitten accidentally fell into the toilet while I was sleeping and couldn't get out. I walked in and found her lying in the bowl with her head out of the water. She was shivering and unresponsive. Not having a clue what to do, I rushed her to the emergency vet, where they told me she was hypothermic. She was totally fine in a few hours, but man was I scared.”

Hypothermia can be a serious, life threatening condition. Knowing what the signs are can save your pet's life. We usually associate hypothermia with winter time and cold temperatures, but as my friend's story shows, it can happen inside the house as well.

What causes hypothermia? The core temperature of the body falls below its normal temperature. Pets that get too cold can experience a mild (90 – 99 degrees F), moderate (82 – 90 degrees F) or severe (less than 82 degrees F) drop in temperature. A dog's normal body temperature is 101 to 102.5, and a cat's normal temperature is 100.4 to 102.5.

A healthy and well groomed coat provides dogs and cats with protection from the cold. The fur traps their body heat next to the skin, keeping them warm, but if they get wet or the coat is matted, they lose all insulating protection which leaves them at risk of becoming too cold. Smaller dogs tend to become chilled faster than larger dogs. Pets that live outside grow a heavier coat during the winter months, but it's important to keep a close eye on them and follow winter time tips for proper care. Outside pets should always be brought inside during extremely cold periods, especially with a wind chill. Proper shelter is a must for outside pets. Wind chill affects our pets just like it does us.

Frostbite also occurs when a pet gets cold. To compensate for a drop in temperature, the body redirects blood to circulate around vital organs to protect what's most important, which leaves the ears, tail, nose, footpads and legs susceptible to frostbite. Symptoms of frostbite are ice on the ears, nose, legs or tail, shivering and bright red or black coloring on the body. However, frostbite and hypothermia are two different conditions and pets can become hypothermic anytime their core body temperature drops.

Pets that are sick, very young or old, have low body fat, low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), pets that have gone through anesthesia and surgery, have hypothyroidism (low levels of thyroid hormone in the body) or a disease of the hypothalamus (the part of the brain that regulates body temperature and appetite) are at risk of becoming hypothermic.

Symptoms of hypothermia depend on the severity and can include shivering, a slow shallow breathing, and weakness in mild cases. Muscle stiffness, low blood pressure, a blank stare, slow and shallow breathing are symptoms in the moderate state and fixed and dilated pupils, a heartbeat that's hard to find, difficulty in breathing or coma are seen in severe cases of hypothermia.

Treatment for hypothermia. Mild to moderate cases can be taken care of at home. Get the pet inside and wrap him up in a warm blanket. You can use a heating pad, or place uncooked rice in a zip-lock bag and warm it in the microwave for a couple of minutes, or fill plastic bottles with warm water and place them next to the pet for warmth. Wrap any heat source in a towel before putting it next to your pet to prevent burns and stop the warming process once your pet's temperature returns to normal. Severe cases of hypothermia should be dealt with immediately by a vet because it requires warm water enemas and IV fluids. However, it’s a good idea to have your pet checked out by your vet even for mild cases.

How to prevent hypothermia. Pay attention to weather forecasts and limit outside activities for pets. A shivering pet is cold and he/she should be brought inside and watched. Make sure outside pets have fresh unfrozen water at all times, feed your pet a premium quality food like CANIDAE, provide warm and dry shelter, and keep the coat well groomed and free of mats. Remember, it doesn't have to be cold for a pet to become hypothermic.

Photo by Rixatrix

Read more articles by Linda Cole


  1. Great post about hypothermia. I do have 7 or 8 cats that stay out in the cold but they have plenty of barns etc. that they can get into to get out of the wet. Wonder how those dogs on that sled run keep from getting it but maybe they don't.

  2. Mom once knew a family who had an outside dog. One January in Massachusetts it was frigidely cold. Many people told the man of the house to bring the dog inside or make hima better bed of warmth. He did not listen and sadly the poor dog froze to deaht. We just cannot imagine that happening. So sad. Another very good and informative post.

  3. Always better to keep our Pets warm in the winter season.

  4. Honestly, it is my first time to hear about "Hypothermia". Anyways, thank you for sharing this to us because it helps us a lot and made us aware on what to do if our pets has hypothermia.


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