Can Cats Get Hypothermia? Signs, Symptoms, and More

As you notice the weather getting chillier, your cat probably feels it, too. Although cats are adaptable, wintery weather can become too cold to handle — putting a cat at risk for hypothermia, frostbite, and even death. 

Here are some important things to know to keep your kitty safe and cozy this winter, especially if they spend any time outdoors.

Can Cats Get Hypothermia?

Yes, cats can get hypothermia, which is a drop in body temperature that is dangerous to health. Symptoms can range from mild to severe, and the condition can be fatal.

Fortunately, with a few exceptions due to age or health conditions (more on this below), it’s pretty rare for an indoor cat in a heated home to get hypothermia. It’s primarily a risk for cats who venture outdoors, either as a habit or because they accidentally get outside. But hypothermia can also be a risk if the heat goes out or is turned off.

Can Cats Get Frostbite?

Frostbite occurs on extremities such as the toes, paws, and ears due to lack of blood flow. This can happen from direct cold exposure (such as walking in snow and ice) but also from hypothermia.

During hypothermia, the body shunts warm blood toward your cat’s “core” to protect important organs like the heart, liver, and kidneys. As a consequence, there’s decreased blood flow to extremities. The ears, paws, and tail might feel cold to the touch. 

In severe cases, freezing and permanent damage to those areas occurs.

How Cold Is Too Cold for Cats?

Cats’ body temperatures run a bit higher than humans, averaging 100-102.5oF. So they might prefer rooms a bit warmer than you do. But the average cat is pretty comfortable with the thermostat around 70 degrees.

Most cats are perfectly fine in temperatures dropping into the 60s. Even the 50s can be okay for many, although your pet might curl up on a blanket, bask in sunshine from the window, or cuddle on your lap.

A common guideline is that 45oF or below is too cold for cats and presents some risk of hypothermia and frostbite. Temperatures below freezing present an even higher risk. And extremely cold weather can be very dangerous for pets.

What Is Hypothermia In Cats?

Hypothermia is defined as a body temperature that is below normal. It can range from mild to severe. Veterinarians start to become concerned even with small drops to a range of 97-99oF. And a temperature closer to 90oF or below is very serious.

A normal body temperature is crucial for maintaining all the functions of the body that keep a cat alive. Hypothermia can compromise those functions, resulting in central nervous system depression, altered heart rate and rhythm, changes to blood flow and breathing, and more. This can lead to death.

Recognizing the signs of hypothermia in cats, and knowing how to prevent it in the first place, can go a long way toward keeping your beloved kitty safe this winter. 

Causes of Hypothermia In Cats

The most common cause is exposure to cold weather. Risks increase with factors like wind and precipitation. Your cat’s fur presents some measure of natural protection. But wind gusts can blow through to the skin. And rain, snow, or sleet can eliminate natural insulation. 

Here are some additional risk factors…

  • Outdoor lifestyle. Outdoor cats are at a higher risk of hypothermia and frostbite. However, indoor cats who accidentally get outside can be especially susceptible, since they’re not used to it.

  • Severe weather warnings. Conditions like blizzards and severely cold temperatures present a danger even to seasoned outdoor cats.

  • Young or old age. Senior cats are less able to handle cold, especially if they are underweight. Young kittens are also less cold-tolerant than healthy adults.

Newborns are at the highest risk. They can’t regulate their own body temperatures and can even suffer hypothermia indoors.

  • Weight and body condition. Cats with extra body fat have a bit of “buffer” for warmth. However, obesity comes with many serious health concerns and makes it difficult for cats to escape predators and other dangers outside.

  • Hair length and type. Obviously, hairless breeds are most sensitive to cold. Breeds with long, fluffy fur and/or a thick undercoat tend to do better with cold weather. Examples include Maine Coon Cats, Norwegian Forest Cats, and Himalayans. However, even thick-coated breeds can be susceptible to hypothermia.

  • Overall health. Certain health conditions can put a cat at higher risk in cold temperatures. A few examples include kidney disease, heart disease, cancer, and thyroid imbalances. Arthritis might flare up worse in the cold, too.

  • Some medications. While this is a less common cause of hypothermia, pets who have been recently anesthetized (in the last 12-72 hours) or who are taking certain sedatives are less efficient at regulating their body temperature.

Signs and Symptoms of Hypothermia In Cats

You can start by noticing signs your cat might be cold, even if they aren’t in a hypothermia risk zone yet. If your cat is constantly curling up, hunching over, or generally making themselves smaller (rather than spreading out when they lounge or sleep), they might be trying to conserve body heat. You might also notice your furry friend seeking out blankets, constantly cuddling next to you, or sitting in front of a radiator or space heater. 

Signs of hypothermia, which tend to get more noticeable as severity increases, include…

  • Shivering.

  • Lethargy, slowing down, or weakness.

  • Confusion or lack of responsiveness.

  • Feeling cold to the touch—especially the ear tips, paws, and tail. With frostbite, you might also notice red or discolored skin or pain.

  • Muscle stiffness.

  • Dilated pupils.

  • Decreased heart rate.

  • Slow, shallow breathing, or difficulty breathing.

  • Coma/loss of consciousness.

Diagnosing and Treating Cat Hypothermia

In very mild cases, a cat can be helped by being taken to a warm room. Gently warm with warm towels or hot water bottles (which are preferred to heating pads, since they are less likely to burn a cat). If you have a pet thermometer, check your cat’s temperature.

It’s best to bring your cat to a veterinarian immediately if you suspect hypothermia. Symptoms can worsen quickly once hypothermia sets in, and your cat might need special warming procedures or supportive care you can’t provide at home.

Wrap your cat in warm towels on the way to the vet. Once you arrive, let the veterinary team know the symptoms you’ve seen and that you suspect hypothermia. If your cat has spent time outside in the cold, be honest about that—the veterinary team wants to help, and all this information can help them get to a faster diagnosis and treatment.

The veterinarian will start by checking vital signs like your cat’s temperature, heart rate and rhythm, respiratory rate, and blood pressure. A low body temperature helps to confirm hypothermia. 

However, there are other causes of low body temperature, including shock, low blood sugar, and chronic health conditions. Your vet might recommend additional diagnostics to rule out underlying health conditions, especially if your cat has no history of prolonged cold exposure.

If hypothermia is suspected, your vet might still recommend diagnostic testing to assess for damage to internal organs. Or, they might decide that additional testing needs to wait until your cat is stabilized and their body temperature has been raised to a safer level.

Depending on severity, warming efforts might include insulated blankets, drying your cat’s fur, and active warming devices. In some cases, warmed IV fluids or warm water enemas may be required to help warm your cat from the inside out.

Recovery and Prognosis for Cats with Hypothermia

Prognosis worsens the longer a cat owner waits to seek treatment, and with worsening symptoms. Pronounced hypothermia symptoms should be treated as a medical emergency.

Fortunately, hypothermia can often be treated successfully with prompt veterinary care. In some cases, the damage is too severe. But many kitties recover very well. Once a cat recovers, there’s usually no need for ongoing care, unless additional or ongoing symptoms are noted.

The exception would be frostbite, which may require treatment for infection and pain. Check with your vet prior to giving any medicines, since many medications are toxic to cats. Amputation is required in the most severe cases.

Preventing Hypothermia and Frostbite In Cats

Fortunately, hypothermia and frostbite in cats are completely preventable! 

Here are some safety measures to take…

  • Keep your cat indoors. If the forecast is cold but your kitty is safely inside a comfortably heated home, your furry friend has got nothing to worry about.

  • Offer your indoor cat a blanket, an insulated or self-warming cat bed, or a cat tree by a sunny window. You can also run a space heater when you’re home to monitor it.

  • Buy a coat or sweater for your cat to wear with supervision.

  • If your cat must go outside, make sure they have a safe shelter. Think about a cat house that is off the ground and has protected sides and a roof for insulation, wind blocking, and to stay dry. Blankets or dry straw on the bottom can help. Other options include installing a cat door to the house, or opening the garage door for them to come inside.

You can also do these things if your indoor kitty accidentally gets outside. This can help them stay warm enough if they happen to come back at night or when you’re not around.

  • Think about food and water. Indoor and outdoor kitties alike might drink more due to dry air. Heated water bowls may be needed outside to prevent the water from freezing. Some pets (especially outdoor ones), need to increase their calorie intake to stay warm—but not so much they gain weight. Ask your vet for feeding advice if you’re not sure.

  • Consider other winter dangers like car engines and antifreeze—for your own cat, as well as other outdoor or feral cats that are seeking warmth. Honk the horn or thump on the hood prior to starting your car, so any hidden cats (who tried to warm up in the engine compartment or wheel well) leave rather than being injured. Place antifreeze out of reach (it’s highly toxic and tastes good to cats), and clean up spills right away.

With a little planning, you and your furry friend can safely enjoy the winter season in comfort. Remember to give them some extra snuggles to stay warm (and just for fun!), too.

If you have any questions or concerns at all, it’s easy to schedule an in-person or telehealth appointment with one of our caring veterinarians—or come in for urgent care and treatment.

 

SEE ALSO: Do Cats Get Hot & How Hot Is Too Hot?

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