Can Dogs Get Hypothermia?
The winter season brings holidays, playtime in the snow, snuggling under blankets, and other fun times enjoyed by humans and dogs alike. However, it’s important to ensure your furry BFF stays safe and warm in the cold weather.
If you feel cold, your dog probably does, too. And cold temperatures can put animals at risk for hypothermia, frostbite, and other serious health conditions. In severe cases, hypothermia can be fatal—but fortunately, it’s completely preventable!
Here are some important things to know to keep your pup warm, cozy, and safe this winter…
Can Dogs Get Hypothermia?
Yes, dogs can get hypothermia, which is a dangerous drop in body temperature. The condition itself—and associated health consequences—can range from mild to severe in nature.
The most common cause is prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. While some dogs do better in the cold than others, any dog can potentially be at risk.
What Is Hypothermia In Dogs?
Hypothermia means a decrease in body temperature.
A dog’s normal body temperature is about 100-102.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Early or mild hypothermia starts to set in with even a mild decrease to 98-99 degrees or below.
Moderate hypothermia is often classified as a body temperature of 82-90 degrees, while severe hypothermia sets in below 82 degrees. But in addition to measurable body temperature, it’s also important to consider the severity of clinical signs a dog is showing.
A decrease in core body temperature can affect the brain, heart, and lungs. At first, the body tries to protect these vital organs by shunting blood away from the extremities (ears, tail, paws). This can cause frostbite in addition to hypothermia.
Severe hypothermia can be fatal. Fortunately, knowing the symptoms of hypothermia in dogs, along with how to prevent the condition, can go a long way toward keeping your pup safe.
What Causes Hypothermia In Dogs?
Cold weather, or prolonged exposure to a cold environment, is the most common cause. The risk increases with wind chill, as well as exposure to water (swimming, rain, snow, wet fur prior to going outside, etc.) that could dampen a pet’s natural insulation.
Here are some additional risk factors…
Spending a lot of time outdoors. With the exception of certain health and age conditions, or the power/heater going out, pets are not typically at risk for hypothermia while they’re inside a warmed home.
Severe weather conditions. Even winter-friendly breeds, like Huskies, can struggle with blizzards or extreme cold temperatures.
Young or old age. Newborn puppies are at the highest risk, since they are unable to regulate their own body temperatures. They require a puppy-safe heat source, even indoors. Additionally, senior pets are often less able to handle weather extremes, including the cold. Not to mention, cold can make arthritis symptoms flare up.
Body size and weight. Large breeds are generally more cold-tolerant than small dogs, although there is some individual and breed variation. Extra body fat can also provide a “buffer” for warmth; but on the flipside, obesity comes with its own serious health concerns.
Hair type and length. As you can imagine, long and thick hair coats are best suited to cold weather. Dogs with short, thin fur (like Chihuahuas) are much more susceptible to hypothermia when compared to a Husky or German Shepherd, for example.
Overall health. Some health problems—like kidney disease, heart disease, thyroid imbalances, etc.—can make a dog less tolerant of cold weather.
Some medications. If your pet has recently been anesthetized or is taking any type of sedative, they may be less efficient at regulating their body temperature. Ask your veterinarian for any special instructions regarding time outside in cooler weather.
Signs of Dog Hypothermia to Watch for In Cold Weather
Initial symptoms that indicate your dog is getting cold might include…
Trying to stay warm by curling up, crouching down and making themselves smaller to conserve heat, or even staying close to you for warmth.
Your pup’s paws, ears, or tail may feel cold to the touch.
As hypothermia worsens (which can happen quickly), symptoms get worse (see below).
The Symptoms of Hypothermia in Dogs
In mild or early hypothermia, a dog might exhibit some of the symptoms listed above.
As the condition worsens, additional signs of hypothermia in dogs may include…
More pronounced sluggishness, lethargy, or even confusion.
Decreased heart rate.
Pale skin or gums.
Loss of consciousness.
Fixed, dilated pupils.
Treating Hypothermia In Dogs
Take your pet to a warmer environment right away, and call a veterinarian’s office for advice. If your dog has severe symptoms, an emergency vet visit is needed.
In mild cases, your vet might recommend warming and monitoring at home. Take your dog inside. Wrap your dog with warm, dry towels or blankets (throw them in the dryer to warm them up). If their fur is wet, try to dry it with towels, or even a hair dryer set on low and held a foot away from your dog’s skin. You can also hold your dog close to you for warmth.
Hot water bottles or even heating pads can be useful, but be cautious to avoid burning your dog’s skin. Place a thick layer of towels or blankets between the heat source and your dog’s skin, and only place them directly next to your dog if they are conscious and can move away if it becomes uncomfortable.
If you have a dog thermometer, monitor your pup’s temperature. If their temperature is 95 degrees Fahrenheit or below, or if your dog isn’t improving, they need veterinary care.
When to See the Vet
When in doubt, it’s best to seek veterinary care if you suspect your pet has hypothermia. Symptoms can worsen quickly, and your dog might need special warming procedures or supportive care you can’t provide at home.
Keep the car warm on the way to the vet, and start warming your pup on the way if you can.
The veterinarian will start by checking vital signs like your dog’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 pup 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, which can happen due to changes in blood flow during hypothermia. Or, they might decide that additional testing needs to wait until your pup is stabilized and their body temperature is raised to a safer level.
Depending on severity, warming efforts might include insulated blankets, drying your dog’s fur, and active warming devices. In some cases, warmed IV fluids or warm water enemas may be required to help warm your pet from the inside out.
Fortunately, hypothermia can usually be treated successfully with prompt veterinary care. In some cases, the damage is too severe. But many dogs recover very well.
Once a dog recovers, there’s usually no need for ongoing care, unless there was organ damage, frostbite, or ongoing symptoms.
Preventing Hypothermia In Dogs
The good news is, hypothermia is completely preventable!
Here are some tips and safety measures to take…
Don’t leave your dog outside unsupervised in cold weather, especially overnight or during extreme cold or severe weather warnings. Below 45 degrees Fahrenheit should definitely trigger caution. Some breeds and individuals might have a higher temperature cut off for when they start to feel cold, so keep in mind your individual pup.
Offer your dog a cozy bed in a non-drafty part of the home.
Buy a coat or sweater for your dog to wear with supervision. Think waterproof if they’ll be in the snow.
Try dog booties to protect your dog’s feet during walks—not only from cold, but also from exposure to ice melts and to prevent ice ball formation between the toes.
Think about food and water. Your dog might need to drink more due to dry air, or even eat a bit more to maintain their body heat during wintry activities (but not so much that they gain weight). Ensure fresh drinking water is always available, and ask your vet for feeding advice if you’re not sure.
Know your dog’s limits. Some breeds and individuals can’t handle even short times in freezing temperatures. They might do well with an indoor potty area during winter months.
Start small with time outdoors. Turn home from your walk before your dog shows signs of tiredness or slowing down, not after. Then gradually increase time outside if your dog enjoys it, as you learn their capabilities and comfort level.
It’s always best to bring your dog inside before they show symptoms. It’s much easier to stay warm than it is to warm up once cold.
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.