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Hypothermia in Dogs and Cats

Why it's Important to Protect Your Pets From the Cold This Winter

By Maureen Ryan. December 05, 2013 | See Comments

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    PetCareRx Staff Veterinarian

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A Dog And Cat Curled Up Together In The Snow

Hypothermia can be a serious health condition during the cold winter months if not taken care of quickly and properly. Learn helpful tips on how to spring into action if your dog or cat is showing signs of hypothermia.

Just because pets have nice fur coats doesn’t mean they’re completely protected from the cold. Just like humans, cats and dogs can only tolerate so much cold weather before they succumb to hypothermia, a condition in which body temperatures fall extremely low, impairing normal functions of the central nervous system, cardiovascular system, respiratory system, and immune system. Hypothermia can cause serious injury to dogs and cats and may be fatal if not treated properly.

Risks

Some dogs and cats are more sensitive to the cold, for example, the very young, the old, shorthaired pets, and smaller breeds. Hypothermia, though, can affect any pet that is wet or exposed to low temperatures without shelter for long periods of time. Under those conditions, your animal’s body temperature may drop so low that it can’t return to normal without special care and treatment.

Signs

Symptoms of hypothermia vary depending on the severity, which is based on how low body temperature has fallen.

  • Mild hypothermia: Your pet might appear to shiver and seem a little dazed.

  • Moderate hypothermia: Mental function may become more impaired and dogs and cats may show signs of muscle stiffness. Your pet may have shallow or slowed breathing.

  • Severe hypothermia: Pets have noticeable difficulty breathing. Pupils may be dilated. The heart rate may be inaudible at this stage. A pet could slip into a coma.

Treatment

The different degrees of hypothermia require different treatments. The first step, in all instances, though is to move your pet to a warm environment.

  • Mild hypothermia can be treated with basic methods such as applying blankets and hugging or snuggling pets close to warm them up.

  • For moderate hypothermia, you should use an external heat source. Try a warm bath (but be sure to dry your pet thoroughly after). You can also use heat packs (wrapped in towels or insulated to protect the skin) applied to your pet’s torso and core body such as areas between the legs or on side of the chest. Do not massage or apply heat to the extremities (paws, legs) – doing so could lower the blood volume, causing shock, or send cold blood to the heart, leading to cardiac failure.

  • With severe hypothermia, you also want to focus on warming the core body. However, at this stage you may need more extreme intervention and the help of a veterinarian who can use warm air inhalers or intravenous treatment.

Complications

As the body warms up, cats and dogs can experience pain (which can make them temporarily aggressive or prone to biting). Pets can also suffer injury and pain in extremities and body parts affected by frostbite. The most serious problem, however, is that severely hypothermic animals can fall into a coma or die if they’re not properly warmed. So take every precaution to keep your pet warm and comfortable this winter.

More on Pet Health

Summer, Holiday and Winter Dog Clothes for Pets
Can Dogs Get Colds? And Other Winter Questions Answered
Top 5 Winter Nutrition Tips for a Healthy Dog

This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian with respect to your pet. It has, however, been verified by a licensed veterinarian for accuracy.

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