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It’s cold outside! You feel it and your dog feels it too, even if he or she may not show it. Dogs have a normal body temperature of 99.5-102.5°F, which is higher than the 98.6°F average humans live with.
With that warm body temperature and all of that fur, what happens when they are exposed to wind chill, snow, freezing rain, and frigid water?
Do dogs get hypothermia like humans? In this article, we’ll discuss what happens if your dog gets hypothermia, ways you can treat dog hypothermia, and how to prevent this potentially life-threatening condition.
What is Hypothermia?
Hypothermia is a lowering of the core body temperature, usually due to prolonged exposure to low temperatures. The body loses heat faster than it can produce it, causing confusion, shivering and other symptoms. If left untreated, hypothermia can be fatal.
For dogs, hypothermia occurs when their core body temperature gets to 88°F or lower.
Can Dogs Get Hypothermia?
Yes, all dogs can get hypothermia if exposed to cold enough temperatures. This can occur from outdoor exposure in winter months or exposure to frigid water.
Senior dogs, puppies, small breeds, short-furred dogs, and those with metabolic or heart conditions are the most susceptible to developing hypothermia because they have a decreased ability to regulate their own body temperature.
Hypothermia can sometimes be tricky to detect because the beginning signs tend to be subtle. As the body gets colder, the ability to warm back up is lost, creating a problem that can get suddenly worse.
It usually progresses as follows:
- Metabolic processes like breathing and heart rate slow down as a survival mechanism.
- The body will start to shiver to generate heat in a process called thermoregulation.
- Activity levels slow down so that energy is conserved.
- The central nervous system slows down, causing signs that look like your pup may be drunk.
- Loss of consciousness.
- All metabolic processes can come to halt after a downward spiral to conserve heat.
When your dog’s body temperature gets as low as 88°F, their body will lose the ability to conserve heat and start the process above.
How can you tell if this is happening? Well, there are certain signs to look for.
Dog Hypothermia Symptoms
The first signs of hypothermia are similar to what you would see in humans: low activity level, hunching of body posture, and shivering. These are all ways that your dog’s body will actively conserve heat.
Shivering is an important protective mechanism to keep the body warm. When muscles lose their ability to shiver because they’re too cold and aren’t getting the signal from the brain to shiver, then that important protective mechanism is gone.
Another first sign is cold paws. Extremities like the paws, tail, ear tips, and nose are naturally cooler in relation to the other parts of the body such as the chest and abdomen. When the body needs to conserve heat, the blood vessels in the extremities will constrict to minimize blood flow. This helps to keep oxygenated blood circulating to vital organs like the brain and heart.
These signs are just the beginning of possible hypothermia. Mild to severe signs of dog hypothermia are listed below:
- Cold extremities
- Decreased activity
- Hunched body posture
- Stiff muscles
- Stumbling/lack of coordination
- Shivering stops
- Decreased responsiveness
Severe signs— These should warrant an immediate visit to the emergency vet
- Pale or gray gums
- Fixed dilated pupils
- Non-responsive or unconscious (coma)
Dog Hypothermia Treatment
Mild to moderate hypothermia can be reversed with treatment when acted upon immediately.
Options for treatment at home include:
- Ensure your pet is dry and then wrap them in a warm blanket (Tip: Heat blankets in the dryer first.)
- Place your pet in a warm environment such as indoors or in a warm room.
- Fill water bottles up with warm water and place up against your dog’s core while they’re wrapped in a blanket.
Continue these efforts until shivering stops and your dog returns to normal activity. Try to avoid electric heating blankets or thermal pads as these can cause contact burns on your dog’s skin.
It is a good idea to invest in a rectal digital thermometer so that you can monitor your dog’s temperature through the re-warming process. If it gets above 98°F, you can stop your efforts since it can be easy to overheat your dog. If it gets below 94°F, and you notice your dog stops shivering, consider taking your dog to the vet for medical attention.
At a veterinary hospital, treatment can include warmed intravenous fluids, warmed-air blankets, and special equipment monitoring to ensure your pet’s condition is not worsening.
Preventing Hypothermia in Dogs
Hypothermia can be prevented by minimizing your pet’s exposure to cold temperatures. Keeping your dog inside if the temperature outside dips below 32°F, is a wise choice and easy way to keep your dog safe.
Protecting a dog’s core is the main objective when preventing dog hypothermia. An easy way to do this is by putting a sweater or jacket on your dog to maintain their body temperature before you go on a walk in the wintertime or cold conditions where it’s raining.
To protect their paws you can use waterproof booties or put on commercial paw waxes to protect their feet on icy surfaces. For the susceptible groups like puppies and seniors, you can take your dog on a quick potty break outside, but it’s best to avoid long walks in the cold.
Hypothermia can affect many metabolic and physiologic processes. It can be reversed when caught early with mild signs such as shivering and decreased activity levels but becomes harder to treat as the symptoms progress.
Prevention through minimizing exposure to cold temperatures and using warm-weather accessories like sweaters and jackets are the easiest methods to maintain your dog’s normal body temperature in winter months. They’ll stay warm, and you can avoid a potentially deadly situation and the costly vet bills that go along with it.