We all know that familiar shiver when temperatures drop in winter, and our furry friends are no different. And when dogs become exposed to the cold, for long periods, they can develop hypothermia. Hypothermia in dogs is when their body temperature drops dangerously low, resulting in mild to severe symptoms such as shaking or hesitancy to walk.
A dog’s normal body temperature is around 38.3-39.2°C but without a pet thermometer, it can be difficult to know how much heat they are losing. However, there are signs you can look out for, as a cue to immediately bring your dog inside.
Read on to learn what your dog will do if they are experiencing hypothermia, how you can help prevent its development, and why we need to take extra steps to ensure our canine friends stay warm once the chill rolls in.
Signs and Symptoms: The Stages of Hypothermia
If you notice your dog shivering in the cold, immediately move your dog indoors and focus on warming them slowly by rubbing their paws. Dogs shake when they are cold in an attempt to increase their body heat. Do not place them near a heater (more on this later).
Here are three stages of hypothermia in dogs, all with their own symptoms that can cause a dog to act differently. However, you’ll want to intervene the moment you recognise the symptoms of hypothermia, regardless of the stages.
“Anytime the core body temperature drops below 37°C, a pet is at risk for hypothermia,” explains Dr Jessica Taylor, DVM, vice president of Veterinary Medicine at Petfolk. Mild hypothermia is when a dog’s body temperature drops between 37.2-31.9°C.
“Shivering [and] heat-seeking behaviours being the first signs”, Taylor continues.
An owner might also notice that certain parts of their canine’s body feel cold to the touch. These parts include:
When a dog’s body temperature is between 28-31.9°C, the signs and symptoms become more noticeable and severe. Additional signs of hypothermia to look for include:
- whining (especially in puppies)
- curling up and a hunched body posture
- pale, blue, or grey gums
- stumbling and difficulty walking
- sluggishness and reduced activity levels
- slowed heart rate
- decreased or delayed reflexes
Severe hypothermia occurs when the dog’s body temperature is below 28°C. At this stage, you may notice your dog experiencing:
- fixed and dilated pupils
- a more erratic heartbeat
- slow breathing
- loss of consciousness
Severe hypothermia can even lead to organ failure and death.
How to Treat Hypothermia in Dogs
If your pooch is in the moderate or severe stages of hypothermia, take them to your vet or call the emergency vet immediately. At the clinic, your dog will be given treatments such as warmed intravenous fluids, while their heart and oxygen rates may also be monitored.
Mild cases of hypothermia may still require a visit to the vet for a check-up, but some simple first aid steps at home can make them feel more comfortable beforehand. Veterinary experts recommend:
- Using a towel to remove moisture from the coat. “[This] may help slow down additional cooling,” states Taylor.
- Layer fleece or thermal blankets to kick-start the warming process, adds Taylor.
- Give warm bone broth for your dog to drink.
- Get your room temperature up, at least to 24-26°C.
“Do not use electric or other warming procedures,” cautions Taylor, “as these can cause burns or worsen their condition by warming too rapidly.”
Will My Dog Recover from Hypothermia?
The earlier a dog’s hypothermia is treated, the greater their chance of recovery.
Unfortunately, the longer that symptoms prevail, the more severe the after-effects may be.
In more serious cases of hypothermia-induced frostbite, the affected tissues can die and eventually fall off entirely. The areas most often impacted by frostbite are a dog’s “ears, tail, feet, and toes,” shares Taylor. If you notice your pet’s ears and skin turning white or grey, be sure to rewarm the body part slowly with warm water and rubbing to encourage blood flow.
In addition, “a prolonged drop in body temperature can also lead to decreased blood flow to organs like the kidneys and brain,” Taylor reveals—and this can cause long-term renal or cognitive injury. Your vet can run tests to check whether your dog’s kidneys and liver are functioning normally after a case of hypothermia.
What Causes Hypothermia in Dogs?
The main cause of hypothermia is extended exposure to cold temperatures. This means that it doesn’t have to be snowing for dogs to get hypothermia. If your dog likes to venture into the sea during beach walks, being submerged in cold water for too long can also cause issues. Exposure to “extreme temperatures outside without adequate protection puts dogs at risk,” reveals Taylor.
Other factors can also increase the development of hypothermia in dogs.
Hair type and hygiene
Dogs with longer hair run the risk of collecting snow on their feet, trapping the cold longer. Trimming the hair around the paws and keeping your dog’s nails short can help prevent prolonged contact with cold surfaces or snow.
“If your pet has been groomed and their normal hair coat altered, they may be at higher risk,” Taylor adds. For example, pets with double coats, such as Samoyed, Shiba Inus, and Huskies, should never be shaved or trimmed, as this can interfere with their coat’s ability to retain heat.
Age and breed
Some breeds and ages of dogs are also more prone to drops in body temperature. For example, newborn puppies and older dogs are less able to retain heat, while smaller dogs “generally have less body mass, leading to more rapid drops in temperatures and risk,” Taylor shares.
Some breeds are more suited to cooler temperatures, explains Taylor — such as Malamute, Pyrenees, and Swiss Mountain dogs. However, “if a pet is used to being indoors, no matter the breed, they can be at risk if not acclimated.” Even a snow dog who is accustomed to living in sunny Spain can have a harder time in the snow than their ancestors during winter in the Scottish Highlands.
Existing medical conditions
If your pooch already has a medical condition, the extra stress that hypothermia puts on the body can make it harder for them to overcome its effects.
“Any underlying disease can put pets at risk, as hypothermia affects multiple body systems,” Taylor states. “From the skin to internal organs, such as the kidneys and digestive tract, all suffer when the body temperature is too low.”
She reveals that hypothermia is particularly serious for dogs with existing heart or respiratory conditions, as their bodies “are already struggling to compensate.”
We’ve already noted that temperatures and sudden changes, like swimming in cold water, can cause hypothermia—but keep an eye out for rock salt and chemicals too. Urban cities that use a lot of salt and de-icers may be more dangerous for your dog in the winter. These ingredients are toxic to dogs and can hurt their paws.
However, increased severity of cold weather does correlate to a higher risk of hypothermia in pets. If you notice the outside too cold for you, consider it is likely also too cold for your dog.
How to Keep Your Dog Warm in Cold Weather
As the saying goes, ‘prevention is better than cure’: so it’s best to take steps that will help avoid hypothermia in the first place.
Get the right gear
Some dogs just don’t understand what “too cold” means and may howl until you do let them out to play. In these situations, where it’s better to fulfil their needs, Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine mentions ensuring your dog has the right clothing and accessories:
- a dog coat or sweater to keep their body heat close
- winter dog boots to protect them from salt and chemicals on the road
- paw balm for a protective layer and post-walk soothing
Dogs who benefit from wearing winter clothes include:
- small breeds and breeds with low bodies (like Corgis, Dachshunds, and Beagles)
- breeds with short hair, like Chihuahuas, Boxers, or Pugs
- skinny breeds like Greyhounds or Whippets
Dogs with shorter coats can also find it trickier to maintain body temperature, Taylor affirms.
Know your dog
If you’ve got a younger, older, or poorly dog, be aware that they’re less able to tolerate colder temperatures. The same goes for dogs with shorter coats or who are used to being indoors.
Don’t force them outside if it will put them at risk! “If they are indoors most of the time, keep them indoors,” asserts Taylor. For more vulnerable dogs, using indoor ‘potty pads’ during particularly cold weather could be an option so they don’t have to be exposed to low temperatures.
If you do want to take your canine pal outside in the cold, take extra precautions with the right gear.
Know the landscape
“Keep winter walks short,” recommends Taylor—and, if you venture outside, “be sure to provide shelter and protection from wind and rain.” Avoid venturing into new and unknown areas for walks when the weather is cold and unpredictable, as you never know if you might encounter difficulties. When you return home, ensure you dry your dog’s feet and fur, reminds Taylor.
The colder months can pose various health problems for our furry friends—with hypothermia being one of the most serious. If your dog is susceptible to hypothermia, keep in mind that they may also experience frostbite too.
In winter months, shorten your normal walking routine and focus on getting their energy out indoors with puzzle toys or sniffing games instead. Keep the outdoors for toilet business only, especially in freezing weather.
Other winter health concerns include flu, colds and runny noses, kennel cough, and cracked paws (yes, you need paw balm, even if it’s not winter!). Fortunately, at-home measures can aid in soothing and preventing cold and flu viruses in your pup and balms are an easy remedy for sore and dry paws.