Hypothermia in dogs: A winter health risk

By Dr. Cherice Roth, KeraVet Bio Advisor

For many dogs, there’s nothing better in winter than playing outside in the snow. Their pet parents may enjoy getting out there with them, too. As fun as being out in the snow can be, being out in cold temperatures for too long puts a dog at an increased risk of potential health risks, including hypothermia.

Taking steps to protect dogs in the winter is key for preventing hypothermia and other cold weather-related health issues. However, pet parents should be aware of the signs and symptoms of hypothermia and how to rewarm their dogs if their body temperature drops too low. That way, should something happen, they’ll be able to act quickly and prevent more severe complications.

What Is a Dangerous Low Temperature for Dogs?

Hypothermia is a condition in which a dog’s body temperature goes below a normal level and stays there for too long. It often develops as a result of prolonged exposure to cold temperatures, especially if it’s windy or the dog’s fur becomes wet (such as from rain or snow).

Undergoing anesthesia/surgery, certain health conditions, and traumatic injuries can also affect a dog’s natural temperature regulation abilities, increasing their risk of developing hypothermia.

So, what is a dangerous low temperature for a dog? A normal body temperature for canines is between 100.5°F and 102.5°F. Hypothermia can begin setting in when their internal temperature drops below 99°F.

Signs and Symptoms of Hypothermia in a Dog

Hypothermia in dogs can range from mild to severe, and symptoms can vary at every stage. Pet parents should familiarize themselves with the signs so they can take the appropriate steps to get their dogs the care they need right away.

Mild Hypothermia

Dogs often develop mild hypothermia when their body temperature is between 90°F to 99°F. Early on, their body responds to extreme cold by narrowing the blood vessels to direct blood flow away from the feet, legs, and other extremities to focus more on the internal organs. Although this helps the dog survive the cold temperatures, it also increases the risk of frostbite.

When dogs develop mild hypothermia, their pet parents may notice their extremities (such as their ears and paws) appear pale and cool to the touch. They may also begin shivering in an attempt to warm up.

Moderate Hypothermia

Moderate hypothermia in dogs develops when their body temperature is between 82°F and 90°F. Canines often shiver at this stage, which can make their muscles tense and their movements stiff. As a result, they may stumble as they walk. Pet parents may also notice their dogs seem sluggish or appear to be confused.

Severe Hypothermia

Severe hypothermia, which develops when a dog’s body temperature drops below 82°F, is the most dangerous stage. At this point, the dog stops shivering because their body no longer has the energy to do so. They may experience a rapid decrease in body temperature, and their breathing and heart rate may slow. Dogs can also become lethargic, collapse, suffer heart problems (such as a heart attack), or fall into a coma. Without immediate treatment, shock and organ failure occur, which can lead to death.

What Dogs Are at a Higher Risk for Hypothermia?

Any dog can develop hypothermia, especially if they spend too much time outside too much time outside in the cold weather. However, some canines have a higher risk of developing hypothermia, including:

  • Puppies

  • Senior dogs

  • Small dogs

  • Dogs with short or thin coats

  • Dogs with very little body fat

  • Dogs with chronic illnesses such as hypothyroidism

There’s a common misconception that dogs with long, thick coats aren’t susceptible to cold-related issues. While their fur may provide extra protection, they can also experience hypothermia.

Rewarming Methods for a Hypothermic Dog

Pet parents need to act immediately at the first signs of dog hypothermia. They’ll want to take steps to warm their cold pet gently, as too much heat too quickly can cause shock.

To warm a hypothermic dog, pet parents can do the following:

  • Bring the dog indoors. Pet parents should bring the dog inside immediately and place them in a warm room. If the dog is wet, a pet parent should dry their fur with towels or by using a hair dryer on the lowest setting.

  • Insulate the dog. Pet parents should wrap their dog up in warm blankets, towels, or coats (which they can heat lightly in the clothes dryer).

  • Provide additional heat sources. A hot water bottle (wrapped in several towels to prevent burns) or an electric blanket/heating pad offers additional warmth and comfort for cold dogs.

  • Offer warm liquids. Pet parents can offer warm (not hot) water or low-sodium chicken broth to help warm their dog from the inside.

Pet parents should monitor their dog closely as they’re warming up. They should also check their dog’s temperature periodically. If they suspect their dog has a more advanced stage of hypothermia or their temperature is dangerously low, they should take a trip to the emergency vet. Severe hypothermia may require intravenous (IV) fluids or warm water enemas to help restore stable body temperatures and help dogs avoid a life-threatening critical illness. Some dogs may also need supplemental oxygen.

Dogs that have suffered hypothermia once are often more susceptible to experiencing it again. As such, pet parents should take extra care, such as using dog booties and a coat, to ensure their dog doesn’t get too cold when they’re outside during the winter.

Ensure Your Dog Gets the Care They Need

Just as pet parents can take precautions in the extreme summer heat to protect their dogs from heat stroke and other complications, they can also take steps to protect their dogs from cold-related health problems, including hypothermia. Measures may include such things as putting a jacket or sweater on short-haired dogs and limiting a dog’s time outdoors. Pet parents also shouldn’t leave their dogs outdoors unattended, even if they have a securely fenced yard.

Learn more about KeraVet Bio Lead Medical Advisor, , Dr. Cherice Roth, MS, DVM, by visiting her on LinkedIn.