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Hypothermia, Frostbite, and your pet

Dog in snow

Hypothermia and frostbite are two possible problems; your pet can suffer from during the winter months.

Both may occur when your pet has been exposed to the cold for too long, and although hypothermia and frostbite are mostly treatable, they may leave lasting tissue damage if the symptoms are not noticed and treated right away.

Which pets are most susceptible you ask?
• Short or thin haired pets;
• small dogs;
• wet pets;
• pets sensitive to cold weather; and
• Pets that are outdoors for extended periods of time, and do not have access to a warm and dry shelter.

Why- because for some reason (perhaps an environmental, genetic or health reason) these pets find it difficult to keep their little bodies at a normal temperature than pets who are made to withstand cold weather.


Hypothermia occurs when your pet’s temperature drops, and stays, below the normal range of 100.5 to 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit.

When your pet suffers from hypothermia he/she is losing body heat faster than he/she can replace it. One way this happens is when your pet is walking around outside, the heat from his paws will (rather quickly) transfer to the freezing cold ground he is walking on. On a very cold day your pet wouldn’t even need to take very many steps before your pets paws are freezing cold from him/her not being able to replace that heat in his paws before it is again.

In cold weather your pet will be constantly trying to regulate and maintain his/her body temperature. The way pets regulate their body temperature is by conserving body heat or by creating more body heat. The main ways for them to do this are similar to how we would react to cold weather:
• shivering is the primary way pets use to produce heat;
• Piloerectionis the dog equivalent to goose bumps. Basically your dog’s hairs will stand on end, trapping a layer of warmed air beneath them helping them conserve heat. Vasoconstriction is another way your dog can conserve heat, and it’s when his/her blood vessels narrow and restrict the amount of blood that flows through them. The purpose of vasoconstriction is to help keep the blood flowing the most to the parts of your pet’s body that are most important for his/her survival at the expense of the “losable” areas.

The symptoms of hypothermia include:
• shivering
• lethargy (abnormal drowsiness, or sluggishness)
• muscle stiffness
• lack of co-ordination
• low heart and breathing rates
• fixed and dilated pupils
• collapse
• coma

With mild Hypothermia your pet will be lethargic and shivering. If you notice an increased amount or other symptoms, quick treatment is necessary or Hypothermia can be fatal. Remember at the later stages, your pet is restricting blood flow to things like toes, legs, ears, ect.

Treating hypothermia

The treatment for hypothermia is mainly warming your pet up so that his core temperature returns to normal.

If you are out with your pet and you notice symptoms, you need to prevent him from losing greater amounts of body heat. This is easier with a small pet you can pick up and use your body heat to warm them while you make your way home. With a larger pet, the best you can do is get home as quick as possible.

Here some ways to treat it:

If your pet is suffering from mild hypothermia, he’s shivering and his muscles seem stiff, try to move him to a warm room where the floor is well insulated (areas with carpet are usually good) and wrap your pet in a warm dry blanket. Though warming the blanket first will warm him too quickly. Do these until you notice him shivering less and moving better. The only way to be sure his temperature is back to normal is by taking his temperature.

For moderately severe hypothermia(meaning your dog’s body temperature is around 90 – 94 degrees Fahrenheit) you will need to re-warm him, he cannot do it without help.

Re-warming techniques include using hot water bottles, warmed towels, heating lamps, warm baths, and hairdryers or heating pads. Don’t be tempted to use hot water in an attempt to warm your dog up more quickly because you can much too easily burn his skin. The water temperature should only be a few degrees above your pet’s normal body temperature, which is about 103 – 105 degrees Fahrenheit.

As you are warming your pet take care. He may be nip or snap as he is unsure what is happening to him and can become agitated.

Severe hypothermia requires immediate treatment from your vet!

Hypothermia can leave lasting damage. The lack of oxygenated blood flowing to your pet’s body tissue may cause that tissue to breakdown. The extent of damage will depend on how long your pet has been suffering from hypothermia.

If you have treated your pet for Hypothermia please be sure to take him to the vet for a checkup soon after.

Preventing hypothermia
• Don’t leave your pet outside for extended periods of time without giving him access to a warm dry shelter
• If you decide to take your dog out during cold weather, do it in smaller amounts and consider investing in a coat and booties for your dog
• Try to ensure your pet is NEVER outdoors for very long when wet.
• If your dog is sensitive to the cold, only let him outside to do his business and bring him right back in.


Frostbite is the name given to tissue damage that is caused by exposure to extremely cold conditions.

As we discussed above, your pet conserves heat by reducing the amount of blood flow to the peripheral parts of his body. These include his ears, paws and tail.A lack of blood to these areas of warmth and oxygen, cause ice crystals to form in the tissue which can then cause that tissue to die.

Symptoms of frostbite

It’s not easy to spot frostbite when the areas affected are covered in hair. However, a sign to look for is very pale skin (where you can see it) which is also very cold to the touch.

The areas usually affected are the ears, toes, paws and even the “private area” of males.

As the skin warms it will become redden and swollen, and be can be very painful for your pet. After a few days the skin will dry up and can look scaly. Depending on severity, frostbitten, dead tissue will slowly turn black and eventually come off.

Treating frostbite

Frostbitten areas need to be warmed quickly, using similar methods to those used for treating moderate hypothermia.

Resist the urge to rub or massage the affected area. This can do more harm than good. Massaging may release toxins that can further damage the tissue.

Take your dog to the vet as soon as possible so that he can start monitoring your pet to determine the extent of any tissue damage. This monitoring can sometimes last several days (so please be patient) as it can take time for the severity of the frostbite to be revealed. During this time your vet is likely to prescribe pain killers and even antibiotics to help ease your pet’s pain. Your vet may even look into removing any black or damaged tissue.

In severe cases of frostbite your pet may need to have a limb, or part of a limb, removed. The reason amputation is necessary, is because the dead and dying tissue will attract bacteria which can be life threatening for your pet.

Preventing frostbite

Just like with hypothermia, the way to prevent frostbite is to take precautions and prevent your pet from being outside, in freezing temperatures, for extended lengths of time.