Cold Weather Hypothermia
Many pet parents only associate hypothermia with seasonal swimming in cool water, say a lake or the ocean. Though that is the classic scenario, hypothermia can and does occur in the winter months and not necessarily in the water. As we enter the winter months, IMPS would like all pet parents to pay close attention for the symptoms of hypothermia and to know what to do for their pet.
Hypothermia is the lowering of the core body temperature. In humans, the onset of hypothermia occurs at 95° F. In dogs and cats, temperatures below 100° F mark the start. Medical professionals often speak of degrees of hypothermia, from mild to (95-100° F) to severe (below 85° F). The normal body temperature for dogs and cats is 100.5 to 102.5° F
Water is the most frequent contributing factor to hypothermia. This is because water is an excellent conductor of heat, not just at a temperature cooler than the body. However, cold air can cause hypothermia, absent water and at temperatures above freezing.
For those reasons, pets outside in the rain on a cold winter day (say 40° F) are highly susceptible to hypothermia as are those outside on a dry, 15° F afternoon. One common misconception is that increased activity will prevent or delay hypothermia, but the opposite is true. So a dog that appears to be OK running around in the rain may quickly find itself in serious trouble.
Pet parents should also realize the fur coat on their dog or cat may provide protection from the cold, but will not when wet. That same fur coat, except in some breeds, is probably not sufficient in extreme cold and wind.
Cats and smaller dogs are also more suspect to hypothermia as their chest and stomachs can come into contact with snow or puddles of icy water. Extremely lean and elderly pets are also more at risk.
What are the signs?
The first signal pet parents should be on the look out for is shivering and shaking. This is a natural reaction of the body to the onset of hypothermia and indicates mild hypothermia. Pet parents should get the dog or cat inside and into a warm, dry environment immediately.
Unfortunately, as hypothermia becomes more severe the body's ability to shiver and shake goes away and other signs must be used. If your pet appears disoriented, fatigued or is stumbling around it is suffering from moderate to severe hypothermia. Uneven, ragged breathing indicates a severe, life threatening hypothermia event.
First and foremost, get your pet out of the elements - whether into a home, car or shed, the warmer the better. If your pet is wet, dry them off with as warm and absorbent a towel as you can find. You can also warm up extra towels in the dryer. In some cases, a hair dryer on the low setting may be useful to speed up drying and/or to melt snow stuck in the fur (never get the dryer so close that it can burn the fur or skin). The point to remember is warm, not hot.
If you suspect your pet has anything worse than a mild case of hypothermia you should speak to your vet and be prepared to travel there quickly. It is important you do your best to dry off (if appropriate) and provide warmth even as you are doing this and continue to provide a warm dry environment on the way to your vet or the emergency vets. There they may give your dog or cat warmed intravenous fluids, oxygen and other treatments.
The easiest way to prevent hypothermia is to minimize or avoid situations that place your dog or cat at risk. Do not leave them outside in very cold and/or rainy weather. If your cat is an indoor/outdoor cat, keep it inside and use a litter box. Keep cold weather play sessions short and to the point.
Dogs generally will tolerate wearing a vest or sweater to keep the chest and stomach areas warm. Make sure it is made with a material that will still retain warmth, even when wet, or has a water proof shell Boots are usually a far tougher sell!
Finding outdoor clothing for cats is far more difficult. If you are the type that takes your cat for a walk on a leash you can try a light knitted sweater. If your cat is free range, IMPS is not aware of any suitable products to give additional cold weather protection - knit sweaters would present a risk of catching on brush or branches.
IMPS advises all pet parents to keep a clean, dry towel in their car for emergency use, whether on a long trip or just to the local park. The sooner your pet can be made warm and/or dry, the better.